Scott Merritt has the talent to be a household name across Canada. But talent isn’t enough to lubricate the star-making machinery of the music biz. Happily, popularity and wealth aren’t an accurate measure of success. In Merritt’s case, talent coupled with integrity and a warm even-keeled temperament combine to make him the quintessential songwriter’s songwriter, not to mention a highly respected independent producer and recording engineer.
I recall when Merritt and Canadian music icon Ian Tyson shared an afternoon workshop stage at the Canadian Songwriters’ Festival, held annually for a few years at the River Run Centre in Guelph. Between songs Tyson wondered aloud why he hadn’t heard of Merritt. It’s a question many Canadian music insiders have pondered over the last three decades.
Merritt is drawing the curtain on 2015 by touring southwestern Ontario. This is news because Merritt doesn’t tour very often. He performs a Live on Stage concert at the Original Princess Cinema in UpTown Waterloo on December 3 at 7:30 pm. He’ll be joined by fellow Guelph-based multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, a solo artist of acclaim and longtime Cowboy Junkies accompanist.
I first met Merritt in 1985 in a downtown coffee shop in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario. At the time I was covering entertainment, among other beats, for the Brantford Expositor. (By the way, Princess co-owner John Tutt was born and raised in Brantford.)
Since then our paths have converged many times after he moved to Guelph and opened The Cottage recording studio and I moved to the Kitchener-Waterloo Record (now called Waterloo Region Record), where I reported on entertainment from May 1986 through June 2015. I don’t want to sound sappy, but Merritt remains one of the genuine nice guys I met over close to four decades of arts writing.
Perusing Merritt’s website, I’m reminded of a couple of concert reviews I wrote for The Expositor and The Record, respectively. It’s obvious I hold Merritt in high esteem.
. . . a large crowd savoured Merritt’s eclectic blend of poetic lyrics and tuneful yet complex rhythms. . . mesmerizing. . . Merritt’s evocative vocals and polished guitar work — accented by technological tricks — blended with easy rhythms.
. . . at the Canadian Songwriters’ Festival. . . Merritt appeared with a guitar, a whack of effects and David Woodhead on bass, and proceeded to play quirky songs to an audience held in thrall. There were no songs I had heard before, but his moody and subtle melodies, rhythms and lyrics were a perfect introduction to a weekend celebrating the songwriter’s craft. . . .
And here are excerpts from my review of The Detour Home, released in 2002.
. . . an act of surrealistic time-defying creative affirmation. . . Merritt’s music is firmly grounded in acoustic instrumentation, but veers off into the techno stratosphere. It’s openly experimental, but it’s never experimentation for experimentation’s sake. . . poetic lyrics, eschewing narrative, he relies on image, metaphor and allegory to evoke dreamy (sometimes nightmarish) atmospheres simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, ordinary and extraordinary, mundane and strange. Home is exotic because of the imaginative detours Merritt takes.
Merritt has developed a reputation for being a reluctant interview, not because he’s unpleasant or rude, condescending or discourteous, but because he is modest and self-deprecating to a fault. One gets the impression he hates talking about himself. In contrast to his reputation, he has been open, witty and unpretentiously honest whenever we’ve talked.
Our most extensive chat was for Listen Up, a 39-episode TV series that originally aired on Vision TV in 1994. The show, created by Canadian feature filmmaker Terrance Odette, examined the spiritual dimension that informed the music of such Canadian songwriters as Heather Bishop, Valdy, Ferron, Stephen Fearing, James Keelaghan, Garnet Rogers, Connie Kaldor, David Essig, Murray McLauchlan, Ian Tamblyn, Spirit of the West and Rheostatics.
As the show’s off-camera interviewer, I asked Merritt about a few of his songs. His halting answers offered a glimpse of the artist behind the songs, which I believe remains as relevant today as it was in 1994.
Merritt is a hauntingly enigmatic songwriter. Deeply personal, the songs are expressed through layered melodic colours and emotional textures that defy synopsis or exegesis.
Sign was written in response to spending too long in the tinseltown of Hollywood and thinking about home, where his wife and daughter waited. ‘I thought I had been there too long,’ he recalled with slow, deliberate, carefully chosen words. ‘I wanted to be grounded once again.’
Rain Cloud pays heartfelt homage to the broken children who endure fractured families. There are too many neighbourhoods with ‘lots of kids and not lots of parents,’ he observed. ‘This is for all the lost kids on the street.’
Timewontell is a densely metaphoric response to the horror of the boys who suffered physical and sexual abuse over many years at Mount Cashel Orphanage, operated by the Congregation of Christian Brothers in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
‘It had a strong effect on me,’ he recalled. ‘I worked on the song for many weeks and threw everything out. It’s easy to slam and take the low road when dealing with dark stuff.’ His path to finding the appropriate expression was to create an imaginary town. ‘You don’t know where it is but you know what it’s like to live there.’
Hang Back the Light is about the desire we all have to ‘find the dawn after the night.’
Merritt became a promising music commodity in the 1980s. His debut 1979 album Desperate Cosmetics was engineered by a young Hamiltonian named Daniel Lanois. In 1986 he was a Juno finalist in the Most Promising Male Vocalist category.
In 1985 Merritt signed with Duke Street Records — home of rising star Jane Siberry, Hugh Marsh and others. He released Serious Interference, followed a year later by Gravity is Mutual, produced by Roma Baran. He enjoyed radio play and early Canadian TV music video celebrity with the singles Transistor and Overworked and Underprivileged. His fourth album Violet and Black was released in 1990 by Duke Street in Canada and IRS Records internationally. Both record companies went belly up due to financial turmoil. Leaving Merritt label-less, he found peace and contentment carving out a highly respected niche as an independent recording artist.
After moving to Guelph and opening The Cottage, Merritt began concentrating on work as an engineer and producer. He worked with such artists as Fred Eaglesmith, Stephen Fearing, Ian Tamblyn, Grievous Angels, Lynn Miles, James Gordon, Kevin Breit, Matt Anderson, Katherine Wheatley, Tannis Slimmon, Garnet Rogers and Suzie Vinnick, among others.
As his discography confirms, Merritt has not been prolific. Early in his career he transitioned from folk to art pop and ambient rock. In 2002 he returned to the studio to record The Detour Home on Universal/Maple Music. His latest album Of was released in 2015 as a limited edition vinyl and CD set.
Below is Merritt performing Transistor in 1984. The seemingly ageless songwriter doesn’t look much older in 2015
Original Princess Cinema: Live on Stage
Tickets ($20 advance/$25 at the door) available online at www.eventbrite.ca/e/scott-merritt-live-on-stage-tickets-18965202431