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French connection

Tift Merritt finds revitalizing inspiration in Paris



A few years ago, North Carolina native Tift Merritt wanted to get away from it all for a much-needed, well-deserved break. Maybe it was exhaustion from touring or the business of music, but either way, she needed time off and Paris seemed to be calling her name.

She did a search on Google for "apartment," "Paris" and "piano" and found exactly what she was looking for. Her plan was to go for two weeks and see what happened. The result was more than three months spent living like a local, and inspiration that would lead to her latest album, Another Country.

"I had been to Paris before and knew a little of the language, so I knew I would be able to handle myself," she says. "It's not hard to fall in love with the French culture and there's such a history of art and writers going there. It was really a random decision to go on vacation for two weeks and what transpired after that was really lucky."

She was on tour in Europe when she made the decision, thinking that because she spends so much time touring, she never gets to see the city she's in. Merritt spent a good number of days "talking" with locals -- sometimes she'd have to rely on facial expressions or actions to get her point across -- and immersing herself in the city.

She also spent a bit of time writing and playing piano. Luckily, when she decided to extend her "vacation," her family supported the decision. "I think the biggest payoff of my job is the time right after you finish a record when you can take time off and go do whatever you want for a little while," Merritt says with a laugh. "I think it wound up being one of the best things I've ever done."

It was a time when Merritt was looking at her career and questioning her talent, but the city provided a wealth of inspiration in the every day life of Parisians -- though at the time, it wasn't writing for a planned album, but rather just writing for her own creative well-being.

One song on her new album, "Mille Tendresses," is a kind-of tribute to her time spent in the City of Lights. Though it's sung in French, the liner notes for the album contain a translation. "It's my fascination with the French culture and language," Merritt says. "They have ways of saying things that we don't. I love grammar. They have reflexive verbs, so it's such a beautiful way to say, 'I hide myself.' There are intimate and subtle things that you can't do the same way in English. As a writer, I wanted to see what I could do with the language -- and I definitely had some help from French friends."

She says her goal upon returning to a studio was to keep it simple and not force anything that didn't feel right. "The emphasis was to not get in the way of the process and I think we did that," she says. While Merritt's music is categorized in everything from country to folk to rock, her album draws from elements of all of those genres -- "They're just fingers from the same hand," she says.

Not surprisingly, the idea of taking another "hiatus" is in her mind, as is a return to the Carolinas. While her career got started in the Chapel Hill area, Merritt moved to New York City a few years ago. After all, "Isn't that where crazy writers should live?" she asks, her Southern accent still intact. Though she may be transplanted to the north, she hasn't lost sight of "home."

"I live in New York and I feel a connection to New York City and part of me still lives in France, but North Carolina is definitely my home," she says while driving to the Raleigh airport after recent gigs on the Carolina coast. "I think we'll probably come back to North Carolina at some point, but because we travel so much, this is easier right now."

As for future plans, Merritt has often mentioned the desire to write a book and enjoys photography, so an exhibit isn't out of the question. When it's suggested that a good idea would be to combine her stories and photos from her Paris excursion, she hesitates to answer. "Sometimes I need a camera to finish a song or prose to finish a melody," she says. "I'll always follow those things wherever they take me. There might be a secret plan [for a book on the months spent in Paris]. Maybe we can talk again if a plan ... if something's happening like that, we'll talk again."

Tift Merritt will perform at the Visulite Theatre on Sept. 4 at 9:45 p.m. Tickets are $16.

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