On Saturday, February 22 classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and singer/songwriter Tift Merritt will share the Club Weisiger stage for a unique collaboration uniting folk, rock and classical worlds, exploring common terrain and uncovering new musical landscapes. Though Simone (a Juilliard-trained classical pianist from Brooklyn) and Tift (a singer-songwriter from North Carolina whose father taught her to play by ear) could not come from more different musical backgrounds, when the two met they immediately realized that their passion for music was kindred, if not the same. Night features new songs by Brad Mehldau and Patty Griffin, Tift’s own songs, selections by Bach and Schubert, and The Cohen Variations by Daniel Felsenfeld, based on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne.
Here’s an exclusive interview between the two artists (taken from the album jacket itself) and be sure to check out the video at the bottom for more!
How did you two meet?
SIMONE: Tift and I met when Gramophone magazine introduced us to each other. I had a new album coming out and Tift was asked to interview me about it. I realized I had found a kindred spirit in Tift. I responded emotionally to her music. I was fascinated by how much we had in common in the way we thought about music and artistic expression.
What made you want to collaborate?
TIFT: I admire Simone’s passion and the depth of her playing. She has incredible feel. She’s so willing to go deep and keep going deeper. I also admire her work ethic and her dedication. I remember calling her on the phone and she’d say, “Okay, I have to get back to practicing.” I don’t often meet someone whose artistry and integrity are so present. Of course I want to be around that. But at its heart, this project is an expression of our friendship – of how I want to learn from her and spend time with her and how we laugh. I think she would probably say the same thing about me. One of my favorite things about this project is how genuine that feeling has been all along. I really don’t feel comfortable making music in less personal situations. There was a very natural, organic motion to it.
What did the process look like?
SIMONE: So much about being a musician has to do with imagining sound worlds — I wanted us to share out musical worlds with each other. In my inner ear, I heard Tift singing Schubert’s Nacht und Träume and imagined her particular expression bringing it to life. I sat in an airport listening on my iPod to her sing her song Feel of the World and I could hear the piano creating a different texture with her voice. Creating a sound with Tift has been a very exciting and, in many ways, liberating challenge.
TIFT: On the one hand, I like to think of our process in a very simple way – that we started a band and we got together for band practice. Like any band, we had to find our own language and our own feel. We’d lock ourselves in her studio for the day and hammer it out. But on the other hand, it was much more complicated than that. As we began, well, I play music by ear and Simone wasn’t used to playing anything that wasn’t written on the page. I had to record our practices and study them aurally because I could not keep up with her technical proficiency. And then I watched her get comfortable playing off the page and enjoying her choices arranging. By the end, she was changing every arrangement and playing nothing on the page.
What were the difficulties?
TIFT: Everything, I mean everything about how everything was done was completely different! All the things that you could take for granted about how things go down could not be taken for granted! We were coming from completely different directions and taking the risk of extending ourselves into foreign territory to find each other. It was disorienting at times, especially at first. There was always that chance that we just wouldn’t find each other! I had to completely trust Simone that what I was doing with the classical pieces was ok. I knew she had the knowledge and I did not. She had to trust me the same way when she ventured into my world. It was such new territory for us both that I think we both felt very exposed and vulnerable but in very opposite ways and places. We really challenged each other and pulled new places out of each other. And that risk, ultimately, was really exciting.
SIMONE: On the practical level, we had to find a way to learn all of the songs in a way that made sense to each of us. Tift wasn’t used to learning by reading music, so our rehearsals of the classical songs at first were about going through the score together, making sure she understood everything that was written. Tift would record our rehearsals and then come back the next day with it completely under her belt. It was extremely impressive to me, because I am used to learning music incredibly slowly. For the non-classical songs, I faced the issue of there being no score to read. I am not used to learning music by ear, so this was extremely challenging. What was completely unexpected to me was that eventually I was improvising to chord charts and then that improvisation crept into the classical songs.
What did you have in common?
TIFT: Simone and I share an intensity but, more importantly, a sincerity.
What did you learn?
SIMONE: This album has been about pushing our creative boundaries. I’ve learned from Tift some of the rules of her world – to be a good band member, not to use too many notes, to let the words come through, to keep an edge and rawness to the improvisation. She’s shared many songs with me of singers I ought to have known about but didn’t, having remained for many years in my insular, classical world.
TIFT: I thought I was not a very good collaborator until I worked with Simone. Collaborating always felt like compromising. But with Simone, we are both so vigilant about what we believe in that I realized that true collaboration, in the deepest sense, is that willingness to extend yourself to a new place but in a way that does not feel like anything has been given up, and is completely authentic to both parties. It takes an enormous amount of trust and work. I learned what that really feels like.
How does this project influence your own work?
TIFT: The places we have gone together have given me more courage. I’m more vigilant about practice. I’m braver creating a sound world. I try to take the discipline and respect I have given the classical pieces we worked on back to my own songs. I’m braver with my own work ethic because I know whenever I am practicing or thinking about the detail in a piece of music, Simone is probably at her piano doing the same thing.
SIMONE: The music we categorize as classical is a beautiful set of rich artworks. It represents a wonderful heritage. But as with all heritage, there’s a constant danger that it becomes stultifying. In the classical world, it can be safer to play familiar music in a familiar way, but I find that a suffocating aesthetic. Any serious artwork by Bach or Schumann or whomever needs to be approached in a way that’s constantly fresh. I love the idea that a song by Billie Holiday can speak to a song by Purcell, and that each one can influence the way we hear the other.
For even more behind the scenes info, watch this video interview about the creation of NIGHT: