tUnE-yArDs: Transition with a Capital "T"

Music Features tUnE-yArDs
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Hometown: Oakland, Calif.
Album: w h o k i l l
Sole Permanent Member: Merrill Garbus
For Fans Of: Dirty Projectors, The Books, Animal Collective

“This is Merrill.”

Merrill Garbus’ voice is calm and clear, but as the tUnE-yArDs frontwoman greets me on the phone from her Oakland, Calif. studio, I’m briefly taken aback as I realize I was half-expecting her to yell at me.

If you’re familiar with the 32-year-old’s work, you’ll know this isn’t as unreasonable as it sounds. Although she can do ethereal and understated better than most, Garbus is truly in her element when she’s belting, her hurricane of a voice ripping through a uniquely layered soundscape of ukulele, bass, saxophone and percussion.

For w h o k i l l, her sophomore LP that dropped via 4AD back in April, the genre-defying singer ventured into the studio after recording her debut (the decidedly lo-fi BiRd-BrAiNs) on a digital voice recorder.

“It felt like being naked a bit, you know, because I’m used to working by myself all the time,” she says. “To sort of expose other people to the neuroses of my process makes me feel exposed, but it was good for me, and I can already tell how I’ve grown through that experience for sure.”

Garbus—who, in addition to providing tUnE-yArDs’ Afropop-infused powerhouse vocals, handles all ukulele and drum duties—labored over the decision to expand the sound.

“I didn’t want to let go of that lo-fi aesthetic, and at the same time I knew that I started with that way of recording with a voice recorder, and I had begun that so long ago that I was outgrowing it in a lot of ways,” she says. “One way was the speed of it. It was very, very slow and time-consuming, and I just felt like the musical ideas were flowing faster than that concept would allow.”

“It was a process,” she continues, “and the whole time, I was like, ‘What am I—what are tUnE-yArDs supposed to sound like?’ You know, ‘Am I going to lose all my first fans by not releasing a recycled cassette tape version of this album as I did before? Or is this the sort of natural progression to change?’”

Change, as it turns out, fueled much of w h o k i l l. Race, violence and privilege are all recurring themes on the record, largely a result of a series of shifts in Garbus’ life.

“Moving here to Oakland, a lot of those things are very much in your face. I think when I started the first album, I was living in Vermont and you know, it was a different set of concerns,” she says, laughing wryly. “Living in Vermont and Montreal, they’re very insulated worlds in a lot of ways, and then I came out here, and you’re very much forced to confront your community and your sort of societal situation, and socially it’s a lot more confrontational out here. So I was just finding that place in my new life, and also my new life professionally, my new life personally, there was so much stuff that just completely changed.

“Certainly it’s a violent place around here, but there’s also a violence in that kind of change. You’re damaging or destroying or killing elements of your old life.”

There’s such a strength to Merrill Garbus’ voice that it’s hard to believe she’d have any interest in destroying herself. On “Killa,” she proudly declares, “I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a new kind of woman, I’m a don’t-take-shit-from-you kind of woman.” It’s nearly impossible to listen to a tUnE-yArDs track and not feel empowered, so it must follow that that’s a part of her mission as an artist, to become some sort of Gaga-esque symbol of self-love and reassure legions of devoted fans that they’re perfect the way they are—right?

“I think unfortunately, it’s more selfish than that,” she laughs. “I realized a long time ago that I didn’t want to do something for other people generally in my life, and I think that does apply to the audience, although it’s funny because of course I depend on my audience, and that kind of support and showing and people being enthusiastic about the music is totally what I need to keep going in my career for sure, but in terms of the actual music…”

She pauses. All of a sudden her tone shifts, and for the first time, I can hear just the slightest waver in her otherwise-steady voice. “You know, I need help to affirm my life, my existence on the planet. I need help to not have my day just be a bundle of anxiety and shame and scorn and hatred and fear. And so I need this outlet of creating something which sort of represents the best about life, which to me is joy and dancing and celebration and being grateful for being alive. And that sounds high and mighty, I guess, but that is how I’ve tended to go about it.

“You know, a friend of mine was like, ‘I think right now 85 percent of my day, I want to be alive. The other 15 percent, I want to die. But 85 percent of the time ain’t bad!’ And I think I’ve found that that’s what I need; I just need to keep hanging onto that 85 percent. So, very selfishly, it would be great if other people got that kind of experience from it, but I need it, and I would do it by myself in my basement if I had to, but it turns out that sharing it with other people also becomes a very huge part of the celebration itself.”

Garbus grew up surrounded by music (her mother’s a pianist, and her father plays fiddle), and while experimenting with sound helped her cope with a painful young adulthood, the Smith College grad—who studied theater in school—never really thought of it as a potential career until later in life.

“I think a lot of it sort of chose me,” she explains. “Really it was sort of just that I was so depressed in my mid-twenties that all I could really bring myself to do was play my ukulele lonely in my room, so I think a lot of it was sort of accidental, and in a lot of ways, I felt like I had no other choice. I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t see what I was going to do, so I just kind of ended up doing this thing that turned out OK.”

So far, it’s turned out a little better than OK: her colorful music video for “Bizness,” (click the “play” symbol above to watch) choreographed by Sonia Reiter, currently has over 800,000 views on YouTube (“I really wanted to have a video that evoked that “Thriller” pyramid dance moment, but in a really new and sort of post-modern way,” she says); she’s already at work recording a follow-up to w h o k i l l, and last week, she made her network TV debut with The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

For the time being at least, Garbus’ live show is a whirlwind of loops and pedals, as she and bassist Nate Brenner recreate the album’s tracks without the help of a backing band. However, as her sound continues to expand, the singer says she’s open to the idea of bringing on more musicians—although don’t expect her group to grow to Arcade Fire size just yet.

“That’s been a whole other process of [deciding] who to bring on tour and not get overzealous and say ‘Now we need 20 people and an orchestra to really get the full power of this set’ or whatever,” she says. “As much as I’d love to have some people take over some of the stuff I do because there’s a lot of high pressure, I also think there’s a lot that people get from that, that just I on my own can create a whole bunch of sounds and a whole bunch of rhythm and a whole bunch of danceability. I think that that’s a really neat part of the show to me and to the audience, so for the time being that will definitely remain a part of the show, but I can hear it in the new stuff that I’m writing that of course there’s room for more…We just need to see how I can pay people fairly and make a living and create the band that I want to create.”

It makes sense, in a way, that Garbus is open to collaborating. Her belief in music’s ability to bring people together is clear (“[It] was really the only strong community that I actually felt in my life,” she says), and she’s constantly blending together a seemingly never-ending list of influences to create her unique sound.

“Music is sort of a baseline for me in a way that I didn’t really understand until I started doing it and realized, ‘Oh yeah, this has been sort of ingrained in me for a very long time,’” she says. “I would say my mom playing Bach a lot when I was very young, that sort of became a kind of spiritual experience for me, I think.”

She continues, choosing her words carefully so as not to step on the toes of sonic non-believers: “I’ve sort of had these moments throughout my life where music means everything to me, and I think it’s true for a lot of music lovers that there are these religious pairings where music means everything to them.”

The new album, which is tentatively due out “late 2012 or early 2013 if we’re all still alive after the apocalypse,” according to a laughing Garbus, will likely fuel music fans’ passions by bringing some joyful noise and getting them moving—celebrating that precious 85 percent of the time when we feel like being alive.

“I think a lot of what’s been going on for me is definitely more music for dancing,” she says. “That’s become a real priority for me.”

While she’s hesitant to go into too much detail so early in the recording process, Merrill Garbus does cheerily concede one indisputable fact:

“You’re catching me at an exciting moment.”

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