Not So Different After All: Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein blend genres in 'Night'

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
July 17, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — "I think it's very important to be aware of your strengths but then at times to reach and stretch yourself and challenge yourself and see what other parts of you are there. And that is what this project has definitely done for me." That's singer/songwriter Tift Merritt talking about her collaboration with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. They've performed together on stage, and they've released a collection of songs titled "Night."

Simone Dinnerstein says the goal was to push their creative boundaries. She explains just how this unique collaboration was born. "We met when we were set up together for an interview by Gramophone magazine and we started listening to each other's music and became friends."

"Well, the first thing I noticed," Tift adds, "was that I went to Simone's concert and that I cried. I just was overwhelmed with how much care and depth she gave to every single note. That's really giving of yourself in such a deep way. And I think that's how I strive to play music and how I strive to live. And I immediately knew that Simone had this huge emotional range and that she was also so smart and fun and dedicated."

Tift admits she used to see collaborating as compromising, but with Simone it was different. As they began to arrange and perform original songs and songs from the jazz and classical worlds it became apparent that this collaboration was very authentic. Rather than giving in, they were both gaining a lot. Simone says her approach to classical music is changing as a result of this collaboration. "I've made a few funny changes. I was playing the Grieg Piano Concerto this year for the first time. And there's a passage which I just think is ridiculously complicated for not much gain. And so I just rewrote it, which I would never have done before playing with Tift. And I found it really satisfying. I was able to make it into something that I could play really convincingly and I felt like it made the point that Grieg wanted to make."

Simone also dabbled with a few arrangements on this recording, including one of Franz Schubert's song, "Night and Dreams." In her inner ear Simone could hear Tift singing this song. adding her own particular expression, which in this case, includes the subtlety of a harmonica.

As they chose and prepared the songs for their recording, "Night," Simone says they began to see relationships between the pieces. Tift and Simone explain the connection between Billie Holiday's, "'Don't Explain," and "Dido's Lament," from Purcell's opera, "Dido and Aeneas." "You know, when I think about singing the Purcell," Tift clarifies, "I think about a woman at the end of her life and confronting that and the range of emotions that you'd feel and how you'd want to be dealt with, and then into the Billie Holiday where a woman is really desperately clinging to a man who is her life and at the same time destroying her life."

"I think that it is actually the same woman," Simone adds, "because I think that Dido has been driven to this point by her love for Aeneas and I think that it's about somebody who loves to such an extreme intensity that it can kill her, and so they are really the same woman, and you sing it that way.

"It's a really wonderful feeling to be that deep in something and to feel free enough to throw yourself into it that way. And I love living in other people's songs rather than in my own because I can bring...just psychologically, I can bring a respect and an admiration that as a self-deprecating Southern woman I could never bring to my own work," Tift adds. "So it's really deepened my practice. And when I return to my own wheelhouse if you will, I really appreciate it and I'm also hungry to push forward."

Simone Dinnerstein throws herself into this music by exploring a technique that scared her just a few years ago. "Yeah. I mean, there are a couple of songs on Night where I'm actually totally improvising and when we play concerts it's different every night," she explains, "And that has been a big step for me to be in front of an audience and improvising. It's hard. It's like a letting go of inhibitions, for sure."

"Night," is a unique collection of songs bridging the world of classical, jazz, traditional and original music, brought to life through the artistic talents of two very different musicians. Or, maybe they're not so different after all.

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