Left Coasting : Becoming, Herself

An interview with Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs

by Rosalea Barker

Take care of the vowels, and the D will take care of itself. That’s my advice to anyone writing about tUnE-yArDs, the brainchild of Oakland-based musician and performer Merrill Garbus. She has said that the quirky capitalization is intended, among other things, to make people “have a pause moment” and think about what they’re typing, but it feels percussive when you’re doing it—and that’s a word Rolling Stone used about her latest release, along with “raw” and “pretty”, when it chose the single “Bizness” for its Hot List in March.

Garbus recorded tUnE-yArDs’ first self-released album using a handheld dictation recorder and put it out on recycled cassette tape back in 2009. A limited edition vinyl was released by Marriage Records in June that year, and the next month tUne-yArDs was signed to independent record label 4AD, who video’d a live session with her later in 2009, and still available here. Despite sounding like there are many musicians, tUnE-yArDs is just Merrill Garbus and her musical partner Nate Brenner, who plays bass guitar. You can watch an interview with the choreographer for the “Bizness” video here, and see the video here:

The first thing that struck me when I read about Merrill’s background was that she was from New England and went to a women-only liberal arts college—a uniquely American institution. Back in 2007, I’d interviewed another young woman of a similar background who had made a decision just to go for it in her chosen field and had risen to national prominence. Sarah Olson, then living in San Francisco, decided to be a radio reporter and her May 2006 interview with First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, who refused to be deployed to Iraq on the grounds that the war was “manifestly illegal” and his deployment would make him “party to war crimes”, had embroiled her in a high-profile national dialogue about the freedom of the press. Just what is it about women-only colleges that creates such independent, determined, and free-thinking individuals, I wondered.

Here’s Merrill’s reply : “It’s hard to put into words. It was just a priceless experience for me, I think. When I look at the person—the girl—that I was in high school and how immensely insecure I was, and incredibly quiet and shy, and then really I was transformed, I think, truly through my time at a women’s college, to start to feel a bit angry about why I was so shy and why I didn’t feel free to just be myself. Certainly, I learned that there. Or I was in the process of learning that there—of becoming independent and becoming my own person. I also think just the nature of the fact that we were in the school, we’d made the choice quite different from a typical university, to be surrounded by all women and to really focus absolutely on an education as a woman. I think just that choice, in and of itself, brought together these women who were making unusual choices. So there we were, a lot of very unique women, and a lot of headstrong women. It was just such a wonderful place to be, to grow up, I guess. “

Why did you end up in Oakland?

Mostly for love, although it just made sense. I moved here to be with my partner, but at the same time, I was living illegally in Canada for the most part. I wasn’t exactly illegal, but I was living in Montreal and I’m an American, so it became harder and harder to cross the border and to answer all these questions. So, it was just time. And I’d also recently stopped being a part of another band that started with someone in Montreal. So all of a sudden I was very independent and able to go wherever I needed to.

Given the vocal work you do, do you drink anything—like slippery elm bark—for your throat?

I’m a fan of zinc lozenges, actually, when I’m feeling a scratch in my throat. But as far as a “singer’s elixir” or something like that, I don’t really. I drink a ton of water and I don’t drink alcoholic beverages when I’m on tour, which has been pointed out to me as something that is really dangerous for the voice. It’s mostly what I don’t do, I guess. I don’t eat sugar. It’s mostly a health thing, and tons of water.

The long-time music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle recently said that the amount of self-promotion bands can now do using the Internet means that the Artists and Repertoire side of record companies are now much smaller. Have you found that getting with 4AD has helped you?

In the A&R way? Yes. I think the stubborn part of me that wanted to do this all by herself wants the answer to that question to be No, but they have been wonderful. They really have grown tUnE-yArDs from something that was just me, something that I could handle, into something that I very clearly can’t handle by myself. It’s grown into a very large adventure. In an A&R way, I don’t feel that they are guiding my creative sense, and I think for other bands that’s true—the A&R person makes artistic recommendations that influence the band. 4AD is very good at backing off creatively, while making these suggestions that really, on a business level, are very wise. They know how to promote records in a way that I never ever in my life would have learned on my own.

Do you ever feel impelled to consciously dial back on the influences—Afrobeat, dub, reggae—and more mark the territory plainly as your own, or does the balance between influences and your individuality just come naturally?

I find it a dangerous place to make one’s influences apparent, but at the same time I feel almost a compulsion to be very honest about where things come from. It’s a very fine line—and I’ve talked about this before in interviews. It’s a fine line between, like What is stealing in music? Most musicians will say everyone steals from each other, there’s nothing that original anyway, so why even go into the issue of stealing. But I think when you’re taking things from cultures that might not be represented well in the world or might not have a voice to say “Hey! That’s ours, and you’re getting this from us, and—most importantly—you’re making money off of our sound,”

I think that’s a really touchy subject. Whether or not I’m going to refrain from putting into action the sounds that I hear in my head, I don’t think I can do that. I think I can address people who accuse me of thievery and have a conversation with them (hopefully), but I’m not sure that I can hold back. I guess the other thing I should say is that I’m not in any way looking to go through as many albums from as many countries in the world and just snip from them. That’s not how I feel my music came into being. But, yeah, I understand it’s a grey area, the place where my music lies, where the influences and then my own voice sort of collide.

Are there any subtle touches on the latest album that you’re particularly proud of?

In the song “Power”, I was feeling really dissatisfied with the recording somehow. I just didn’t feel done, and after the bridge section I added this three-part harmony of my voice just singing an “Ah”, and I was really proud of that. It fills this need that I had for that song really well, so that’s a little minor detail that I really love.

Is there any song in particular where you feel you made the best use of working in a studio, using a bigger canvas and extra tools?

I think “Bizness” is pretty clearly a studio sound. Maybe that’s the wrong way to put it, but “Bizness” I tried to do on my own in our little studio on our very limited recording equipment that we own, and it just didn’t sound very… and I think that was one that I really wanted to push out into outer space. I really wanted it to have a bigger space to live in. That was the one song that I just knew needed more than I could give it. So that’s one where I definitely feel I benefitted.

Do you ever just want to go out there in a nice frock and sing ‘Summertime’, and knock the audience out with the real simple stuff?

Never! [laughter] What a funny question. No, I absolutely never feel that compulsion. I feel neither the song, nor wearing a frock, nor trying to make my voice simply sound beautiful instead of all the other complicated things that it has in it. No. But that’s a really interesting question. I think that many people just wish that I would do that.

I’m also researching a story about music delivery systems (for want of a better phrase), and I wonder what your favorite is.

I guess I’ll have to speak up for the cassette tape, because that was a big part of my growing up. I do love the cassette tape in the way where you’re asked, with a cassette tape, to listen to an entire album. The songs ran into each other, and it was of great importance which song came after which song. The order was important, the transitions were important, and also just a sense of, wherever you were, you were listening to an album versus a bunch of different separate songs. And I also just love the hiss, the familiar hiss of the cassette tape. So I’ll choose that.

I subscribe to Pandora, and when I looked at why it chose to play “Fiya” (from tUnE-yArDs’ first album) it provided a long list of musical characteristics, ranging from 12/8 time signature, acoustic rhythm guitars, triple note feel, and so on. To what degree do you analyse music? You have a background as a musical ethnologist, is that right?

Not an official one. I’ve studied some, but not officially, no. I studied mostly theatre and then I did study some music when I was living in Kenya during my semester abroad. But other than that, no. I wish!

But you don’t sort of analyse what you want to do?

No, I don’t think so. It’s interesting that you say that, because actually Nate Brenner, who plays bass in tUnE-yArDs, is one of those analysts who works at Pandora. Pandora is located here in Oakland. I dropped out of music theory class when I was in school and since then have really… The closest I get to categorization is knowing that I want to provide an album that has songs that have a different feel and different keys. I think I got that from my parents, who are both musicians, and if two songs on an album were together and they were both in the key of C, they’d say, “Mmmm. They only know how to write in one key.”

I got that sense that music is there to be explored and not to stay in one place, not to get stuck in a rut, but really to push my own boundaries.

Editor’s note : the presence and influence of TUnEyArDs is also apparent on this new track by Thao and Mirah called “Eleven”