There is more than one Tift Merritt. So claims the singer when asked why she goes by her middle name rather than her first name of Catherine. The choice, she says, was never hers.
“Oh, well, I didn’t have anything to do with this decision,” says Merritt. “I’ve always been called Tift. I actually have cousins and an uncle that are called Tift. It’s a family name, and everybody has it as their middle name. But I’ve been Tift all along. Heaven forbid I would be called Cathy.”
“But it’s funny,” she adds. “At Thanksgiving, my brother and I are like, ‘No more Tifts! Jesus! There are, like, three of us right now!’ So it gets confusing.”
There are multiple Tift Merritts in other ways, too (one of whom performs at Johnny D’s on Wednesday). Each of her albums explores its own distinct feel and tone, resulting in change-ups like following 2004’s righteously vibrant “Tambourine,” a Grammy nominee for best country album, with the soft-spoken, 1970s-style California rock of “Another Country.” Getting a picture of who she is as an artist requires a connect-the-dots approach to her catalog, since no one album has fully represented what she does.
As a result, it’s easy to detect a theme of constant motion throughout Merritt’s career, even without knowing that her latest album is titled “Traveling Alone” and includes songs called “Drifted Apart” and “Still Not Home.” The record is her fifth studio release on her third label. The singer began her career in her native North Carolina, then moved to France and now resides in New York.
Merritt readily acknowledges her restlessness with a laugh: “No, look, I'm a hungry person. I like to be alive. And I think that traveling is a great metaphor for what it is to be, on one level, a writer and an artist and also, on another level, to be alive.
“I think reaching creatively is an extremely important part of being an artist with any kind of lifespan,” adds Merritt. “It’s my responsibility to feed my own fire, and that means that I have to grow.”
“Traveling Alone” is another bend in the road. Reminiscent of the organic warmth of latter-day Emmylou Harris, it was recorded quickly, in eight days. To make that happen, she pulled together what she’s referred to as her “dream cast,” including Calexico drummer John Convertino and longtime Tom Waits guitarist Marc Ribot, and vowed to record only full-band takes with no overdubs.
The benefits of that approach quickly became apparent. “It was very exciting to me to think about not having to sit in the studio and be nervous for three weeks,” Merritt says. “I could challenge myself to do this and to not look back and to not hide and to not have the impulse to pretty it up and just be comfortable with it being what it is. I loved making the record like this. I don’t want to go back.”
Producer Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket) reteamed with Merritt following 2010’s gorgeous “See You on the Moon.” He says an attempt to add overdubs only proved how satisfied they were with the original takes. “We did have an afternoon where Rob Burger [who has worked with John Zorn, Norah Jones, and Lucinda Williams] came in and played keyboards on a lot of stuff, but we ended up deciding to use mostly just what had happened live,” he says. “There was something about the integrity of that. As soon as you do something else, you lose what was so special and what we had set out to do in the first place.”
Merritt was aware that the circumstances demanded serious preparation. “I practiced a lot on my own,” she says. “I thought it was going to be really important for me to be way beyond thought, to just live in [the songs] very deeply. So I did a lot of practicing on my own so that I could inhabit the songs as some kind of leader.”
She took on the opposite challenge when she was approached to contribute songs to the upcoming animated film “Dorothy of Oz.” Perhaps sympathetic to the subject (a noted wanderer herself), Merritt relished the opportunity to, in her words, “serve someone else’s vision.”
Even so, there are still more Tift Merritts who have still more exploration ahead of them, like the one who hosts “The Spark,” her monthly public-radio show devoted to conversations with artists from any number of fields who Merritt finds interesting. “I end up finding this thread of people who make their own way, people who beat down their own path,” she says.
But even though she keeps moving, Merritt seems to be exactly where she wants to be. “I don't know,” she says, “you have these moments in your career where you shake your head and you go, ‘God, I've just got everything I ever wanted. I can’t even believe it.’”