Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs earns street cred with edgy and experimental pop
Though 33-year-old Merrill Garbus is the master of mimicking sounds, has the ability to sing in all sorts of pitches—first apparent in tUnE-yArDs’ 2009 debut, BiRd-BrAiNs—and is frequently decked out in eye-catching face paint, that’s about as far as her relation to birds goes.
“I like imitating things with my voice,” says Garbus. “There is something pleasurable about that—this idea that I’m not stuck with having to be any one voice, but that I can be free to explore that voice.” Though born and raised in Connecticut, the singer/songwriter is now thoroughly thriving in Oakland, Calif., a city which, along with the rest of the Bay Area, Garbus finds both fashionable and liberating.
Garbus’ latest creation, a “breakthrough,” as she excitedly calls it, actually has nothing to do with her vocal cords. While crafting scores for several silent films, Garbus cooked up a rather unusual musical styling. Only two objects were involved: a pot and a cymbal. For Garbus, the resulting noise was both dissonant and alluring—“It sounds like the whole kitchen’s falling down!”
This isn’t the first time that her music has dabbled in the culinary arts, however. On tUnE-yArDs’ Myspace, Garbus describes her sound as: “Your mom when she gets really mad but instead of whoopin' yo' ass she starts making crazy-ass beats with the pots and pans AND yo' ass.”
This chronic disorderly kitchen metaphor reveals two truths: that Garbus’ parents are both musicians (though her mom plays a more classic, less confrontational instrument: the piano), and that the world in which a woman finds herself in, is often too unruly to be limited to such a small space. On sophomore album, w h o k i l l—originally conceptualized as “Women Who Kill,” before Garbus’ parents pleaded with her to change the title—released in April 2011, you can view just about every tUnE-yArDs track (not just the fifth, “riotriot”) as a form of personal protest.
A few particularly powerful songs include album closer “killa,” in which Garbus—a graduate of Smith College, the all-women’s liberal arts school in Massachusetts—sings, rather rap-like: “I’m a new kinda woman/ I’m a new kinda woman/ I’m a don’t take shit from you kinda woman.” Then she later proclaims, “I’m a new kinda woman/ I’m a new kinda woman/ I’m a lemon not a black-and-blue kinda woman.” Surprisingly, the playful presence of ukulele, korg, and a drum machine doesn’t distract from Garbus’ biting and empowering lyrics when paired with Nate Brenner’s ominous basslines.
The declarations continue when Garbus sings, “all my violence is here in the sound,” during a chaotic combination of African-based yodeling and social commentary on what is and is not “hip.” Out of frustration, she shouts, “I’m so hip I cannot take it!”
Garbus’ tough persona shines through on the album’s third track, “Gangsta,” especially in the official music video directed by Garbus herself. Though subdued in color—scenes are shot in black and white—the song is anything but low key. Garbus loops her vocals, allowing for a police siren-like sound to repeat throughout the track, setting a dire and dangerous tone. She is a force to be reckoned with as she dances in a residential area with a black hood on, illuminated by streetlights and spouting threatening lyrics, like “Never move to my hood ’cause danger is crawling out the wood,” and “Life in the city makes more sense when Jesus calls me daddy,” which portray the narrator as entirely autonomous.
tUnE-yArDs’ most extreme demonstration of autonomy dates back to the release of BiRd-BrAiNs, in which Garbus’ creativity paired with her concern for the environment established her as an artist who can both walk the walk and talk the talk. Although the debut album has been available in CD form for years, this wasn’t always the case.
“I know it’s crazy to make an album with one digital voice recorder, [but] it felt like a new, old way,” Garbus says, referring to the production of BiRd-BrAiNs. “At that time when I finished BiRd-BrAiNs, I had absolutely no interest in releasing it on CD. For me, creating plastic made no sense at all … I want to be part of changing the music industry and how we manufacture music.”
Garbus defends her initial efforts to release a more eco-friendly album by recycling old cassettes, but she admits that the plan was flawed. “Taking my ’90s mixes and taping over them—I realized I was limiting myself,” she says. As a result, Garbus eventually yielded to plastic in order to re-release BiRd-BrAiNs. “It was a chance for me to reach more people with my music.”
Ultimately, the decision proved to be a win-win for Garbus and tUnE-yArDs fans alike—the crackles and whirrs echoing throughout the album harken back to the old cassette days. The re-release also included two additional tracks: “want me to” and “real live flesh.” But all of the other noteworthy tunes are still there, including “news” and “hatari,” the latter meaning “danger” in Swahili: a language Garbus was fluent in during her Smith College study abroad trip to Kenya.
You can hear the African influence seeping through both tUnE-yArDs albums. According to Garbus, “I’m often drawn by vocal music, Central-African music, music of the pygmy people … a kind of yodel,” in addition to “Eastern European choirs with more abrasive, nasal [noises].”
Admired for her endless inventiveness—“I am rarely bored … I probably should be bored more often,” she admits—there’s no telling what Garbus has planned for her forthcoming show at The Rio Theatre on April 12. But one thing’s for sure, Santa Cruz is in for a treat.
Asked how she feels about her current tour, Garbus says with a laugh, “I’m an early bird forced into a night owl existence—I’m tired all the time. A rock ’n’ roller’s gotta be up past their bedtime.” Perhaps it’s time to retract that earlier statement about birds.
tUnE-yArDs plays at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 12 at The Rio, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20. For more information, call 423-8209.
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