Creative in capitals - Scott Merritt thinks outside the beat box

Posted by on 30 July 2004

FFWD Weekly July 22, 2004 - Preview Article by M.D. Stewart

An awful lot has been written about the horrors and evils of the music industry. The industry designation itself seems to be at direct odds with the human creative spark and process that fuels and fires its machinery. For more than 20 years, Ontario singer-songwriter Scott Merritt has worked in and around that industrial-park wasteland without ever compromising his personal integrity or losing sight of his widescreen creative vision.

By 1990, Merritt had released four albums, all with brilliant titles: Desperate Cosmetics (1979, engineered by then-unknown Daniel Lanois), Serious Interference (1983), Gravity is Mutual (1986) and Violet and Black (1989). He had two videos on MuchMusic, his work had received countless critical accolades and his fan-base was growing steadily. Then IRS Records packed it in and his recording-artist career was put in litigious leg irons. For years he was unable to record or release anything. It wasn’t as bad as it might sound, though. Merritt was tiring of the big machine and had grown increasingly disgusted with the whole concept of careering.

"I had really got to a place where it wasn’t fun," he says, "and I had to promise to myself – something most of us do, but never keep – when it’s not fun to do, do something else for awhile."

He had his family and his home, which included an increasingly well-equipped studio, The Cottage. "The studio was an odd blessing that grew," he says. "It was a great joy to have people in the studio making music. It reminded me that ‘create’ should be in capital letters, not ‘Scott Merritt.’ All of a sudden, there were all these projects to do for people as a producer and studio owner."

For the next 12 years Merritt stayed home, being there while his young son grew up and producing records for others – Kim Deschamps, Fred Eaglesmith, Ian Tamblyn, Grievous Angels and Meg Lunney, to name a few. In many ways, producing seemed more creative than the arduous process of building a musical career. "I think a lot of the time when I’m working on something as a producer, I’m thinking more about the things that I wish I had people doing for me when I was the artist," he says.

A big part of his job involves getting hardened folkies to plug into the right side of their brains and think outside the proverbial box. With Fred Eaglesmith’s forthcoming release, Dusty, this meant putting away the guitar and recording his songs accompanied by a beat-box organ, like the kind you might find in your favourite uncle’s rec-room or at garage sales everywhere.

"He collected these organs on the road and they’d littered his house. I just changed a bit of the wiring in some of them so that they could be recorded, separated from his performing," Merritt explains. These initial vocal-organ tracks are then fleshed out and built up. "He comes and records for a couple of days and leaves me something to play around with and work on. Then he comes back and listens to things and tells me his impressions at that point."

On one track, Merritt took the liberty of adding not just one, but an entire quartet of cellos. Eaglesmith’s impressions are usually pretty obvious. "When he’s excited, boy does he ever get excited," says Merritt. "We’re going way out from where he’s been and that’s exciting for both of us." But what about the Fred Heads? Won’t they be a little, uh…"Taken aback? Gathering rocks to throw…. I think they’ll be taken aback, I hope so," he laughs.

Merritt fills any gaps in his busy studio schedule by working on his own musical projects. Creativity is, of course, a renewable resource, and with all the inspired ideas and energy floating around The Cottage it was inevitable that a new Scott Merritt record would eventually see the light of day. Seemingly out of the blue, an offer of a recording contract came from MCA and in 2002 Merritt released The Detour Home. (On the cover, both his name and the title are in lower-case letters). The self-produced disc, features performances from Bruce Cockburn and Anne Murray’s drummer Gary Craig, bassist David Woodhead, keyboardist Richard Bell and Cowboy Junkies multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird.

Merritt continues to look forward and seems genuinely grateful for the opportunities that have and continue to come his way. He’s been able to work with some of his heroes and make a living through his abundant creativity without sacrificing friendships or family for the sake of his career. His energy, warmth and enthusiasm crackle over the phone line. "I’m a lifer," he says simply.