“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?”
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.”
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.
Rigorously, Garbus made two demos a day for all of January 2013, handing over her hard drive to Brenner during the occasional exhaustion, for him to make “Save As” versions of basslines, “so she wouldn’t feel pressured to use anything that I did.”
“She’ll write the same song 20 times,” says Brenner. “All the verses in ‘Wait for a Minute’ were completely different lyrics. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Maybe it’s about me, I don’t know?’ I don’t wanna ask her too many…because I know it’s so personal. But sometimes they start really personal and then just end up a way to, you know, relate to people.'”
w h o k I l l‘s depictions of sex and violence were more blatant than the more satirical, ambivalent-seeming Nikki Nack. I can hear Brenner shrug over the phone when asked about a song like “Powa” (“My man likes me from behind/ Tell the truth I never mind”): “I might be wrong, but I don’t think a lot of people know we’re in a relationship. I don’t think about it that much.”
On the new single “Water Fountain,” it’s up to us to figure out what the blood-soaked dollar, the two-pound chicken, Busta Rhymes-cum-Al Pacino “woo-hahs” and “jump back, jump back, Daddy shot a bear” are all doing there.
Perhaps the anticipation of a larger audience for Nikki Nack led Garbus to pull back the curtain more lyrically.
“That’s a good question. I mean, it’s a great and annoying question,” she says. “It’s like ‘can I really say that?’ Not because it’s personal or anything—if people want to think they know a lot about me from listening to my songs, that’s fine—these songs are obviously extremely personal. But I’m not worried about what I’m…disclosing. In ‘Stop That Man’ it gets uncomfortable to come to talk about or grapple with in a song, my own fears, my own racist tendencies, my own really fucked up shit in myself that I’m not comfortable with, that I’m working out through a song. That’s what’s vulnerable I guess, that I’m working through stuff by using the songs. I’m not the kind of songwriter who’s like, ‘Everyone knows about my relationship with John Mayer through this song.’ It’s not autobiographical like that, and I’m always suspicious when someone’s like, ‘Really? You really want to tell the world about that?'”
Brenner talks about the sexism they witnessed while touring early on: “Before anyone had heard of us and we were opening for Xiu Xiu, the sound guys would assume she didn’t know what she was doing. She’d show up with her loop pedal and floor tom. They wouldn’t listen to her, but I’d be like ‘If she says she wants more vocals in her monitor, that’s what she wants.’ They didn’t believe that she knew what she was doing. Then every time after we played they’d say, ‘You were amazing, here’s my card if you ever need a sound guy.”
In 2011, w h o k i l l was the first album by a woman to win this paper’s Pazz & Jop critics poll since Lucinda Williams in 1998, an honor not bestowed on Beyoncé, Bjork or M.I.A.—or Radiohead. It’s worth remembering that people expected Bon Iver to win, despite mixed appeal. Bon Iver placed at #9 in the poll, at the time having sold exactly 300,000 more copies than w h o k i l l‘s 47,000, the lowest-charting and selling Pazz & Jop winner of all time. Partly the runaway surprise was that such an unknown artist had captivated critical hearts. But the critical establishment became less friendly to women around the 2000s, with previous winners like as Liz Phair and Courtney Love dragged through the mud as easy punchlines, while M.I.A., Lady Gaga and most recently Lily Allen have all been subject to widespread backlash after just two albums. Following its Pazz win, pop culture author Chuck Klosterman wrote a widely-reviled piece on w h o k i l l for the launch of Grantland that among other things, confused the terms “asexual” and “androgynous,” and “asexual” with the woman who sang “Powa.”
(Klosterman tells the Voice by email: “I hadn’t heard the album. I decided to write something about it after throwing it on without any preconceived notion about what it supposedly was. I generally liked it. But people freaked out, because the Internet exists and people are crazy. And I obviously can’t control the kind of person who misinterprets my work on purpose.”)
“We joke about a tUnE-yArDs backlash a lot,” says Garbus. “But it’s not really my business, in a way. I’m powerless over how I’m perceived by people. We’re out here [currently on tour]with Arcade Fire and we kind of see that [mentality], like ‘Oh those guys are playing a stadium, they can’t be cool anymore.’ Which I have been guilty of. I just can’t care about that. The more I can be centered in my own integrity about what I want from this music and the emotional, physical and spiritual health of the band—that’s what I want.”
Ironically, her statement somewhat echoes Klosterman’s. Despite her freewheeling attitude towards letting the audience answer their own questions, she fears misinterpretation: “The danger in that is people hear what they want to hear in it, or people hear what they don’t want to hear in it.”
“Someone thought that ‘Powa’ was a pro-life song, which I didn’t really understand. That was one of the only times where someone was like, ‘Is the song about this?’ and I was like, no. Some people want to say ‘Gangsta’ is about being white and wanting to be black.’ I mean yeah, but…no. That’s not where the inspiration came from and that wasn’t the story that it came out of. I just hope people can continue to take what they need to from these songs, and not ask for permission to hear what they hear. They do not need my permission to know what a song’s about.”
But not all interpretations have been for the worse: “‘The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they’ll find out,’ [from 2011’s “My Country”] I had a lot of people thank me for that line who were queer and said ‘That really helped me come out,'” she says. “It’s part of this whole complex truth that a lot of things can fit into a lot of lines. It becomes more of an experience thing than like, ‘this was written for this specific type of person.'”
A self-described anxious person who considered buying a mattress an “intense” experience, Garbus has no desire to shut down chatter she doesn’t want to hear. “When you’re in the public sphere at all, there’s a fear of misrepresentation in the media. On the other hand, I went to an all-women’s liberal arts college where we learned to dissect and criticize every single thing that we saw. I want people to do that, I want to be checked. That’s why I want to be complicated. I’m not worried about my reputation or public opinion, I’m worried about whether I can every day go to bed feeling like I was in integrity with my beliefs. And I feel like I have a good grasp on that.”