Tune-Yards on breathing puppets and ukuleles

Tune-Yards on breathing puppets and ukuleles

Tune-Yards is Merrill Garbus, a puppeteer-turned-musician with a flair for strange sounds, odd influences, and tape hiss. Created with little more than a ukulele and some rudimentary looping equipment, Garbus’ kitchen-sink folk recalls African street music, musical theater, and the kind of long-lost recordings found in an anthropologist’s basement. Her debut album, Bird-Brains, caught the ear of storied indie label 4AD, which re-released it last year, as well as the collective ears of Dirty Projectors, who asked Garbus to open for them on a number of dates. Now, with the release of her new album W H O K I L L, she’s moved up to headlining, including at a show Friday May 20 at Johnny Brenda’s. The A.V. Club spoke with Garbus about zen puppetry, a Tanzanian tribe called the Wagogo, and finding beauty in mistakes.

The A.V. Club: You worked at a puppet theater for a few years after college. What was that like, and do you see any common threads between that kind of performance and your music?

Merrill Garbus: Yeah, I was a puppeteer as my first career out of college. I’m interested in performance, and puppetry is sort of the same thing that I do right now, except with a puppet. And I hate puppets. I worked for this company called Sandglass Theater, and we did tai-chi breathing exercises to figure out how to allow the puppet to breathe and shit like that. It was a really bizarre—but incredible—approach to performance in general. It taught me so much about being on stage and also about just letting things happen on stage.

Now the objects I work with are looping pedals and ukuleles and drums, but it’s the same premise of building some kind of world on stage. Now it’s a sound world. Before it was weird puppet shows about the philosophical writings of Walter Benjamin.

AVC: There are echoes of show tunes in some of your songs, “News” in particular. Is that intentional? Related to your stint in puppetry?

MG: Probably more that I was into musicals when I was a kid. I don’t know if you agree, but you can hear a lot of different musical styles in the songs on Bird-Brains. I sang a lot when I was a kid, I did musical theater, I did college a cappella and madrigal things in high school. I used to watch A Chorus Line and My Fair Lady—just musicals that we would watch on VHS. I think that’s probably where that stuff comes from.

AVC: Some songs have hints of African music, stuff like The Indestructible Sound Of Soweto and that blown-out Konono No. 1 sound. Do you draw from that idiom?

MG: Any African music that it sounds like I’m stealing, I’m stealing. There are two things: One is that I spent time in Kenya, and before, during, and after got really swept up in African music of all kinds. I started to understand my own sense of music through listening to the music of a tribe in Tanzania called the Wagogo. I also listened to music that was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Nairobi—high-life guitar stuff which influenced my ukulele playing a lot.

And then there’s the idea of lo-fi recording. When you listen to a lot of field recordings done in countries that we don’t go to very often, you go, “Oh my God, this is real music.” There’s something about it that hits us very deeply. What’s interesting about doing the recording the way I did, with this handheld voice recorder, is that it’s sort of now or never. You don’t get a second chance. It’s sound that’s picked up the way it is, with all of its flaws and all of its interesting qualities. It’s just what happened at the moment. To me, that gives it a sense of immediacy and also closeness—you feel really close to the person performing. You feel the grittiness and flaws in the recording, and that the band sometimes isn’t always together, and one person’s background vocals are really super-loud in a way that maybe they’re not supposed to be. But the flaws make it really human and really alive. 

AVC: You toured with Dirty Projectors last year, playing some pretty big venues—how was the adjustment to playing bigger stages and larger audiences?

MG: It’s just different. There’s this really incredible energy that you can really sail on. It always takes me a couple shows to learn how to surf on top of that energy instead of feeling intimidated by it. I was looking at my calendar and I was like, “Wow, last year at this time I was headed off on my first solo nationwide tour that I’d booked all myself, in basements of people’s houses and frat parties and coffeehouses and stuff.”