–Article by David Menconi
While Tift Merritt has had a great career as a Grammy-nominated musician and multi-media artist, you wouldn’t exactly call her ahead of her time – until now. A decade and a half ago, she was doing a public-radio show called “The Spark,” consisting of artist-to-artist interviews she conducted with friends and idols. And after a long period of dormancy, “The Spark” is back as a video-interview series presented by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Performing Arts, in part because the times finally caught up to it.
“It’s kind of a funny joke, that ‘The Spark’ was a podcast before podcasts existed,” Merritt says. “It started out as an attempt to do an audio series that didn’t quite fit into the rigor of a weekly National Public Radio schedule. So it was something I did monthly for Marfa Public Radio in Texas. For five years, I would seek out and corner people I admired and then edit all the episodes myself. It was a wonderful creative experience, and I took it as I could by myself while I was making records and touring. I always hoped ‘The Spark’ would get to the next place.”
“The next place” turned out to be a series of video interviews in partnership with Merritt’s alma mater UNC as part of “CPA at Home,” which started last year during the pandemic. Merritt’s guests last year on “The Spark included Pulitzer-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and polyglot banjo player Abigail Washburn.
This year, MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Rhiannon Giddens has already been a guest in September. Folk composer/curator Toshi Reagon is next up, scheduled for Nov. 4. There should be announcements soon about other guests, with interviews happening on a monthly basis through UNC’s school year. “Talking with Rhiannon was so inspiring,” Merritt says. “She has such clarity about her mission, why she’s doing what she’s doing and how to navigate the music industry in light of that. It’s something we wouldn’t have casually arrived at just talking backstage at a festival. I’ve always believed in the importance of conversations about process integrity and what happens offstage. It’s great that the work I did on ‘The Spark’ back then has come to fruition.”
The original incarnation of “The Spark” was a project that grew out of a difficult period of Merritt’s career, after a long and grueling period of roadwork ended with her losing her record deal. It felt isolating, like “living a publicity story rather than a real artistic life,” she says. For solace, she began seeking out other artists to talk about their craft and it turned into interviews for the radio.
Now the interviews are on video, shown live and online as they happen. For now, they aren’t viewable after the fact. But they are being recorded, so that they can be presented elsewhere in the future.
Meantime, it’s coming up on five years since Merritt’s last album, 2017’s “Stitch of the World.” She has a small studio in her house where she says she works to “cook up strange projects that make me happy.” But there’s nothing concrete to report just yet.
“I think some music will come out of that eventually,” Merritt says. “But I am hoping that this step back from the road will reveal a new path for me. I never quite fit within the music business. Now I’m asking myself a lot of questions about how music and content and writing can do a better job serving and caring for the world. I’m allowing myself to sit with that question until something that feels like an answer opens up.”