Why Tift Merritt needs to share her spark, a conversation about art

What is the spark of inspiration? Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt investigates this question each month in her radio broadcast and podcast The Spark, which she says, “is a conversation about integrity and process.”

She seeks to speak with artists of all kinds: writers, musicians, painters etc. She focuses on their work and their lives. What does it mean to be an artist? What does an artist learn by dedicating their life to art? These are the kind of questions Tift seeks to answer. So, I knew an interview with the Grammy nominated artist (Best Country Album, 2004) would be worthwhile.

This conversation was music journalist to music journalist and we went deep because, like me, Tift never tires of talking about the muse. She started the interview off with a nod to the task at hand acknowledging how hard the work of a music journalist can be.

Tift: You have to coax, you have to be the leader while not being the leader and guide me in this very gentle way to say extremely revealing things and get to the truth of the matter. You have to ask me really personal questions even though you want to be respectful, so it’s a difficult position.

Gene: Why did you start doing your podcast?

Tift: I was lonely.

Gene: You were lonely? Really?

Tift:   Yeah, I was. I found myself on the road and I was generally isolated back stage. I really needed to have some conversations that were about being an artist. I never tire of that conversation, of being an artist and making your own way and what you learn from your work. When you’re on the road, you aren’t always having those conversations. You’re talking to a lot of strangers and I don’t particularly do my job so that I can be in the spotlight. Being the center of attention affords you a certain vanity and I don’t like that. I need to continually have a conversation of depth—putting a spotlight on someone else. I just think that’s healthy and real. The first time that I was on the road for a year, I came home kind of lonely and surprised and frustrated. I had not seen my friends and family in a long time. I just wanted to seek out this conversation that I needed to have. I thought of all of the people [fellow musicians and artists] that I had been to their town that I hadn’t been able to meet and talk to them. I thought, "How can I seek out these artists that I want to learn from? " This [broadcast] was a way to do that.

Gene: What are some of the best answers you’ve gotten while interviewing people?

Tift: I have a couple of favorites. But I interviewed a painter, Anna Schuleit, and she was talking about the risk of making a mark, really revealing yourself and I just love that simple idea of making this mark, however small. I think it is a really beautiful idea. Rosanne Cash talked about something called the growing edge, which is that place which you are completely compelled to go and yet you don’t understand and you’re not familiar. It feels kind of dangerous but you must go there because it is a place where you must grow. I talked to a sculptor, Patrick Dougherty, which will be the next interview that comes out, [on The Spark] about handling forces that are larger than us — that don’t belong to us and that we all have this kind of a shadow life of all of humanity inside of us. We do not own those things. We are simply the instruments of them.

Gene: Was it Josh Ritter who was telling you [on The Spark] that the creative process was like this iceberg, there’s a large unseen part of it and that’s the rest of your life? Then the art comes out and that’s just the tip of it.

Tift:   Yeah, definitely and sometimes your work leads the way for your life and you are able to think about things or put things in motion in your work that you would have not yet put in motion in your life and that suddenly builds the road for your life. I do believe that people that make unique work are usually making unique lives and I am just as interested in that as I am their work.

Gene: I am happy to hear you say that. A lot of times people try to tell me that the artist isn’t the same as their art. I always argue that. I say, "No, if the art is magic, then the person who makes it has to be a magician."

Tift:   Well, lives are complicated and I think that you have to be talking to someone who’s really willing to be transparent. I think things get more complicated when someone is interested in hiding. I am generally of a point of view that hiding anything is just a waste of time.

Gene: Have there been times when [interviewees] gave you an answer and you took it and incorporated it into your own creative process or your own life?

Tift:   Yeah, absolutely. I think in most cases, it plays into my own work as courage. Everybody who is out making their own way, they’re so busy… that they don’t often realize that they are not alone, that there is a common set of ups and downs in making your own way.  The idea that Anna Schuleit gave me about making a mark, I thought about that and that was a direct inspiration for the song, “Marks” and that idea that we make a mark on each other.

Gene: So you are finding what you set out to find when you started your podcast?

Tift:   I am.

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