Image by Sarah Moroz
Merrill Garbus, founder of the musical project tUnE-yArDs, was sporting some serious face paint when I first saw her perform. It stretched from her left eyebrow to right cheek, transforming her into a David Bowie-esque stage warrior wielding vocal gymnastics with her deep voice. She performed instrumental acrobatics in tandem, puncturing songs with raw and visceral HAs! And WAOUs! These loops and layers imbue her music with a handmade feel and can be anthemic, almost evangelical, in their delivery.
Merrill’s music reflects a variety of influences, likely a product of her rambling life path. The singer grew up on the East Coast, studied in Africa and launched her professional music career in Montreal before moving to California. Currently, she is touring the world as the opening act for Beirut. As it turns out, she is as gracious and articulate in person as she is experimental and fascinating onstage. Post-concert in Paris, I spoke with her about the trappings of language, the importance of intuition, her love of Montreal and her favorite weirdos.
Sarah Moroz: The whoops and amazing guttural sounds you make tap into something really powerful and almost primitive. How much of that is crafted, and how much of that is just what comes out of you by surprise?
Merrill Garbus: I definitely start with intuitive stuff, with as little thinking as possible. That’s where the sound exploration really helps me, because as soon as I start thinking about things too much, they feel contrived. I always wanted tUnE-yArDs to be not contrived and really honest. I had this experience of doing real theater work and then being in the indie rock world with another band, and in both of those cases there was a sense of…it tended towards pretense, I guess. With tUnE-yArDs, I always wanted it to come from a human place that anybody could understand.
Especially these days I can experiment with the looping pedal. I have facility with it that helps me be very spontaneous. The song “Bizness,” was just an experimentation thing. It just came really naturally. Words are the thing that do require some kind of crafting, but at the same time I want to have that spontaneity with words—and even a kind of Dada aesthetic to the lyrics… It’s evoking something different than the actual meaning of the words. That’s been really challenging for me lately.
Sarah: Is it easier or more liberating to perform in front of an audience that doesn’t speak English?
Merrill: It actually feels better. It feels easier that I am communicating more with the sound of words, than actual words. There’s this one lyric: “My man likes me from behind,” and people are like, “Is it hard to say those things?” I fear that people are taking lyrics too literally. So to perform in front of people who don’t understand half of the lyrics is wonderful. Maybe that’s why I’ve enjoyed this European tour so much—maybe that’s part of it: feeling free from the meaning of the music, being more in the feeling of it.
Sarah: You started using a handheld voice recorder, spotlighting the haphazards of doings things spontaneously. Why this approach?
Merrill: I started with [the recorder] because it was a gift from friends of mine. I really just needed to get down song ideas and I had no money at the time and then these friends very nicely gave it to me. Immediately I was using it all the time to record things, but I was also like, “Oh, that sound!” It started changing what I was hearing, instead of just recording myself, and I was listening more. That summer and the summer after that, I was a nanny so I was with this kid. It was fascinating to be around him as he learned words and learned how to formulate language. So I was carrying this thing around, recording him. I loved the sound of that recorder and all of a sudden I was like, “Oh that’s OK, that sound, and it doesn’t mean I’m not a valid musician. It doesn’t mean I’m not a valid recording artist.” That was a big thing. I felt really frustrated as a puppeteer—and just frustrated in general. Then I started importing the files from [the recorder] into my computer and using free recording software to multi-track things with it. It was like working with Play-Doh! It helped to be around the kid; I think he was inspiring me to be naïve, in a way, and go back to this very basic “What do I want to hear?” What do I want to hear instead of creating something that other people want to hear? It was really important for that to be a formative theme for tUnE-yArDs.
Sarah: Your spell tUnE-yArDs with a mishmash of uppercase and lowercase letters, and onstage you wear this great face paint. It seems like you put some significant thought into creating interesting visual elements, in addition to aural ones…
Merrill: It is important to me. People are like, “What’s with the capitalization?” I think it’s an aesthetic thing more than having a great amount of meaning behind it. It’s the visual attached to it. The face paint may be a little different thing, because I think that there’s a process that I go through when I’m putting on the face paint before I go on. It’s like my first improvisation of the night. There’s some part of my brain that’s like, “Ok, this is how things are gonna be tonight” and giving myself permission to listen to the sounds I wanna hear that night, which may be way different than they were the night before. I think I need to think of sound in a visual way, so it makes sense to me to have artistic components for everything. It reflects, for me, the visual effect, the understanding of the music.
Sarah: Can you tell me a bit about living in Montreal, and being part of Sister Suvi? How was working with that band different than tUnE-yArDs?
Merrill: My feelings about Montreal run deep, because it was the first time that I really felt young, even though I was 26 when I moved there. I happened to be working at this camp the summer of 2005. I quit my puppeteering job and went to work at this camp where I met Nate Brenner, the bass player, and also my friend Patrick Gregoire. I was living at my parents’ house and I was really depressed, things were really bad. I didn’t have any reason for living, etc., etc., and then [Patrick] and I just started playing together. My mom had just given me this ukulele. So I started going up to Montreal to visit him because he was at Concordia studying music and we started a band. Patrick had this knowledge about what music could do. I didn’t have this idea that you could make a living as an artist, really at all. I thought I would be on food stamps for the rest of my life and that being an artist also meant being a reject from society. That’s really what I felt like. And he said, “Your songs are really good, and we could make money playing your songs”. We would go up to Montreal and play these shows at Café Dépanneur up on rue Bernard, and people actually came and put money in the hat and really paid attention and loved it. That show was really historic for us. And all of a sudden I thought maybe making art can actually be fun. There can be so much love in it and it can inspire love in other people. It was just the right time and the right place, and a place where the living was cheap and the people were so encouraging of what we were doing as Sister Suvi and what I was doing as tUnE-yArDs. The two began at the same time because Patrick was touring with his other band, Islands. So when he would do Islands, I would do this thing and they just both sort of grew and grew and grew.
Sarah: I read a past interview in which you stated: “I feel this stuff, so I owe it to myself to do it. Otherwise, my other option is to die.” That’s a very impassioned, powerful thing to say. What inspires you to keep up that energy; what do you draw from?
Merrill: Well, first of all, I’m glad to be reminded that I said that. Also I’m glad you didn’t say: “And I found that very overdramatic.” Though it is a dramatic thing to say. If I didn’t have this outlet, I would have gone the other way, at that point in my life. It’s funny because when you get yourself out of depression, things don’t feel as black and white anymore. But to answer your initial question—life or death—it’s like tonight, for instance. That was a hard show for me—maybe more difficult than other shows because it’s a stuffy place. It has a weight to it. It’s huge and it’s not full of tUnE-yArDs fans; it’s full of Beirut fans, so it’s just a different thing. If I wasn’t attached to this idea that it’s either this or dying, then I would get distracted by, “Oh, they don’t like me,” or “Oh, things aren’t going well,” or feeling sorry for myself instead of getting back to what feels like a more spiritual attachment to my work. I’m so fucking lucky to be a) alive and b) doing what I love as my work. It’s that kind of thing where it’s just a beautiful reminder every single day that there’s tough shit that we deal with, but it’s very minimal in the scheme of things. And it feels that I found a way live.
Sarah: You’ve said, “It’s really good for women of all ages to see other women being really weird and bizarre and loud.” Who were some of those female icons for you?
Merrill: My mom, number one. My grandma, number two, who I thought of tonight because she’d be really proud of me for playing on a stage like this, with lots of makeup on and speaking French a little bit. My mom is a piano teacher and professional pianist, but she also has incredible theatricality to her personality. I saw her be a performer a lot in her life, and my grandma too. [Also] Ani Difranco was a huge. Maybe that’s uncool to say, but that was huge for me when I was in high school to have this real violent and brazen female voice. And you know, Björk, a total weirdo in every sense of the word—again [she’s inspiring] for her art, and being accepted in this world of music and art because she’s so out there and just really doing what she feels and what she envisions. I guess Nina Simone, too, at a certain point, because of her voice. My voice is low and people are often like, “Oh, I thought you were a guy at first.” As a teenager I had a lot of gender anger, wanting to rebel against what a woman was supposed to be and yet at the same time feeling insecure about not being the woman who I felt most men were gonna be attracted to—or anybody was going to be attracted to. And Odetta, Patti Smith… There were a lot of them along the way who are really wild: Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill…the list goes.
Sarah: In terms of process, there is Owen Pallett, who also loops sounds and really builds songs from scratch. Do you know other musicians who use this technique? How did you decide that kind of DIY live process was for you?
Merrill: I don’t know enough loopers. Owen and I know each other, though I’ve never seen him play live, which is a total shame. But I don’t many other people, perhaps on purpose, who use that. White Hinterland is a band that we know. They’re friends of ours who have been using looping a lot and creating a certain layering. We had this wonderful opportunity to play with The Roots when we did a TV show in the States. They’re huge heroes of mine. I really look forward to collaborating with hip-hop artists more because I think it is a philosophy of looping and listening for sounds, and using those sounds to build a piece of art. That’s definitely an oversimplification of hip-hop, but that’s a big part of it. It’s a collage [and] I’m interested in collages of sound that reflect the present tense, To me, hip-hop is one of the only genres that does that effectively—and powerfully. I love Erykah Badu and I would love to collaborate with her. I realize that might never happen but I respect her so much. Again, she’s weird in the way that she’s just doing what she hears and feels, and she’s not paying attention to what anybody else thinks about. As a result, she’s doing really groundbreaking stuff and that’s where I want to be: on the growing edge of music.
Sarah: As you tour, are you able to be creative, given that you have to dedicate so much energy to the shows? Or do you need to carve out separate time for creativity?
Merrill: A little bit of both. I’m trying to write this new song on the road and it’s a real struggle. But then again, these days it’s a struggle at home too because there’s my laptop and my laptop is filled with business. What I’m trying to do is give myself some real time off in the next little bit, where I can get back to that sort of naïve place—not thinking about the effect. You can’t write songs thinking about how it’s going to affect your income for the next five years. I experiment a lot during sound checks with the looping pedal, and then I’m improvising that loop. That’s been really nice but that crafting part that comes after it is really hard and requires some serious sitting with a piece, sitting with myself. That’s what there’s not a lot of room for afterward—and there’s a lot of creativity that happens onstage too. If we have over an hour, it can really be this sort of sculpted thing.
Sarah: I had read that you’d like to bring attention to the African musicians you so love. What do you have planned?
Merrill: I was thinking about that just today, actually. The problem with doing interviews is that there’s a lot more talk than action! I’m talking about stuff, but then I’m on tour so my energy is divided between the music business and making music, and there’s not room for much else. But today I was thinking about what that is. I am so glad that there are these bands like Khaira Arby, this singer from Mali who I got to play with. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, because of their association with Graceland, have been touring in the States a bunch. But it’s becoming part of “indie rock,” touring circuits for these bands to come through and that’s totally amazing. Those are the bands that we have access to. It would be wonderful to open for them or collaborate with them.
When I was in Kenya, I befriended and was very much saved by a bunch of hip-hop musicians in Nairobi. They just don’t have access to the resources that we do, [but] they actually do have pretty good music videos up there. Something that I thought about was having some kind of tUnE-yArDs focused radio station, where we could feature their music and potentially release their music at some point. Again, these are huge ideas that are hard to make happen, but that would be ideal. It’s the idea of making more active the sharing of music that’s already there. Certainly they’re listening to our music, and we’re listening to theirs. That’s already happening. To open the resources that we have in the Western world—especially now that we have successful indie bands here referencing African music and making a lot of money on it, comparatively to most African musicians. There’s always this danger with Africa, even for myself, that it becomes romanticized. It probably is a very hard place to travel in, logistically, but I would also love to tour in Africa and be able to document that. It would be more to learn what’s going on there and learn about the music there. And, these days, how climate change affects people who are living on what they’re growing. I feel that I was privileged enough to be able to go there and learn the Swahili language and I want to use those things for good—idealistic as that might sound.