Started as a one-woman project in 2006 by New England native Merrill Garbus, tUnE-YaRdS is set apart via its meld of Appalachian Folk (ukulele being the most obvious signifier) and numerous African elements, none more visceral than Garbus’ versatile vocal delivery, which alternates between low-key crooning, honest-to-goodness yodeling and full-on wailing. Think Captain Beefheart fronted by an unpredictable, big-throated female ex-puppeteer who was forever altered by her exposure to Aka Pygmy music (from the Central African Republic, for those who need clarification).
Garbus used GarageBand and a simple digital recorder to capture her 2009 full-length debut BiRd-BrAiNs, a crafty lo-fi collection of songs that only hinted at what a revelatory performer she is in a live setting. (A true one-woman live band, Garbus uses a looping pedal and other electronic devices to present layered drum, ukulele and vocal patterns.) The album generated considerable Internet buzz and resulted in tour slots opening for such like-mindedly adventurous artists as The Dirty Projectors and Yoko Ono.
In 2010, armed with bass player (and now full-time band member) Nate Brenner and more than a dozen other musicians, Garbus convened in a San Francisco studio to create last year’s w h o k i l l, a dynamic, groove-centric effort that not only expanded upon her debut but also deservedly topped The Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll.
CityBeat recently phoned the 33-year-old Garbus, who, with seagulls squawking in the background, took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer a handful of questions — none of which addressed the typographical quirks of her band’s name and album titles.
CityBeat: Your live show has this interesting dynamic where it seems as though you’re channeling performers from a different time and place. There’s a very physical aspect to it. It’s almost as if you’re playing a role, as if that voice can’t possibly be coming from your body. Which brings me to my first question: How has your theater background influenced what you do in tUnE-yArDs?
Merrill Garbus: It’s really affected everything.
In other words, there is a sense that what I’m doing, performance-wise on stage, what I’m doing theatrically on stage, can really bring an audience in. I find all that theater training really useful. There’s just a sense of what people will pay attention to on stage, what will attract them and what will bring them in, and that helped me when playing open mics where I was a girl with a ukulele and everyone was sort of rolling their eyes. But then perhaps my theater training kicked in and whatever tools I had learned in theater training really helped me to attract those ears and to keep them there.
CB: A lot of the songs on w h o k i l l are quite textured and involve multi-tracking of your voice and drums. How do you approach reproducing that in a live setting? Are there any overt differences between the recorded versions and the live versions?
MG: The major difference is that on the album I definitely didn’t loop drums live. In other words, I would play the five-minute song on the floor toms, and then I would play the five-minute song on snare drum. It probably takes 30 seconds to a minute live to set up a song. It takes time, so that’s the main difference. You see that process happen, and sometimes I wish I could just have a loop programmed in there and press play and that would be fine, but I think there is something really gained from your song being created like that. And I think you’ll see the arrangement of songs is fine-tuned for the live performance.
CB: You moved to San Francisco in order to collaborate with Nate (Brenner) on w h o k i l l. What did he bring to the writing process, especially in comparison to BiRd-BrAiNs, which you did by yourself?
MG: So much. One thing is chord changes, which is a very tangible thing. (Laughs.) My love of music is often in hypnotic, repetitive music. My love of Afrobeat and Fela Kuti, or Hukwe (Zawose), who was a Tanzanian singer, it’s all really repetitive and maybe is the same chord or maybe goes between two different chords in a song. There’s a lot that I’ve gained from that, and a lot of my songs still pull from that, but it does lack variety.
I think what Nate really brought was not only supreme musicianship on the bass but also changing things up a little bit. “You Yes You” used to be two chords over and over again and he created this whole structure to the song that wasn’t there before just by putting a bass line in there. He challenged my use of limited chord choices. He’s added variety and complexity to the songs, which really serves them well.
CB: Your lyrics are simultaneously intimate and abstract, which is a tough trick to pull off. Is that approach a conscious choice on your part?
MG: I want my lyrics to be 100 percent honest, by which I mean having their roots in something I’ve honestly felt or experienced. But I also think that if I’m not abstracting the lyrics then there is no room for my audience in them. The more that I can keep them open-ended and … stream of consciousness isn’t the right word, but maybe from an unconscious part of my brain, the more poetic and more free they will be rather than writing very literally about my experience.
CB: Why did you feel compelled to dedicate w h o k i l l to your grandparents?
MG: My grandparents both passed away while I made the album, and you can hear their voices on it. (Her grandmother’s voice is the first thing one hears on album-opener “My Country.”) They were part of making me who I am, and I’m proud they were able to see where things have gone with the child that they helped rear. It was sort of the least I could do. ©