Interview: Tanner Merritt

Tanner Merritt

A lot has changed since I caught up with O’Brother last year. For one, touring again is a possibility for the band – over 105 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, which brings the country closer to post-pandemic normal. For vocalist Tanner Merritt, he has written a ton of new solo material due to monumental personal loss. Last year, O’Brother was riding high: They had released their long-awaited fourth album, You and I, to unanimous praise and incredible sales for a newly independent band. 

The album relished space and classical guitars while intentionally leaving vague lyrics to listeners’ imaginations. As beautiful as You and I is, there was a dark undercurrent beneath the track “What We’ve Lost.” A kind of follow-up to Endless Light’s “Black Hole,” Merritt needed an outlet to write about his father, Cyrus’s decade-long fight with Alzheimer’s disease. Then COVID hit, and Merritt spent most of the year in total isolation alongside his mother, watching his father’s condition worsen until he passed away on November 4, 2020, two days after his 63rd birthday. 

Tanner and Cyrus shared a love for music. Both of his parents played music, making performing and practice a regular part of his upbringing. Merritt was very close to his father. “I feel like I learned everything from him. At 34 years old, I still want to be like him,” he shares. Cyrus is remembered for his kindness and compassion – qualities he instilled in his children by example rather than force or control. “Which is also how he taught me music. He never once told me I needed to go practice; he just loved music and would play any time he got an opportunity, and I gravitated towards that,” he continues. “If I ever had any questions, he would gladly show me, but that was rare. I learned mainly by watching him.”

Today, Merritt is unveiling “Blame,” a stunning track that recalls You and I’s electronic and ambient music influence. It’s also the first taste of solo music from the frontman since 2013. His debut solo album, Doubt, featured opaque folk songs, many pianos, and some slight Radiohead worship. It’s still a fantastic record, but if “Blame” is anything to go by, Merritt is less interested in getting caught in the eye of the storm. 

“Blame is about our inherent need to try and rationalize things that are beyond our control. It is about grief… it’s about the bittersweetness of knowing loss that only comes from knowing love,” he says. Unfortunately, Merritt still finds himself attempting to explain away the uncontrollable. At least, now, he recognizes it comes from fear. He has been “learning to dismantle the association of my inability to change [things out of his control].” He aims to embrace not always having sway “of anything in this universe,” but hopefully, one day might have the wisdom to steer the chaos in a favorable direction.  

Merritt has been writing music that wasn’t suitable for O’Brother over the years, although they’re sometimes reworked into O’Brother songs wearing a different face. Releasing more solo music has been a long time coming, but it’s never been the right time. “Blame” is the first single from a to-be-announced upcoming solo record, due out later this year. The album is Tanner’s most vulnerable body of work to date. He hopes to release its sister record in 2022. This collection of songs examines grief: Merritt’s reaction following a massive loss and the inevitable self-reflection as a byproduct. In time, learning to cope and find joy after a loved one has died is next on the agenda. 

The initial goal of writing two new albums was to write a record in remembrance of his father. Merritt quickly realized that he needed to process his emotions about losing Cyrus; he needed to grieve before he could remember. He had to learn to remember his father for his life instead of his death. “Every time I thought of him, I only remembered the sickly man I cared for, not the beautiful human he was. The more time passes, the more I can see him for how he lived and not how he died,” he shares. After a prolonged period in isolation and as a carer, Merritt learned that he needs people in his life, despite “being a dude with hermetic tendencies.” He fell into the worst mental state of his life. 

Merritt began channeling the negative energy before it ate him alive. “I learned that the more you feel like you don’t want to talk about something, the more you probably should. And the longer you wait, the harder it gets. Seemingly cliches but hard to put into practice,” he explains. That’s where writing new music comes in. 

“With this record, it’s all on the table. There’s no dancing around what it is about, which is new ground for me,” says Merritt about what differentiates his upcoming albums from what’s come before. After spinning his wheels demoing the tracks at home, he brought in Jamie Martens (brother of O’Brother drummer Michael Martens) to engineer and co-produce the records. “He’s an extremely talented dude, and I loved working with him on this,” Merritt raves. The pair recorded main electronics, synths, and piano at Merritt’s house before finishing recording at Manchester Orchestra’s home studio in Atlanta. His year in isolation finally came to a head, where Merritt “desperately needed something to obsess over, and had some shit I needed to work through.”

“I harbored a lot of guilt for a long time about being away on tour during his early years of dementia,” Merritt discloses about his decision to step in and help his mother care for his father. “I guess the closest thing [to sharing rare intimate moments with his father] was being able to care for him.” He heard stories from people about final conversations and moments of clarity near the end. Sadly, that wasn’t the case for Merritt and his family. “That was an expectation versus reality moment for me,” he says. Cyrus had a rare kind of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He showed signs in his early 50s and received a complete diagnosis before he turned 55. Caring for him every day of 2020 and sharing normal conversations when Cyrus’s symptoms were mild allowed Merritt to finally come to terms with and release his guilt. 

“Hopefully, more people will start to genuinely ask how each other are doing and ask with an expectation of honesty. It could save someone’s life,” Merritt says. He has an audience and a platform, and he hopes that his new albums help someone else through their grieving process. Loss is inevitable, but no less difficult staring mortality in the face. Depression, at its core, is self-isolating. Part of the illness convinces you that you are alone, that no one else has been through this, that no one will understand you. 

“We’re taught that it’s somehow taboo to talk about mental health in a public forum. You hear phrases your entire life like ‘cry for help’ or ‘attention-seeking,’ so you associate talking about it with weakness or shame,” he sighs. “I hope that as more people come forward and publicly share their struggles with depression or other mental health issues, others will begin to have the confidence to talk to their family and friends about it. And on the flip side, that more people will start to recognize it and reach out to those friends you believe might be struggling.”