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.

That a cappella breakdown in "Hatari"—the "GRRRRRAH GRRRRRAH" part—it feels really poignant, really important to you. What is that song about? I will try not to say what it's about, because it can be about so many different things. I don't think my lyrics are about anything, necessarily. I will tell you that. Some of these songs are so far . . . understand that I wrote some of these at least two years ago, so it's interesting to access who I was at that particular moment.

"There is a natural sound that wild things make when they're bound": I spent time in Africa . . . I grew an obsession with African music, before I was in Africa and afterward. It's more my feeling of being an American and experiencing Africa as an American, so the entirety of that song is about me being in Kenya—me traveling around Kenya, me living there.

So the breakdown is this sense of freedom versus non-freedom, of a wild thing being caged. And that's both me and my perception of what was going to happen to me in Africa. I really thought that I was going to be dancing half-naked to Paul Simon's "I Know What I Know" on the savannah. So the song is grappling with what actually happened—which is not that—but also that same sense that I had of what I wanted, what I wanted as a 20-year-old. I wanted freedom from myself and all the things that had caged me in. I also, when I was there, wanted Africans to not be caged in by American policy and by the globalization of the world and how it works. So there's my personal connection, and a political connection that I'm always trying to grapple with.

There's a lot of hand-wringing lately about Vampire Weekend, how they're mostly white kids accused of blithely stealing or appropriating African music. As someone with a lot of African influences in your own work, do you see any difference between being influenced by that stuff as opposed to being influenced by folk or hip-hop? Is it something you have to be more careful with? I don't know if "careful" is the word. I don't think anyone should be careful as an artist or in music—I think that they should, however, engage in the discussion. . . . Do they talk about it, Vampire Weekend?

Yeah, they do. The image that people have of Vampire Weekend is that they're very rich, Ivy League kids who are just sort of dabbling. They're sort of dilettantes in playing with music and cultures that they couldn't possibly understand. I don't know if that's fair, but that's the accusation. I'm just wondering if your own work, dealing with African influences, if it's something that you're careful with, respectful with, because people have stronger feelings about it. I don't care about people—I care about what I tell people. In other words, I don't care about offending people, but I want people to accuse me of stealing African music, and I want to then engage in a discussion with them about it. I think that's incredibly important.

For a long time, especially after coming back from Africa, that was part of my deep depression: I can't do anything. I love this music. I feel a great connection to Africa, and yet I have no right to speak Swahili, which, at that point, I did. I have no right to be myself, to let out any of the things that were inside of me. Through doing BiRd-BrAiNs—through doing music for the past few years—that has been a process for me to be like, "OK, that's in there, I hear this stuff, and I feel this stuff, so I owe it to myself to do it. Otherwise, my other option is to die."

Therefore, in order to work through this, the only way to be responsible about it is to then engage with Africans about it. If I'm at a privileged place where, God forbid, I start making money with music, that gives me a power, a great power, and part of that power is to use it to bring African musicians over here, to collaborate with African musicians. But mostly, it begins with a really important dialogue. He wasn't the first by any means, but maybe Paul Simon brought Africa to pop music with Graceland, however problematically. But, hey, we all know about so much more South African music than we did. We know about Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba—we know about all these people, and we have a lot of dialogue about it.

Anyway, I don't know Vampire Weekend. I sort of want to sit down with them and be like, "Hey, let's talk about this." Who else does it? There's so much borrowing all the time of African music, and then there's something like the Very Best, where there's an African collaborating, I believe, with a Western DJ. And that, to me, is so heartening, to have a real and actual African voice in pop music—it's incredible music. That's been my favorite album to listen to in the past few years. I think the whole point is that we borrow from Africa, but we also, as Americans, steal from Africa, and that's something I want to stop, and we need—economically and socially and politically, we need to deal with those aspects, because music is not isolated from all of those things.

So the live-looping thing, slowly building a drumbeat and a small backing choir with your own voice—aside from your bassist—is that a function of your preferring to perform solo, or will we see you now in the future with, like, 20 people onstage? I think you'll see me with more people in the future, only because I'm being asked to perform in front of 25,000 people. I try to do stuff on my own, but simply for the technicalities of sound, I think I'll need to play with more people in the future. I will keep performing on my own, too, because so much of what I feel is important about the music is how much I can do by myself, or how much any human being can do on their own. And I think, especially, women need to hear that more and more, and need to see a woman doing more on her own. As much as people may think that's unnecessary anymore, it's my experience that it's really good for women of all ages to see other women being really weird and bizarre and loud.

tUnE-yArDs performs at the Bell House February 5

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