Tift Merritt’s broken-down car inadvertently helped bring the band featured on her fifth album, “Traveling Alone,” closer together.
For the album, released in October, Merritt put together her “dream band,” featuring guitarist Marc Ribot (known for his work with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello), Calexico drummer John Convertino, veteran pedal steel player Eric Heywood and Merritt’s own longtime bassist, Jay Brown. Although Ribot was a fan of Calexico, and Heywood was also friends with Convertino, this particular group had never recorded or performed together before — which was part of Merritt’s plan.
“A lot of times it’s a cast of people who’ve made hundreds of records together, and you are the alternate singer,” Merritt said recently from her home in New York City, about a week before leaving for a U.S. tour that runs through February, including a stop at The Linda Friday night. “I wanted it to be a cast of people where I had to be the glue.”
With: David Wax Museum
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, 339 Central Ave., Albany
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Before the sessions, Merritt, Heywood, Brown and Convertino embarked on a short weekend tour of Merritt’s native South (she was raised in North Carolina). During rehearsals for the shows, the band seemed to be coming together well, but on the way to the first gig Merritt’s car broke down.
“My dad came and picked us up; we were all huddled in the car,” Merritt said. “And I thought, oh . . . I’m here with all grown men; I feel like a 14-year-old kid. But my dad loved everybody, and everybody loved my dad; we went back to my house and had a really nice dinner. And I thought, this is gonna be just fine.”
The sessions for “Traveling Alone” changed things for Merritt in more ways than one. In addition to playing with new musicians, Merritt set out with producer Tucker Martine, known for his work with The Decemberists as well as Merritt’s 2010 “See You on the Moon,” to record quickly. The album’s 11 songs were tracked live during one eight-day session last January, with no overdubs, creating a much rawer atmosphere than previous records like “See You on the Moon” or 2008’s “Another Country.”
“I’ve always started records right off the floor, but I had time to go back and overdub or think things through, or redo my vocals or whatever,” Merritt said.
“As a singer, a performer, that is really what I enjoy the most — the magic of really being in the performance, really having that music thing in the moment, and having a record where you feel like you’re sitting in that room when that special thing happens, rather than going back and painting over and over it. So I really enjoyed it this way, and I don’t know that I will go back and make records a different way.”
Capital Region fans got a preview of the album last September, when Merritt, accompanied by Heywood, opened for Mary Chapin Carpenter at The Egg and performed much of the new material before its official release. She’s returning to The Linda with a full band this time, once again featuring Heywood, Brown and drummer Noah Levy in place of Convertino.
“I had five in my band when I did [2004’s sophomore album] ‘Tambourine,’ and I’ve had four since then,” Merritt said. “I kind of jump back and forth between guitar and keys, and I think the space — it leaves more space for stories and the songs and my voice; it forces everyone to play out a little more, give a little more. I really enjoy that.”
This group has been on the road since September. In addition to the current tour, Merritt has dates booked in March and April preceding yet another new record, a duo album with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein due out later in the year.
Merritt has become known for her deeply personal songs blending folk, country and rock influences, and this is evident throughout “Traveling Alone.” The album’s title reflects a theme of self-sufficiency running through the record, from the songs to the recording process itself.
“It’s a bigger thing than I could wrap up into one sentence,” Merritt said. “I think it’s about interior life, about how we are all responsible for our own lives.”
To that end, Merritt felt she needed to take the risk in inviting the musicians she wanted to play on the record. Luckily for her, they all said yes.
“Marc Ribot is one of my absolutely favorite musicians — I approached him and asked if he’d be a part of this, and when he came on board I was just absolutely thrilled,” Merritt said. “Everybody that I called kind of said, ‘... Sure, I’d love to come to this party.’ I felt very lucky that that came together.”
Working at home
On Merritt’s past albums, a sense of place was often key to the songwriting. When Merritt was writing for “Another Country,” she isolated herself in Paris with a piano. This time, she wrote at home in New York City.
“I think Paris was definitely part of the fabric of ‘Another Country,’ but I don’t think that this is some kind of New York City album,” Merritt said. “I will say that I like writing in cities; you are afforded an anonymity in cities, and you are also privy to a lot of types of things in other people’s lives without getting involved. I enjoy that; I think that it keeps a certain kind of loneliness at bay.”
During the process, she would often try out new and unfinished material at the City Winery, taking over the piano in the mornings before the venue opened.
“I don’t know that I’d ever felt so free with something that I hadn’t finished, to just go play in front of people,” Merritt said. “To just roll out of bed, tie my hair back, get coffee and just play in the mornings before they opened — to me, I felt very much like a working artist in New York City in that situation, and that was really dear to me.”