Tift Merritt is the restless sort. You can read it in her lyrics, yearning, deep-rooted narratives about moving around and moving on, often alone. You can hear it in her music, which rests comfortably within many genres without settling for any. And you can detect it in her voice during a recent phone conversation, as she humors an interviewer by responding to his routine questions with short, precise answers between spoonfuls of soup.
Born in Texas and raised in North Carolina, the singer-songwriter has spent the past five years living in New York, following a six-month expatriation in France. She is no stranger to forwarding addresses. "The road is my home as much as anywhere," says Merritt, who will play a solo concert Sunday, April 7, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Debuting in 2002 with the statement-making, neo-country album "Bramble Rose," Merritt has released seven albums since, two of them live and two of them within the past six months: October's solo effort "Traveling Alone" and March's "Night," a bracingly beautiful collaboration with the classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. A tour with Dinnerstein will return Merritt to Florida, where she recalls opening for Elvis Costello in 2005 at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater (now the Fillmore). She'll leave Dinnerstein in Tampa to fly to Fort Lauderdale, rejoining her on April 11 in Minneapolis. Having played Miami only three months ago, the pianist decided it was too soon to return to the area.
"I'm traveling alone," Merritt says, immediately catching the reference and, with a laugh, repeating, "I'm traveling alone to the Broward Center."
The appearance should provide a survey of Merritt's career, which began with commercial backing by Universal Records' Lost Highway imprint and found her years later recording "Traveling Alone" with no label attached and no manager guiding — or attempting to guide — her way. Coincidence or not, the album clears an already high bar set by Merritt's earlier work, particularly 2010's "See You on the Moon." Not for nothing is Merritt's numinous voice often compared to that of Emmylou Harris, and the renegade streak running through her discography suggest she's logged some serious hours listening to Bob Dylan.
"I think, by nature, when you have a lot of people involved, things get more complicated. I have a pretty specific vision, so I like seeing that through," Merritt says. "I like doing what I want to do." She pauses to emphasize her next point. "But I also like having a team of loving and supportive people around me. So there you go."
Merritt found an unexpected ally in Dinnerstein, when, in 2008, the British publication Gramophone brought them together for an interview. Even though she admits to not being a student of classical music ("of course, I think it's beautiful, but I know nothing"), Merritt says she saw in the pianist someone who could challenge her artistically but also complement her professionally. The idea of a long-term collaboration took hold in January 2011, after Duke University invited the musicians to participate in a brief residency, which culminated in a pair of concerts they titled "Night."
The resulting album of the same name signals not just a new direction for Merritt, but also a honing of her talent. As tranquil as its title suggests, "Night" arrives quietly, with Merritt's stark "Only in Songs" tiptoeing into Franz Schubert's "Night and Dreams." It's followed by Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain," Bach's "Prelude in B Minor" and songs written expressly for the album by folksinger Patty Griffin, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and Merritt. While collaborations among artists of disparate genres (see: Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga; Lou Reed and Metallica) have become common, "Night" is no standard duets album. Fear that it would turn into one gripped Merritt in the years leading up to its recording.
"I honestly resisted doing this, because I thought so much could go wrong. I was just a huge fan of the depth with which she plays, the care that she gives to every single note," Merritt says. "And Duke University actually gave us the time and the space and the means to put something together. It just started as, 'We'll put a concert together and see what happens.' Then, it worked really well, and we decided to record it. It was a very natural process. I mean it was not, 'Hey, let's make a record, and let's figure this out.' It was years of working together."
Merritt and Dinnerstein recorded the album in five days, and "Night" bears an intimate, moment-in-time quality, making the listener feel as if he were eavesdropping on a private conversation. This is not to suggest the album sounds remote. For all their apparent musical differences — Dinnerstein is a Juilliard graduate; Merritt is self-taught — the pair never seem to favor technique over substance, an impression Merritt confirms.
"Rock 'n' roll is kind of an unspoken aesthetic," she says. "You can't explain sometimes why something works and something doesn't, because it's all feel. So you try to surround yourself with people who see that the same way that you do, who kind of are available to the very intense one minute and the very laid-back the next. I didn't know how Simone and I would find that place. For me, doing anything practical felt very weird to me. On one hand, I wanted to be myself and do right by my own sweet spot, per se. But then, on the other hand, I didn't want to let Simone down or do wrong by a piece of music that I wanted to honor, and I just didn't have the vocabulary or the instincts to know whether I was doing a good job with that. So I had to completely trust Simone and say, 'Is this OK?' "
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 7
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-462-0222 or BrowardCenter.org