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Merritt And Dinnerstein, A Musical Odd Couple, On Bridging Their Worlds

Classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein (left) and singer-songwriter Tift Merrit collaborate on the new album <em>Night</em>.
Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Courtesy of the artist
Classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein (left) and singer-songwriter Tift Merrit collaborate on the new album Night.

What happens when two very talented women — one, a rising alt-country star; the other, one of classical music's great new talents — meet one another? In the case of singer Tift Merritt and pianist Simone Dinnerstein, a friendship ensues.

But what happens when they decide to make music together? They can't exactly meet in the middle because ... where is the middle? That's the question Merritt and Dinnerstein tried to answer in making the new collaborative album Night.

"Simone and I play music in completely different ways, and I was very scared that so much could go wrong," Merritt says. "I mean, I play by ear and Simone plays music on the page, so I thought, how would we create a language that we could both speak to each other? And I think in the end, I became much more mindful of being technically proficient and getting inside of songs and knowing them deeply, even if I had to do it by ear. And it was a journey to get there."

Merritt and Dinnerstein spoke with NPR's Don Gonyea about the making of Night. For more of their conversation, and to hear them perform two songs from the album, click the audio links on this page.

Interview Highlights

On following instincts

Dinnerstein: "It felt at first that what it meant to be a classical pianist in this situation would mean that I would need to play a lot of notes — to show that I could play a lot of notes because that's what I do all the time. And it didn't work with Tift. It just got in the way. And it turned out that our meeting place was much more linked to sound and to color and to emotion. We had to start really listening to our instincts and following that, more than thinking, 'What does it look like to put classical and alt together?' "

On adapting Franz Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" for "Night and Dreams"

Dinnerstein: "It's one of my favorite Schubert songs. And I just had this kind of vision of Tift singing it and of her also playing the harmonica in it. I could just hear the color [and] a kind of blues feeling to it. So Tift took the translation — she decided, obviously, not to sing it in German."

Merritt: "Well, it's funny because I didn't know what Simone had in mind at first. I went and I found this song and it was in German, and I was going, 'Oh my lord, how will I do that?' I found a translation, and Simone said 'No, no, no — make it your own.' And so I tried to rewrite it as this very plainspoken sort of cowboy poetry. ... In a lot of ways that's exactly what the folk tradition is about — where the fundamental principle is, you take a song, and you serve it. So many of these beautiful songs have been handed down and handed down, and you are part of the tradition that keeps those songs alive, but you try to bring something of yourself to it."

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