By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
"I feel angry that people don't use the format of pop music for more," says Merrill Garbus more than halfway through an hour-long chat in the offices of her management. She's sweet, congenial, and thoughtful, but unafraid to voice a concern. She doesn't blink when asked pointed questions about the final song on her excellent new album Nikki Nack. It's called "Manchild" and is built around two chants: "Not gonna say yes when what I really mean is no," and "I mean it, don't beat up on my body."
It almost didn't make it onto the record.
"It does seem so fucking simple, but students are raping girls on college campuses, just things that we can't believe are still happening. What comes across as like a radical agenda…the radical agenda that girls on college campuses should be protected from rape?"
This doesn't escalate like it may read on the page—Garbus famously prefers to ask questions rather than give answers, and she delights in the conversation itself. Even more than her unpredictable grooves, lyrical twists and hidden melodies, the most obvious incredible thing about listening to a tUnE-yArDs record is her big, free voice. When she makes a mid-song exclamation like "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand" or "Oh my god, I use my lungs/ Soft and loud, any way feels good," it feels like the liberation of self-realization. It's a perfect soundtrack for someone who just realized they're allowed to feel how they feel, dress how they dress, yell what they long to yell. And not just to get it get out of their system, but over and over, in protest and then celebration, after conquering their obstacles.
"I was one of those adults that really needed to hear that I didn't need to say yes all the time. I was lying a lot to myself without even thinking about it," Garbus admits. "I don't put on music in the background to create a mood, and I really struggle with using songs to sell shit. I'm just really glad I'm not only allowed to say these things and that I have a record label that is really supportive of whatever I want to say, but also people are like, ‘Oh yeah, I really needed a song that just said that.'"
"For me it's something about the words, the syntax and stories that make me feel giddy and tuned in," gushes Tegan and Sara's Sara Quin, of Garbus and tUnE-Yards. "She has a presence and leadership that feels entirely authentic without being intimidating."
The plainspoken way Garbus raises hard questions in her tunes has a lot in common with the subject in many of her videos: children.
"tUnE-Yards began when I was a nanny, witnessing a two-year old learning language and learning about the world," Garbus says. "That kid really inspired me to do a whole lot. Part of that was the discovery element, like we don't know everything and we're not supposed to, and it's OK that we don't. There is as much depth to what a child asks as there is to adult questions. Children have way more insight about ‘what's the issue?'"
But there are very few white performers who have ever approached the subject of race with Garbus' delicacy and willingness to be wrong.
"What does it mean to be an American musician and have people tell me, ‘Wow, she really sounds black?' I guess a lot of it is me working through uncomfortable shit that people have said to me," says Garbus. "People will ask the question, ‘Where does your voice come from?' As if I consciously said, ‘I really want to sound like Nina Simone and Yoko Ono.' It trips me out really; I used to be a soft-spoken, grew-up-in-Connecticut, suburban public schooler, and now I'm a weirdly loud singer."
Nikki Nack's "Real Thing" is a rebuke to her own success: "Just what is the real thing/ Don't call me the real thing/ The curse of the real thing." She didn't ask for the burden of authenticity, which gets even more complicated when her command of Mbuti pygmy-style singing on the two-minute a capella "Rocking Chair" sounds, well, a lot like the real thing.
"That's funny, because I didn't think about it for ‘Rocking Chair.' But I think those sounds are in my head now," she says, before ululating a few bars of Mbuti-style singing. "I don't think I think about it consciously anymore, which is maybe creepy. I think I used to talk with more shame about absorbing other people's music and the more I actually read about the history, the more it's like, ‘fuck, people have been doing that for centuries, like trade what affects the entire musical tradition and now we hold certain traditions sacred and we try to compartmentalize them."
"But also ‘Real Thing' doesn't just have to mean that. What else could that mean, and what else could I be but just Merrill Garbus who grew up in Connecticut?"