Merrill Garbus, the singer-songwriter behind Tune-Yards, readily admits that she didn’t take the traditional route to a songwriting career. After graduating from Smith College with a degree in theater, she worked as a nanny, a puppeteer, and a teacher before landing on music. Her unconventional perspective comes through in her work, a hooky mélange of ukulele, vocal loops, and samples of home recordings. (Her unconventionality sometimes shows up in her capitalization, too—fans may know her best as tUnE-yArDs).
Garbus’ self-recorded debut LP, Bird-Brains, came out on Marriage Records, a Portland-based indie label that released it on a limited run with screen-printed jackets. The album caught the ears of 4AD, who re-released it in 2009 with bonus tracks and worldwide distribution. For this year’s Whokill, Garbus recorded at a studio in her adopted hometown of Oakland. The high-fidelity recording sacrifices none of the charm of the debut, instead foregrounding Garbus’ rich voice and bouncing beats.
The A.V. Club: You started your professional life as a theater student at Smith College, then you worked as a puppeteer, and finally you moved to music. How has changing careers affected you?
Merrill Garbus: For a while, I felt like I was behind, because I had spent four years really developing a career in puppetry, and then found out that that really wasn’t what I wanted to be doing at all. Now, I’m realizing how much that experience led to where I am now, and in fact, if I had just gone right into music, I’d probably be a lot more—I don’t know if jaded is the word, but I think it’s helped me to have perspective on this world.
It becomes a sort of race to be featured on Pitchfork, and get the right people’s attention, instead of getting really deep into the art. Being a puppeteer is like, no one, literally, is watching you. Even with Pitchfork, I don’t think I realized until we got so much exposure on that website, how far-reaching it is. People in Germany were saying they’d heard of us on Pitchfork and I was like, “Wow, this is so different.” So I guess I’ll just say, for a while there, I thought, “Oh man, I really screwed up,” and now I’m a 32-year old touring musician. It’s not the easiest thing—four years ago it was probably way easier on my body than it is now. I’m already feeling the effect of age 30 on me.
AVC: Is touring wearing you out?
MG: I don’t know what it is. I don’t really do drugs, and I think if you did, you might be able to numb out a lot more stuff. But every day is this like, barrage of emotions and hard work and stress and eating poorly and lack of exercise. Anyway, I’m not complaining. The reality of the life is pretty intense, and there’s a part of me that’s like, “Man, I understand why 20-year-olds do this stuff.”
AVC: Child voices are all over the place on your recordings, from “For You” to “Gangsta” to “You Yes You.” Can you trace the beginnings of your interest in working with kids?
MG: The recording part of Tune-Yards happened when I was a nanny. So that was it. Otherwise, I’m not actually sure. I tried teaching, and I’m still not sure what kind of enjoyment I get out of teaching. It’s not that I felt uncomfortable around kids; it’s that I felt like I wasn’t sure exactly what I had to offer them because, especially at that point in my life, I was so incredibly depressed. I didn’t have a whole lot of like, “Oh, the rest of my life is gonna be so great, and yours will too.” [Laughs.] It was much more bleak. So it was as if I felt uncomfortable being dishonest with them.
This little boy that I was a nanny for, when I was first making those recordings, he was the first experience I had of being around a kid at that age. It was the first time that I was privy to those first moments of discovery and learning, in a way that just felt really human to me. That really made me aware that I was really young and I still had this ability to explore. In those summers, it was really exploring sound and recording. It was interesting to be around a kid who was in that age of learning and discovery and language at the same time that I was learning some of that stuff for myself at the age that I was, my early, mid-20s.
The kids’ voices on this latest record, Whokill—it’s me with my grandparents. I discovered this recording of me at two or something, hanging out with my grandparents. I thought, “Oh good, I’m going to do exactly what I did on the first album. I’m gonna use these really amazing, cute snippets as the transitions between songs.” But that’s what it ended up being—it was cute. The first album was really a record of the present tense in which I recorded the album, and that kid was such an important part of my life. This time around, it was me grappling with a lot of stuff [laughs], including my history and where I came from. Also, my grandparents both passed away during the recording of the album. So there I was, holding these memories and trying to figure out what you do with memories like that. I scrapped a lot of that first draft of this album, because I felt like it was turning too cute.
AVC: How does it feel to have your child voice juxtaposed with your adult voice?
MG: I always think of myself as someone who’s really shy and came out of her shell through being a performer. Then when I heard that [tape], I was like, “Oh, I was a performing, show-off kid at 2.” It felt like, “Okay, well this is just what I’ve been interested in doing my whole life.” [Laughs.]
I grew up in Connecticut and I had two parents who were musicians, and my grandparents were also into being gregarious characters. All this stuff was a bit ingrained in a way that I hadn’t really thought about before.
AVC: At the beginning of Whokill, a voice announces,“Ladies and gentlemen, Merrill is performing.” How did you decide to start the record that way?
MG: I guess cause it’s my grandma, and it felt like a way to have her blessing in the whole thing. I don’t know what the right word for it is, but it’s a way of not taking myself too seriously. You know, the parallel of my 2-year-old performance with my 32-year-old performance. Just to be like, “You know what? You’re not that great.” [Laughs.] “I mean, you’re not that much different. Sure, you’ve progressed, but not all that much.”
It always helps me to think about how much further I have to go. I felt a lot of pressure on this album. Obviously, not Britney Spears kind of pressure, but a lot of pressure.
AVC: Thank God.
MG: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. It was this way of sort dissipating that feeling. Like, “You know what? Who cares? Whatever. Just do your best, do your show the way that you do your show, and whatever happens, happens.”
AVC: You’ve talked before about how “Gangsta” is about finding your place in Oakland. Could you talk about your move to Oakland?
MG: The song really came from watching kids in this neighborhood go through adolescence via gangs. In other words, I’m trying to find my place, but everyone else is, too. Oakland is a hard place for everybody in a lot of ways. If you are one of the many people who is living below the poverty level, if you’re one of the many people who is jobless, and therefore without a whole lot to do during their days, and if you’re the child of an immigrant family who [has] this different relationship with the U.S., with California, and with Oakland, then that’s a whole other level of, “How do you interact with your community and where do you find your place in your community?”
I wanna make a plug for it not just being about me being a white person in Oakland. It’s really not about that. I’m trying to get themes of songs away from like, “Oh this is my experience,” [laughs] and instead, into stuff that can really reflect back to other people about their own experiences.
My experience in Oakland has really been so positive and so hopeful in what I can learn about the community. I mean, Sly And The Family Stone and MC Hammer are from there, so it can’t be a bad place to be. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your songs take on perspectives that are not entirely your own. How do you develop the characters whose perspectives you write from?
MG: Most of them come from me just trying to understand a situation. Like, in “Riotriot,” that’s an example of trying to break down an experience that is generally one of like, scary violence, into something that has some kind of human connection. It’s really me putting myself in somebody else’s shoes. Of course, it has the limitation of me being me. How far can I walk in someone else’s shoes when I’m me and I have made up this completely imaginary character, my fantasy of a situation? But I’m doing the best I can.
And also that sense of hearing voices, or like, “What’s that about? What’s that about?” [in “You Yes You”]. That’s hearing the sort of peanut gallery in my head. There’s me and my self-critic, but then there’s these people that I imagine are talking to me, or judging me, or whatever it is.
AVC: “Es-So” seems like it’s about an eating disorder.
MG: Hm. [Laughs.]
MG: You are not the first person to say so. I really don’t like to say what my songs are about, because it is and it is not. My songs tend to not be about anything but the state of mind that I was in writing it, or this like, extremely vague theme that would be hard to explain to anybody. But the whole point of them, to me, is to say, “Why yes, I’m glad that you think that’s about an eating disorder.” You know? [Laughs.] To really let other people find what they find in the lyrics and in the songs.
AVC: You’ve talked before about struggling with an eating disorder. As you work through an eating disorder or any sort of psychological issue, you develop strategies for coping. What strategies are you using on tour and as you’re onstage, to keep that from interfering?
MG: For me, it’s a day-to-day thing. I find that there really needs to be a lot of self-forgiveness. I mean, I do 8 million things wrong a day, and now I’m the boss of other people. For much of my adult life, I wanted to hide from doing anything. If you don’t do anything, and if you don’t make any decisions, then you make fewer mistakes, and you’re taking fewer risks. Now, I’m in the opposite position as that. In order to survive this new life that I’ve chosen for myself, I have to be able to forgive myself for when I get it wrong, which is a lot.
And that for me has fed, so to speak, this sense of well-being that I didn’t have before, that I think was really playing into eating disorder stuff. It’s funny, ’cause I never have been in a hospital for an eating disorder. I tend to think that a lot of people have eating disorders, or at least have some kind of illness in their thinking with food. I think it took me just saying that aloud to start to be like, “Okay, there are ways of helping myself.” That’s a whole interview in and of itself [laughs], but that’s the gist of it.
AVC: When you’re onstage, you’re showing people the capacity of a woman’s body to be energetic and creative. As you mentioned, eating disorders are very normalized. More likely than not, you’re connecting with people who have similar issues.
MG: You know, I’m amazed at my capacity to look at myself in pictures, and see myself on YouTube, and not do to myself mentally what I used to do. I’m aware that that’s my duty, I guess—that in getting over this stuff on my own, I’m helping other people to get over that on their own as well. But you know, even hearing you talk about it, it’s still sensitive. It feels like, “Oh my God, this is what I am doing. I’m really exposing myself—”
AVC: Oh no. Don’t do that. [Laughs.]
MG: [Laughs.] No, but it is exactly that. What I found was that I had no other choice but to do this. I had no other choice but to expose myself. I have no other choice but to get rather consumed by the music. In doing that, I lose myself and I lose self-consciousness. I lose that censoring of myself. And with that comes the risk of being judged, and being sliced and diced by the press. I guess I’m saying that I try not to think about it. What I try to think about is just like, “Yep, just keep doing what you’re doing,” because you know, it’s not just for me anymore. It’s for a whole bunch of other people. That gives me strength to keep doing it.