tUnE-yArDs Uses Her Lungs

Merrill Garbus defeats the curse of the real thing on incredible new album Nikki Nack


Garbus, 34, went to Smith College where she fell hard for Kid A and made extensive use of the library's musical archives. Her mom was a piano teacher ("I would have hissy fits and start crying because I didn't want to practice. Now it's ironic because I practice my ass off.") and a cousin of Jean Ritchie, a luminary in Applachian folk music. She's named after the late Country Song and Dance Society music director Phil Merrill. She would make fake commercials and radio shows with her sister.

"There's some deep spiritual sense of comfort for me that was really clear from a young age that it was not an option to have music in my life. We went to a folk music and dance camp with my mom, a camp for adults. As small children we were wandering around these beautiful woods listening to beautiful viola da gamba ensembles and doing renaissance dance, English country dance, square dancing, country dancing."

Location Info


Rough Trade NYC

64 N. 9th St.
Brooklyn, NY 11249

Category: Music Venues

Region: Brooklyn


tunE-yArDs plays Wednesday, May 7 at Rough Trade in Brooklyn.

With all that buildup it's no surprise Garbus considered the first tUnE-yArDs album the breakout from "30 years of musical quietness."

"It was mostly because I had that new tool, in that Woody Guthrie way: ‘This is a fucking powerful ukulele right here!'" she laughs. "From my parents there's a curiosity about music that has followed me my whole life. And from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger what music could be in a social context, that was also not lost on me."

"She's a good egg," says Annie Clark of St. Vincent, with whom tUnE-yArDs has toured. "She's not afraid to be political when people in the mainstream are being covertly political about poverty or the plight of the third world."

Another fan is Yoko Ono, whose 2013 album Take Me to the Land of Hell features two collaborations with Garbus. "tUnE-yArDs is the coolest of them all," says Ono via email. "Their delivery of songs is so unique and creative, nobody can forget it once you hear their performance."

On collaborating with Ono, Garbus recalls with wonder, "They had a studio with a bunch of instruments in it; it felt a little bit like Willy Wonka's music factory. There's just pan pipes and every percussion instrument ever," says Garbus. "She's old, so she's only there for what she needs to be there for. We tried to iron out as many kinks as we could before she was there. She and Sean [Lennon] and Yuka Honda, they've all been extremely generous."

"She isn't going to just work with anybody," says Lyrics Born of Oakland rappers Latyrx, whose 2013 reunion The Second Album features two rap productions by Garbus. "She was like, ‘Well, can we meet first?' She really wanted to make sure that we actually vibed, personally and artistically. She's a very pro-art, pro-artist, just very salt-of-the-earth person. She would come to our shows afterward and refuse to be put on the guest list. She would pay."


In 2005, Merrill worked as an acting instructor at the Appel Farm summer camp for the arts. "We loved working with her. She's so smart, she's so interesting. At this point if we had a big celebration for every time someone recognized her for the brilliant artist that she is, we'd have to quit our jobs," says camp director Jennie Quinn.

"Like many people who love her music and love her as a person, I have a lot of respect for her," says Adam Weiner of critically-acclaimed retro-rockers Low Cut Connie, whose upcoming single "Little Queen of New Orleans" features Garbus. "But it's been deepened by seeing what she's put into this over the years, seeing the years she lived in a freezing basement in Montreal with no heat for $150 a month when she made Bird-Brains, seeing her go from that to where she is now."

Along with tUnE-yArDs bassist/co-captain Nate Brenner and early Sister Suvi bandmate Patrick Gregoire (now of Islands fame), she first met Weiner at Appel Farm. "She's not super young," he says. "She didn't get where she is without a lot of hard work and just being brilliant. I think people know that, but not how many years she paid her dues, and was really like, pounding her head against a brick wall before this happened."


Nate Brenner, 31, grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, also with a pianist dad and after absorbing Ron Carter, George Clinton and—"I don't know if I should say this"—Phish in high school, graduated from Oberlin with a degree in jazz performance. Like his bandmate, his musical pedigree was encouraged by a pianist dad who brought him to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and he first met Garbus at Appel Farm.

"She wasn't quite in a great place there, not doing music or theater but more like the babysitter," Brenner recalls. "For me it was like, ‘this was the greatest summer of my life!' And she was like, ‘This is the worst summer of my life!'

After BiRd-BrAiNs, he joined tUnE-yArDs to tour with Dirty Projectors in Europe, and they've been a two-piece ever since. It was Brenner who encouraged Garbus to salvage "Manchild" and "Water Fountain" from the sessions for Nikki Nack.

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