Merrill Garbus perfects the art of losing control.
Mon Sep 12 2011
Photograph: Anna M. Campbell
In any artist's evolution, relinquishing control can be one of the greatest challenges, but it can yield the greatest rewards. For Merrill Garbus, the Oakland singer-songwriter better known as Tune-Yards, that process was pivotal in the creation of her sophomore album, whokill, released in April on 4AD. Unlike her first full-length, 2009's BiRd-BrAiNs, which a solo Garbus assembled piecemeal on a voice recorder, this latest effort was made in a traditional studio environment, in collaboration with bassist Nate Brenner, who cowrote several songs. Free from the occasionally encumbering lo-fi trademarks, whokill is a standout folk-pop experiment, spanning musical traditions while demonstrating Garbus's dexterous voice and fiercely concocted arrangements.
"I think I knew it was coming pretty early on," Garbus, 32, says of the switch in production styles. The time was right to forgo the method of BiRd-BrAiNs, a bedroom collage of self-recorded vocals, experimental percussion, ukulele strums and field recordings, including the voice of a child she regularly babysat. But being in a real studio, she says, had a slow learning curve. "It ended up being a similarly patchwork process," Garbus says. "And it has occurred to me that that's what I'm comfortable working with: always finding what's appropriate for each song and eventually what's appropriate for the whole album, instead of trying to adhere to the way you're supposed to do it."
More articulate sonic textures also brought changes in the way Garbus performed her songs live. "It took me a while to figure out what that meant," she acknowledges. "We tried some drummers, and some more traditional instrumentation for a bit." Tune-Yards shows now include a bassist and two saxophonists, with Garbus juggling up to three instruments at a time (ukulele, percussion and keyboards). Looping those sounds with her soulful vocals—at times a hum, a ululation or a coo—Garbus fashions a layered collection of sounds that ultimately crashes over concertgoers and leaves them in a euphoric dancing bliss. Regarding the singularity and simple awesomeness of her live performances: "It took me maybe my life as an artist to free myself and eventually discover, you know what, I can just do what I want to do and make it work somehow."
Dealing with the tension between confinement and freedom is something Garbus has done throughout her performing career, be it as a professional musician (before Tune-Yards she was half of Montreal combo Sister Suvi), a puppeteer or a subway busker. But the need to express herself creatively goes back even further: "I remember drawing on my bed, when I was probably in second grade, this little picture that said, 'I wanna be a rock & roll star!' under this woman with crazy hair and a microphone in her hand...weirdly like how I am these days."
It doesn't always come easily. "Letting go of self-doubt is something that I just work on constantly," she admits. She is a self-professed victim of stage fright—not something you would expect after witnessing one of her shows, where she consistently manages to captivate her audience. "I try not to get stuck on what people are perceiving, and when I do that, I can perceive the larger vibe of the whole space, the whole audience, the whole room, and it does feel free," she offers. "Really, at a certain point, it's not about these songs of mine, it's not about my attachment to them. It's my job to bring them there, and from that point on, I can give it over to the audience."
And letting go of the reins, whether in the studio or on the stage, is a fundamental part of what makes Tune-Yards work. Though Garbus's intellectual, emotive lyrics touch on sex, self-hatred and politics, she takes care not to impose her views on the listener. "I'm going to put this very impartial piece of art out in front of you, and then you get to feel what you want because of it—and because I am not adding all of my emotions to it, you get to have your own." In effect, Garbus insists on sharing with her listeners the freedom she has attained as a musical artist, a philosophy she says she acquired while studying in Africa. "It made me feel that it's important to be conscious and conscientious of our behavior that we put into the world," she says, "and that's really influenced my music."