Ain't Looking Closely
Your Love Made A U Turn
Late Night Pilgrim
I Am Your Tambourine
Shadow In The Way
After the stunning success of her assured debut Bramble Rose and the acclaimed tour that followed, Tift Merritt didn't give herself a chance to rest much. The North Carolina-bred songwriter went right to work, taking advantage of the widespread acceptance she enjoyed for the album and putting to use a few lessons she learned along the way in what was an eye-opening process.
"This record evolved naturally out of touring Bramble Rose, because I wanted the shows to go to more exciting places. I was listening to a lot of Aretha and Van Morrison, and I really wanted to put honest songs in an intense, highly charged setting - a kind of rock-soul throw down."
With her sites set, the North Carolina songwriter reached into her hat and pulled out Tambourine, the kind of breakthrough recording virtually no one familiar with Tift's earlier material will expect. Where Bramble Rose was a tasteful, slow-burning mix of brittle sweetness and delicate candor, Tambourine is a blow-out of gritty defiance and therapeutic honesty, a sexy, energetic roots rock record with healthy doses of Muscle Shoals soul and hints of country. "I think music is about the pursuit of joy, even the sad songs," says Tift. "It feels really great to get those feelings out, and I wanted this record to reflect that celebration."
The studio session, overseen by uber-producer George Drakoulias, resulted in an incredible exhale of great music, played, incidentally, by top-notch musicians. The Tambourine sessions find an impressive guest list of performers surrounding Tift with stellar performances. Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, along with Don Heffington (Hot Band, Lone Justice) comprised Tift's band, while her hero Maria McKee, Jayhawk Gary Louris, and steel guitarist Robert Randolph all paid a working visit to the studio.
Tift is the first to admit that it helped immensely to have a producer like Drakoulias around to navigate. "I've wanted to work with George since I was a teenager, when I heard the Black Crowes' records, and Maria McKee's You Got to Sin to Get Saved. Drakoulias not only spent a great deal of time fine-tuning Tambourine's production, but also helped her shoulder some of the pressure Tift was feeling to elevate her game. "He has an amazing feel with the musicians he works with," she says about her producer. "The mystery of his work is that he knows what's right and he goes after it."
Tift augments her fine songwriting here with vocal performances to match. The combination sends already high-energy songs into musical orbit. From the lead track, a Jayhawks-styled strum "Stray Paper," to the Petty-esque "Wait It Out," and the bluish "The Plainest Thing," Tift asserts herself with a strong, distinctive voice-creatively, musically and lyrically. "I don't know if 'growing up' is the right way to put it," she says, "but I feel like when you're around musicians of such high caliber you learn so much and you see how dedicated everyone is to making great music."
One of the real surprises of Tambourine is the intensely soulful side Tift reveals on songs like the Dusty Springfield-inspired "Good Hearted Man," the closing "Shadow in the Way," and the crazy/sexy "I Am Your Tambourine," where horn charts and background singers rule, and the recording session turns into a full-on, roof-rattlin', Muscle Shoals hoedown. "As a singer, you've got to go for it, especially on songs like that," says Tift. "It feels so good to do it, to sing songs that are soulful in a powerful way rather than soulful in a quiet and introspective way."
The many powerful emotional and stylistic impressions on the record might make Tambourine a diverse listen for Tift's fans and the many converts bound to pile aboard her wagon. But for Tift as an artist, this variety of emotional expression all comes from the same place. "I didn't think about these styles when I was making this record," she says. "In my mind, it's all part of the same course. It's something I admired about acts like Delaney and Bonnie, Carole King and Dusty, how they blended R&B, roots and soul, great songs, all of those things. I just focused on making it sound real. And, of course, I wanted it to feel true to me."
These days, Tift still remains true to herself, biding her time on the North Carolina coast, surfing, walking her dog on the beach, writing the songs she'll consider for her next album, and awaiting the next intense round of touring. "There's nothing I love more than staying home and writing," she admits. "But there are some days when you just don't want to think about it and go have an ice cream. The road is pretty great too, though, and I am kinda hoping that's where I'll be for while."