Worn down a bit by work, singer Tift Merritt poured herself a glass of wine one night, sat at the computer and typed "Paris," "apartment" and "piano" into an Internet search engine.
She quickly found some possibilities, and set out on what she figured would be a two-week vacation.
Instead, it turned into an adventure of more than three months that refreshed her personally and professionally. The results can be heard on her new disc, "Another Country," made up of songs written on a piano in a Paris apartment.
Merritt, a North Carolina native who now lives in New York, was nominated four years ago for a best country album Grammy Award. But she's been in a common trap since then, her music considered not quite country enough for country radio stations and too country-flavored for pop music stations. Her new disc leans more toward the pop singer-songwriter territory.
Merritt had briefly thought of quitting after being discouraged by a year on the road prior to her Paris trip.
"It really takes the sap out of you," she told The Associated Press. "You're kind of giving yourself to people you don't know really well, and then you return to your life and it isn't there anymore."
She had spent time in France as a student; now, in her 30s, she remembered enough of the language to get by. Being in a society where everyone speaks a different language can be disorienting _ and electric.
"You have to look at people differently," she said. "You have to look longer. You have to really make an effort to communicate and figure out what's going on and you see the sort of elemental things that happen to us every day that most of the time we just walk past."
It was a relief not to take things for granted. "There's something simple and direct that runs through this record because of that," she said.
At the start, the piano was there for fun and companionship _ not for work. That changed.
"I was really surprised that I was writing," she said, "because I was really at a point where I didn't have anything to say at all. I needed to catch up on sleep and eat more vegetables. When I wrote `Another Country,' that was my best attempt at capturing that feeling of being like a stranger in the world."
You'd assume the title has dual meanings _ references to both her trip and her uneasy relationship with the country music establishment.
Instead, a third becomes obvious, about getting lost in the world of another person. "Love is another country," Merritt sings, "and I want to go."
After her first trip to Paris ended, she went back two or three times to wrap up her writing. She even wrote a song in French that she debuted at a concert there.
Merritt is tired of being told by people that her music isn't easy to categorize. Maybe it will be harder on her career, but she said she's not going to play that game anymore. She made "Another Country" to be direct _ one person talking to another.
The music business' continuing collapse may work in her favor.
"There is so much wisdom in customizing your career to what you like, what you want to do," she said. "It's really an exciting time, and it's certainly much better than the `my way or the highway' type of situation."
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