Merrill Garbus: Nobody’s Puppet
tUnE-yArDs’ Uncompromising Vision Becomes the Perfect Vehicle
My month-long pursuit of Merrill Garbus comes to a happy conclusion at the Oakland DMV. The woman behind the wildly inventive and borderline indescribable tUnE-yArDs moved to the Bay Area about 18 months ago, and recently learned that “apparently this means that for a year and five months I’ve been driving illegally.” So Garbus stoically commits a rare day of downtime to the marathon process of securing a California license before leaving the next afternoon for Belgium – a journey that sadly proved moot as tUnE-yArDs had been on the bill for the Pukkelpop Festival that was cancelled after a fatal stage collapse. She proves to be a warm and approachable woman, in contrast to the complex, confrontational image she conveys on record.
It’s hard to imagine Oakland’s finest having many chances to nail Merrill on this driving technicality. She’s been touring incessantly since April’s release of the excellent w h o k i l l, a compelling personal vision that will deservedly dot many Best of 2011 lists in a couple months’ time. tUnE-yArDs built momentum with 2009’s debut Bird-Brains, a resolutely one-woman lo-fi recording that was initially self-released before being picked up and expanded by 4AD. But Vermont native Garbus didn’t anticipate this crush of attention when she headed west.
“I had been living illegally in Montreal,” she explains by phone while patiently waiting in queue. “My old band was in the process of losing steam and breaking up, it was a time of change.” That old band, Sister Suvi, was a knotty indie rock trio whose one disc rides some of tUnE-yArDs’ percussive shadings but remarkably does little to capitalize on Garbus’ captivating voice.
“The shift I’ve gone through in the past year and a half has been pretty unfathomable,” she marvels. “Quite a change from eating popcorn for dinner.” Before you picture too many rock riches, however, the nomadic Garbus adds, “I have an apartment here, but it’s the size of a hallway closet. I think it literally may have been a hallway at one point.”
For those unfamiliar with tUnE-yArDs, a confident and heavily improvised recent performance of the propulsive “Gangsta” alongside the Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (the clip is readily available online) serves as an ideal introduction, down to shots of the barefooted Garbus pounding pedals to create the rhythm loops that are integral to the band’s sound. “?uestlove asked to play with us, which was a total honor,” she beams. “We had met the Roots before when we played with the Dirty Projectors. They’re such professionals they can play anything at any time. ?uestlove knew the tune, so he just sat down and was ready to go. I asked Black Thought if he could rap over the part with my grandparents’ voices and he said OK, how many bars is it? And I was like, ‘Um, not only are there no bars but there’s no rhythm….’ The way we play it the beat drops out and there’s just these abstract counts. It’s hard to tell unless you watch closely, but ?uestlove’s in the back clapping the beat for him, and Black Thought did it seamlessly. I was awestruck.”
Given the insanely diverse range of influences on w h o k i l l (from M.I.A. to Afropop to ’70s soul to hard bop) it’s reasonable to wonder what’s on Garbus’ personal playlist – and it’s one of the few questions that causes this forthcoming woman to squirm. “I always feel ashamed of how little music I listen to when I’m asked this,” she admits. “I’m finding that I need silence a lot these days – I realize that it’s too easy for me to imitate because I absorb sound a lot. But here in Oakland on the radio I listen to a lot of old-school hip hop and disco and funk tunes from the ’70s.” This makes me feel a little less nuts for recalling Songs in the Key of Life whenever listening to w h o k i l l, as Garbus acknowledges it’s one of her favorites. “Yeah, Stevie Wonder’s all over the place.”
But perhaps what makes tUnE-yArDs so interesting is that much of Garbus’ perspective comes from outside the typical rock/rap/soul oeuvre. Graduating with a theater degree from Smith College, Garbus never had designs on a career in music. “I joined the Sandglass Theater in Vermont, and pretty quickly starting touring with them. I was hired as a sound technician and they wrote me into being on stage and performing. So pretty immediately out of school I was making money as a performer and touring, in a puppet show. It was ensemble based theater, no script, focused on the group as a whole, which is why I sought out that job. You really needed to breathe together – three people would be on one puppet, I started on the bottom end. So I kind of majored in puppetry but got a ton of knowledge about being on stage too.”
Not that music was ever absent from the equation. “I was in a cappella groups and heavily involved in that in college, but it was always a pastime and never something that occurred to me as a career,” she explains. “My mom’s a piano teacher and my dad plays old timey folk music on various instruments. Both have done it professionally, so music’s always been there.”
Sure enough, a voice as expressive and varied as Garbus’ doesn’t emerge without some modicum of training. “In high school I had a wonderful choral director, who gave us pretty basic classical voice lessons. I now realize how incredibly valuable that training was. There’s a lot of vocal production for the stage, but it’s more about your speaking voice and projection. Theater people can get real weird real fast. The Roy Hart Theater, based in France, had this really intense vocal exploration training, where you start on the floor cooing like a baby.
“I was exposed to the idea there was this inner voice there to be freed – and that’s how I approach it now. There are wild sounds I can access, getting away from the affectation of a singer’s voice. I like walking that line of ugliness and grotesque vocal qualities and the expectation of what a woman’s voice is supposed to sound like in our culture.” She spends more of her time on w h o k i l l on the tuneful end of the continuum, even while ranging from the breathy Roberta Flack soul of the brilliant “Riotriot” (which plays like a four-minute synopsis of Spike Lee’s classic film Do the Right Thing) to her guttural wails on “Gangsta” and “Bizness.” “A lot of my interest in music comes from new dance forms, and I’m always searching for quote unquote ‘world music’ that I’ve not been exposed to yet,” she continues, mentioning a current fascination with the Korean Pansori vocal style, “a traditional grief-ridden way of story telling.”
For those who subscribe to the notion that great art emerges from suffering and/or a “nothing to lose” abandon, Garbus provides a case study. “I was extremely depressed for most of my twenties. And what better thing to do when you’re depressed but sit alone writing sad songs on a ukulele your mom just gave you?” she laughs, able to be self-effacing from this distance. “I was extremely discouraged about being an artist in the world. I had lived on food stamps and out of my car, there were some bleak times. I decided that if I was going to be going through all this I needed to be doing it for my own art. That was sort of the crossover to my own solo puppet show, The Fat Kid Opera, which was the first time I picked up the ukulele and started composing. And I realized the songwriting part felt like the happiest thing I was doing. So I’m like, ‘I’m going to go back and move back in with my parents, be a sad 26-year old.’ And in the process I got a summer job as a counselor at an arts camp teaching puppetry and theater, and I met some amazing friends there.” Two of those friends were Patrick Gregoire, who soon became one of her bandmates in Sister Suvi, and Nate Brenner, whose jazz-inflected bass playing is at the heart of w h o k i l l and who was instrumental to coaxing tUnE-yArDs out of Bird-Brains’ hermetic one-woman-band status. “So I kind of jumped off a cliff and luckily it turned out all right.”
Recently tUnE-yArDs has been touring as a quartet, with a pair of stabbing, bleating saxophonists joining the fray. Is this continuing expansion a sign of things to come? “I don’t know – Nate asked me that same question just last night,” Garbus claims. “I guess it depends on the music that I write from now on. It’s such a totally different position to be in than when I first started recording, in that people are actually paying attention and are invested in what I do. But it’s nice to have that flexibility – there’s room for things to get pared down a bit more, or to expand.” Given that Garbus and Brenner are romantically as well as musically entangled (he was the impetus for her move to Oakland) the bassist’s gig seems secure, however – he also shares writing credit on a couple of the album’s highlights.
On stage, Garbus and band tend to appear in smatterings of face paint, a conceit she ties to her theater background. “It’s not as specific as trying to take on a persona or change into a character, but it does give you a sense of boundary. I’m generally a shy person who would maybe prefer to be introverted, and there I am in front of people needing to be very loud.”
“That was a big part of tUnE-yArDs in the beginning – being by myself, getting close to my feelings and pouring them out.” And she acknowledges that being an introvert on the road has its challenges. “Sadly, a lot of people in our field find relief in alcohol and drugs and cigarettes because that’s the easiest way to calm your nerves when you’re around other people. Because we’re not into that we focus instead on getting good sleep, and finding moments of quiet and peace where we can. If it didn’t make me so incredibly happy, having this freedom of expression, I wouldn’t be able to do it. To be making a good living at it, I’m certainly not going to whine about it – I realize how lucky I am.”
Somehow Garbus found time within her busy schedule to produce the recent album by Thao and Mirah, including penning the lead track that bears her unmistakable imprint. “Thao took me on my first tUnE-yArDs tour. I had met her in Montreal, and she stayed at my apartment with her band. I gave her a CD of the first three tUnE-yArDs songs I did, and she invited me to join them on the road. I had never met Mirah before, but we all very quickly became closer friends – it was a pretty intense process. The production side is a strong interest of mine, especially as I get older and see how the touring life can wear you down.”
A lot more people have been exposed to tUnE-yArDs than realize it, as the crescendo of perhaps her single most moving track – “Fiya,” from debut Bird-Brains – was used in a Blackberry Torch commercial. As an old-school artist raised in a counterculture family, not surprisingly Garbus had mixed emotions about this opportunity. “Independent filmmakers working for the company chose it, they’d synched it with their footage before we spoke and felt very strongly about using it. It was a decision that I never thought I’d make but there I was, with an opportunity to pay off all the debt I’d incurred over all those years as a semi-employed artist in one stroke. It was a hard decision, and I’m not sure what I’ll do if I’m ever offered something like that again in the future. I tweeted about it to my fans, and nearly all the responses were positive. But it’s a little disturbing to me that people aren’t questioning it more. I felt conflicted for a long time afterward. But on top of the debt, it allowed me to record w h o k i l l with my own resources, so it afforded me a real independence.”
Finally, now that I’ve subjected you (and our graphic designer) to the awkward capitalization for a full article, here’s Merrill’s take on tUnE-yArDs’ punctuation: “It started as a MySpace mechanism for getting attention, because it looked different. I never get angry when people don’t do the alternate capitalization. But to me words are also visual, and the visual component to what I do is important. I like that people have to stop and think ‘Uh oh, what am I supposed to do with this? I’m mad about having to use the shift key.’ They have to go through this exchange with themselves – I like causing that friction and thought. But it’s also stupid and doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
On the other hand, tUnE-yArDs’ music means plenty, and the days of needing to resort to punctuation gimmicks for attention are long past.
Photo by Anna M. Campbell.