"I think business and art are not ever very good bedfellows," says Guelph, Ontario songwriter Scott Merritt. "After a while, I think most of us find the business toxic, the business part of music making. There's a lot of stuff that doesn't have anything to do with music that is sort of disheartening a lot of the time. Well, that's not really the best word. Just toxic is a good word."
That toxicity was enough to lead Merritt into a sort of self-imposed exile. After releasing four albums in the '80s, the last two of which were moderate commercial and critical successes, the corporate aspects of music-making got to be too much. Almost unconsciously, Merritt created a home studio and began to focus on creating music for himself, rather than the public at large.
"When I was retreating I was also still making music," Merritt explains. "I was learning how to record music. Part of the experience of making the record Violet and Black was that I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't really be happy about recordings unless I could be more hands-on about how they were made. With that in mind I started building a studio. So as I started retreating--I didn't know I was even retreating at the time, I just was--I was building this little nest."
Without the pressures of trying to establish a musical career, Merritt found time for other pursuits. He was able to spend more time with his family. At the same time, he was steadily collecting more home recordings, honing his production skills. It was those skills that kept him involved in the music industry, if only peripherally.
"I had sort of fallen into this production job for various artists just because I had some fortunate experiences as co-producer, or just acting heavy-handed with producers I was working with," he says of the time off. "I was always nosy about how things were done. So friends that were songwriters just connected, those sorts of things. It was like the loaves and the fishes. Right when you think there's nothing else and you have no idea what you're going to do for anything, all of a sudden there's another fish in the basket."
It's now over a decade later, and Merritt finds himself playing in Calgary for the first time. It's hard to say whether the small crowd gathered in front of him are familiar with his older material, fondness of his latest disc The Detour Home, or just curious about a name they didn't recognize. In any case, they're lucky to be able to see him at all. If not for one phone call, Merritt might never have found his way back into the performing lifestyle.
"Right around that time, somebody I was really fond of in the business, one guy in Los Angeles called, and he had just become the president of MCA records," Merritt recalls. "He said that he just wondered if I ever wanted to make a record again. I gotta say, that was a good day. I hate to admit it, but that was a good day. After eight or nine years you sort of feel like, what was I thinking? What am I doing here with all these songs sitting here doing nothing. The other thing is, it just seems sort of selfish. Does the whole thing have to be selfish?"
Merritt still isn't a fan of the business of music, but he's managed to distance himself from those worries. The Detour Home was as fresh and solid an album as anything released last year, certainly not what one would expect from an artist a decade removed from the latest trends. Then again, Merritt has always felt at home performing. The honesty in his music, and the ease with which he could communicate it, were obvious to the lucky few in his Folk Fest crowd.
"I'm actually more comfortable for some sick, strange reason on stage, even though I may talk oddly in between songs," says Merritt. "I feel more comfortable there than in the social context. So I guess the stuff in between songs is part of that. It's also that I'm always afraid of wasting words. It seems you write songs, they should just be the thing."