An Interview With tUnE-yArDs: 'Get People's Attention or Die'

An occasionally embarrassing chat with the one-woman feral folk sensation

Tune-Yards—which, if you're feeling typographically adventurous, you are welcome to render, per her preference, as tUnE-yArDs—is the alias of one Merrill Garbus, a one-woman dervish of astounding vivacity and volatility. Her debut album, Bird Brains (or, for the adventurous, BiRd-BrAiNs), vacillates between sweet, ukulele-plucking sensitivity and feral, kitchen-sink-percussive catharsis, homemade and intimate and lo-fi but very, very high-intensity.

Great record, yes. But the live show is truly stupendous. Backed only by a demure, unobtrusive bassist, Garbus uses loop pedals to build raucous drumbeats and harmonizing choirs, purring and snarling and braying like a wild animal. Watching a previously unfamiliar crowd pass instantly from shock to bewilderment to delight to delirium to complete infatuation is an unbeatable sensation; the climax of "Hatari," in which she cuts through an urban-safari maelstrom and howls, a cappella, "There is a natural sound that wild things make when they're bound/It rumbles in the ground/GRRRRRAH GRRRRRAH, we all fall down," is both heart-stopping and life-affirming. Recently, I chatted with the native New Englander from her new home in Oakland, California; here are some excerpts.

I gotta say, I feel like you would be the raddest preschool teacher ever. Maybe that's what I should be someday! That sounds like a great career. But thank you. What makes you say this?

I just picture a bunch of little kids running around in face paint growling, "GRRRRRAH GRRRRRAH." It just seems like a really good time. I don't know for sure, but I think I had a pretty good time when I was in preschool, so maybe a lot of that stuff came back out again. That's really funny. I keep getting asked things in interviews about kids, the childlike lyrics or whatever it is. It's fun. I'm glad that that stuff is in there. Better that than a lot of other things that could be my influences.

I first saw you at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, opening for the Dirty Projectors. The crowd was sort of aloof and indifferent when you started, and then totally rapt and in love with you by the time you were done. Do you have a sense onstage of winning over a crowd like that? Can you feel that bond intensifying in real-time? Yeah, definitely. I went to school for theater at Smith College—I definitely honed the ability to demand attention. I guess I've become less comfortable with waiting for it. When I first started doing music, I was doing open mics, which were a similar kind of thing, like, "Get people's attention or die": Get people's attention in the first five minutes—or 30 seconds—or be ignored and not get any tips. And also street performance, which I did in the subways in Montreal. It's a survival technique for sure, and now I feel like I've come to make that part of the thing. It doesn't always happen, but it happens 90 percent of the time these days, and I have a feeling that's because I do demand that of audiences. I say, "If you're here, then be here. If you're here, then be part of this thing, or walk out of this room, which is also fine."

These are really intimate songs, very revealing personally and sometimes sexually. Is there any hesitation or adjustment in performing them for increasingly larger and more enthusiastic crowds of people? Has your approach to these songs or feelings about them changed at all? That is an interesting question. Yeah. I mean, yes and no. First of all, a lot of the album songs I don't perform, not for intimacy reasons, but because they're songs that live on a more intimate level—songs that don't really translate in a bigger performance space. A lot of the new songs I've had to write on the road, because my life has been on the road. It hasn't been that kind of, "Let me sit in my bedroom and write songs about being lonely and about reflecting on my childhood and my life." That time is gone for now. Maybe it will come back. Now, there's the "Do you want to live?" song, which is very much screaming at myself, but also at an audience. They're sort of more audience-aware songs for sure.

But in terms of subject matter, I don't know. I feel like, if I can perform these songs in front of my parents—which I have—then the subject matter . . . it's not about me enough for me to feel embarrassed or squeamish about playing these songs, because whatever the voice is in my songs, it's usually not 100 percent mine.

I actually read somewhere that you have PG versions of a few of your songs, just in case your parents are at a show and you'd rather them not hear you singing, "My man likes me from behind." Is that true? Wow. That's a really embarrassing question. Congratulations, you've won your journalism prize for the day.

Is that a prize? I think it is. You're asking hard-hitting questions! I did once have a PG version of that song, and then I just thought, "OK . . ." It was actually my boyfriend who was like, "You just gotta do it in front of whomever. These are the songs. Don't change anything." So I figured if he was OK with it, I had to be OK with it, too. It's not my voice entirely, so that gives me freedom to say a lot of things.

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