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Grammy-nominated UNC alum Tift Merritt to host livestream interview series for CPA

Memorial Hall
Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) at Memorial Hall as pictured in Aug. 2018. Due to COVID-19, CPA has had to come up with creative ways to perform virtually.

Carolina Performing Arts is kicking off its 2020-2021 season with a performance that's new territory for them: a livestream interview series.

The upcoming virtual series, “The Spark,” is being hosted by Grammy-nominated musician Tift Merritt, a UNC alum. It will be an extension of a collaboration between Merritt and Marfa Public Radio in Marfa, Texas, which consisted of a collection of interviews between Merritt and other artists.

She began this endeavor in an effort to satiate her never-ending hunger for the insight of other artists' experiences. Her efforts were halted after five years of its initial run because of the burden of simultaneously producing a one-woman show and touring. 

"I love how organic it was, but I took it as far as I could by myself," Merritt said. "It needed a team to grow, and at CPA, it found a beautiful one."

After the initial series concluded, Merritt moved back to North Carolina and established an ongoing professional relationship with Carolina Performing Arts, where she was featured in multiple series over the years. Eventually, she would find what she had been looking for after reconnecting with CPA’s programming director, Amy Russell, and relaunching her series on an entirely new format.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed particular challenges for artists who are used to performing in front of crowds. With the widespread fear and risks associated with gatherings, it was obvious that the new series would have to be virtual.  

The series will have monthly installments through April 2021. Each will last approximately an hour, with 45 minutes allotted for an interview between Merritt and the guest and the remaining 15 minutes left open for an audience-involved Q&A session. The raw and off-the-cuff nature of these interviews will allow the audience to have a unique experience that differs from a polished performance.  

Although this is not something that CPA is accustomed to doing, staff members said the hope and excitement far outweighs the uncertainty in their minds. Presenting the series on a virtual streaming platform gives the audience a “luxurious” amount of time to get to know intimate details of the behind-the-scenes aspects of each interviewee’s experiences and artistic processes, Russell said.  

“Our industry is one that has been, I think, most radically transformed by the pandemic,” Russell said. “We all really need each other and so it’s been kind of galvanizing to be able to say like ‘Okay, how are we going to get through this together?’” 

The inaugural episode of “The Spark” premieres on Thursday, Sept. 24 and will feature Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter and CPA artist-in-residence, Abigail Washburn.  

Succeeding episodes will feature renowned pianist Pedja Mužijević and acclaimed jazz musicians Wynton Marsalis and Carlos Henriquez. 

Based on credentials alone, these individuals seem to have little in common — however, according to Merritt, that is up to the audience to determine. The main priority is to gain insight on their unique experiences and any “kernels of wisdom” that they might have to spare.

“Making your own way presents a set of challenges which feel very personal but are actually shared by everyone carving a unique path,” Merritt said. “Having a different map can be scary — I hope these conversations can fuel innovative exploration, stoke courage for trusting one's own instincts and fire everyone up for a new look at their own canvas.”


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