With her arbitrarily-capitalized alias, painted-and-feathered concert getup and tendency to drop phrases like “sonic recycling,” Merrill Garbus—the sole proprietor of Tune-Yards—risks coming off as yet another belabored, lofty “it’s-not-music-it’s-art” effort. Luckily, she’s artistically agile to be wedged into that pigeonhole. Garbus wields a fearless voice, a mastery of ukulele-plucking, a merry band of random sound samples and a Sony digital voice recorder on her debut Bird-Brains (out now), a genre-defying amalgam of found sound, folk, blues, Kenyan taarab, and more. The honest, occasionally-flawed DIY tracks carry the tinny intimacy of lo-fi, and the deftly layered patchwork of sound on Bird-Brains blurs the lines between musician, composer and artist (although Garbus describes her self as “just a girl”). Paste recently spoke with the scrappy one-woman band about making collages, the origin of her name and how a brief flirtation with improv comedy influenced her debut.
Paste: Tell me about your decision to record Bird-Brains as a lo-fi album. Lo-fi seems to have a more personal, private quality, almost like an art project. What was your goal?
Merrill Garbus: I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because I’m now thinking about how to record the next album. I guess I wanted to know that I could do something like this by myself. When I first started, the very first recording that I did with my crappy little voice recorder, I was pretty isolated. I was working on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. I was feeling like I didn’t have the money or resources to even consider going into the studio. That was when it occurred to me that I could include any sounds that I wanted in there, sounds that really represented the literal state I was in when I recorded them… birds chirping, footsteps on gravel. A more sterile recording really wouldn’t give that feeling. The other thing is that I am a real believer in recycling. There’s so much stuff in existence already that we can use. People discard music and CDs and everything—we’re just a culture that’s really used to throwing stuff out. I liked the idea that it really was like sonic recycling, that I was capturing moments in my life in sound.
Paste: So you’re creating more of a collage of sounds than a traditional song.
Garbus: Yes, “collage” is a great word for it. When I first started doing any kind of recording, I started to become obsessed with listening to sounds. When you start carrying a recorder, you become really attuned to hearing every moment. In recent years, I’ve started to think of myself as an artist, as being an outsider, taking a look with new perspective at your own culture, your own life, and then reflecting that back to people. That wasn’t my grandiose intention when I started recording sounds, but it did make me an outsider. I mean, at one point, I was playing a ukulele on a tourist ferry, with the sounds of tourists in the background. Again, it’s not about being isolated in the studio, but being out in the world. There’s something really captivating about that to me.
Paste: Did the act of seeking out your own sound samples, as opposed to grabbing them from a generic sound library, make it more personal to you?
Garbus: Yeah. At a certain point I got really stubborn and decided that every single thing on the album was going to have to go through that voice recorder. The keyboard sounds, all those other samples, they would all be caught by that voice recorder. Everything you hear has that as a filter.
Paste: How long did it take you to record everything for the album?
Garbus: From the first track to the very end, it was probably two years. But the bulk of it was done in a very intense, two-week period.
Paste: How do you go about piecing the samples together in a track, choosing one sound over another?
Garbus: I started with it sort of like an improvisation—I did dorky improv comedy when I was in school, and ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of doing stuff on the fly and making choices that you can’t take back in a really high-pressure situation, the moment where you can’t go back. So many pure things happen that way, and I found myself getting really frustrated with professional studios because you really belabor every single choice, since you want it to be worth the money that you’re spending. I would layer the sounds like a moment of improvisation, and a lot of it was very fast—eliminate things I didn’t want, plug in things I did want. Because the bulk of it was done in two weeks, I had very limited time—everything was very fast. I would allow myself only one take for many of the tracks. Even with all of the imperfections, I would say, “Well, that’s how it is.” It was the reality of the moment, the moment of doing that performance, because it was flawed. Time didn’t allow for a lot of perfection.
Paste: Well, a lot of lo-fi recording is about honesty—you’re not canning your music into something overproduced and fake.
Garbus: Exactly. And a lot of the reactions I get from people about the album is exactly that—they appreciate the honesty of it. And I’m glad, because I sometimes cringe at the honesty of it. It’s really hard to hear your voice do a weird, cracky thing, but I’m more dedicated to the process of it.
Paste: What about the African influences? Tracks like “Hatari” could easily be slapped with a “world music” label.
Garbus: The answer that everyone wants to hear is that I spent six months in Kenya. The real answer is that when I was ten, my aunt and uncle went to live in Kenya and from that point on, I was really obsessed with Africa. I studied Swahili in college and just became very fascinated with East African music. Eventually I had a college radio show that played music from Africa. And then my experience living in Kenya for that time as a college exchange student, as a white kid trying to make sense of the whole situation… That for sure influenced my life and pursuits. African culture and how it interacted with American culture and my life… It’s really just an obsession. As far as African music, the only thing I officially studied was taarab, but otherwise it’s an obsession with and experience of African drumming and African dance. Probably the closest connection I’ve had to music and to life was experiencing African music and dance. It brings up a lot of complicated issues for me—appropriating music from another culture, exploiting music from a culture whose people are not generally as equipped with the resources we have here. I’ve had to wrestle with that.
Paste: It seems like you’re coming from a lot of different perspectives in this album—the African influence, some blues, some folk. Who were some of your musical influences for this particular album?
Garbus: It’s hard to say. My parents were both musicians, and I grew up with a huge record collection. My mom played harpsichord and would take us as children to a camp where she taught music. So my sister and I grew up walking in the woods, surrounded by recorder ensembles and such. My dad and mom met playing square-dances, and knew a lot of old-timey music from Appalachia. I just grew up with so many different styles of music. And of course, I grew up in a golden era of hip-hop, so I do feel connected to that. It’s sort of endless, that I’ve had so many experiences with music. Everything I hear sticks in my head.
Paste: Did any of the particular samples tell a story or have a major significance for you, or was it mostly based on how it sounded as part of the whole song?
Garbus: A little bit of both. I try not to be too precious about these things. I think it can be really easy to go into territories that are either precious or creepy. But as an example, for one track, I heard and was recording something outside, and someone was using a chainsaw. And that to me was a little creepy—a weird sound that you maybe don’t think about at first, but after a while you think, “Why am I feeling irritated and aggravated and slightly disturbed?” I think that’s how I started using sound. Not for a literal symbolism, but more of an emotional texture… things that I responded to sonically.
Paste: So it’s more of a subconscious or subliminal quality, rather than something you would be able to pick up immediately?
Garbus: Yeah, and that’s something I’m far more interested in. Lyrics that might inspire thought or feelings rather than telling you what you’re supposed to be feeling.
Paste: While we’re talking about lyrics, could you tell me a little more about your writing approach? You seem to employ a rather un-traditional method of using words as part of the collage.
Garbus: There’s a range, and I like to use sound in my lyrics. There’s a lot of nonsense on this album that maybe I just chose based on how they roll off my tongue, and having an emotional texture to them that you can’t pinpoint. A lot of times, when I’m writing a melody to a song, I really just start moving my mouth in specific ways that just feel appropriate to the sound. Lyrics just come out of that. More often than not, it’s like they’re shaped based on that, which I really have enjoyed. Sculpting with words, instead of starting with ideas, like, “This song is about this or that.” But I’m not ashamed to use words as people use them.
Paste: Are you already considering a second record?
Garbus: Oh, yeah. A good percentage of the stuff I play in my live show is new, probably seventy percent. But I’ve been on tour for the past two-and-a-half months, and I sort of promised myself that I would give myself a break. You’re catching me in my car with all of my earthly belongings, because I’m on my way to moving to Oakland, California. I’m in a transitional period. So much has happened in the past year-and-a-half. I mean, I released this album on cassette tape when I was spending a lot of time in Montreal and had another band that was touring all the time. My life has really gone from being a real scrappy D.I.Y.-type, booking all my own shows and touring the country that way, to very much being pursued by a lot of people. The album’s had such a strong reaction that I couldn’t possibly imagine doing all this by myself and saying, “Oh, this is only going to go so far, it’s just my little project.” I’m just a girl. But apparently people are interested in it. I’m just really happy I have the opportunity to make music my way.
Paste: When did you become interested in playing music?
Garbus: My mom taught me piano when I was young, and then I gave it up when I was a bratty teenager. I sang a lot in choirs and madrigal groups, and my ear grew from that. I studied theater in college and was expecting to be a theater performer for the rest of my life. At a certain point, I was working for a puppet theater in college, and I started to really question the relevance of performance. It’s relegated to theaters, where people pay a lot of money to go see it, and generally the public are not that interested in seeing performance. So I quit my job there and went on tour with my friend as her back-up singer. That was my first intro into touring. More and more, I began to realize my interest in music—I mean, I wrote a puppet opera, and I realized that it was really music that I was captivated by. There’s so much you can express through song.
Paste: And when did you fall into the patchworking method on your album?
Garbus: I had started by using four-track and eight-track recorders, and that was my very first exposure. In college, I had this weird habit of using a double-cassette player, where you could record a track on one, and then swap the tape out. So I ended up doing a lot of four-part harmony recordings with myself. That was probably my first recording. It wasn’t until my parents bought me a computer and my friends bought me a voice recorder that I realized, “Oh, I have very simple tools to make something.”
Paste: It’s pretty amazing that someone can create and record an album like this with those very simple tools, as opposed to paying heaps of money for studios and producers.
Garbus: Yeah. And there are so many engineers that I respect, understanding that they’ve gone to school for what they do and they deserve to be paid for their skill. But I think bands are often tricked into thinking that’s what they have to do—to become a viable band, they have to spend money that they don’t have. I feel proud that I did make something from nothing, or from relatively little, and that there’s so much you can do just by being resourceful.
Paste: What’s the origin of your alias, Tune-Yards?
Garbus: I wrote a song that I never recorded, where I sing, “We will fly over tune-yards in our dreams.” I really like it because personally, I’ve become enamored with the thought that songs and inspirations don’t come from a person or an artist, they come from outside of you. When I was sitting down in that creation period and editing a piece of music, it wasn’t feeling like I’m controlling it—it felt like I could access something else. I don’t mean to say that I feel like the hand of God or anything, but definitely being more of a channel than a creator. A lot of people call you things and blow smoke up your ass. Sure, I feel like I’m a good person, but I don’t feel like I’m a brilliant genius that no one else is. I just feel like I’m lucky. The name “Tune-Yards” keeps it outside of myself—that this is a place where music is created. It’s a project of mine, and I have this wonderful access to the musical world.
Paste: Do you consider yourself more of a musician, an artist, a composer…?
Garbus: I certainly would like to not be labeled, but I think all of them resonate at some point. I’m a musician. I grew up with music, it’s in my blood, and I’ve come to understand that it feels right to call myself that. I also like “artist” because I do feel like a large part of Tune-Yards is performance. There is an element of performance in the recording process that I use, but there’s also being on stage. I’ve studied so much of the effect of a performance on people, and traditions of performance, that I can’t get away from that being a large part of what I do. So that would have me labeled as a performance artist. Then there’s the recording part, in which maybe you could call me a composer. I have no formal training, but I certainly “compose” and think about the composition of the songs. To me, all of those things combine so that “artist” is a somewhat better blanket term. Aside from my feeling that there’s a level of pretension that comes with the “I am an artist” thing, I actually do feel that at the ripe old age of 30, that feels right to me in a way that it hasn’t before.