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Interview: tUnE-yArDs

Merrill Garbus of the indie pop band talks to us about her creative process and some of the kookiest instruments that she uses

Photo: Holly Andres

Indie pop act tUnE-yArDs, originally the precocious project of Merrill Garbus before Nate Brenner joined, bears all the makings of a twee group. The energetic, African-influenced tunes are a rowdy crosstalk between ukulele and drums, and their music videos are a cacophony of colours. Yet their lyrics are anything but superficial. Take for instance ‘Water Fountain’, the lead single from Nikki Nack – the clap rhythm and shout-y chants are reminiscent of a playground game, yet it riffs on hard topics like racism and poverty. We catch up with Garbus to find out more about the disconnect between tUnE-yArDs’ quirkiness and the messages in her songs. 

‘Music for me is always something that's uplifting, but my favourite music also talked about things that I was thinking about’

It seems like you've deliberately tried to create a bubblegum façade, yet your lyrics clearly carry deeper messages. Why this approach?

The sound of the music comes from what I love to hear. And so much of that music is dance music. It can be from Africa, or it can be like a disco hit on the radio, but what I really love is the ability to dance. Music for me is always something that's uplifting, but my favourite music also talked about things that I was thinking about. Growing up, that was a lot of feminine music – people like Ani DiFranco, women who were speaking up and speaking about their experiences.

You've actually got all these Spotify podcasts where you provide commentary on the songs in Nikki Nack. Why?

Spotify asked us to do that and although I wish that Spotify could figure out a way to compensate artists better, I agreed to do it because for better or worse, they have such a great product that people love. And I know that as a fan of music, I would love to hear someone talk about how they wrote songs and what was behind them all. So I really loved that they offered us this opportunity.

Was this so listeners don’t misinterpret your songs?

I hope they do. I mean, I really try to make sure people know that just because I say it doesn't mean that's the only interpretation. I really love writing songs that people interpret as they wish – I never listen to music only for the lyrics. I like lyrics that are very general and broad and mean a lot of different things. So, I never want to tell people what the songs are about.

Your tunes are pretty eclectic collages combining ukulele, African-influenced riffs, electronic beats and more. Do you write sections for specific instruments or do you pick up an instrument and then decide how to fit it in?

For the older songs, I used to write on the ukulele – that was the primary instrument. But this recent album, Nikki Nack, we mostly started with drums because I'm interested in getting better at drums. Most of the songs came from that kind of little rhythm experiments. From there we kinda shoved them in. I think we usually don’t realise what instruments we'll end up with. In fact, even when we were auditioning I don't think we understood whom we actually needed. A keyboard player, or, I don't know, a kit drummer. The choice of instruments came after the rhythm of the song this time. 

What’s the strangest/weirdest instrument you’ve used on a record?

It was a bag of rice! It's used on the song ‘Hey Life’. I think that those were kind of the instruments I find the most compelling. You wouldn't think that it was an instrument but it ends up being one. I also have a pocket piano and it's just a little synthesizer but it has a lot of personality to it – I like instruments that come with their own personality. 

You’ve also talked about how Nikki Nack is a reboot of your songwriting process. Do you think there'll be even more changes to the tUne-yArDs sound?

Yeah, I think so and I think that it should always be changing. If I’m doing my job then it should respond to what's happening around me and what we're experiencing at any time. Part of my job is to listen to what's going on in places around the world, and to really reflect that back to the rest of our audiences, so that we can be a vehicle of communication between people and cultures.

What do you want people to think of when they think about tUne-yArDs?

I don't know. That's so hard because so many people think so many different things about us. I guess maybe joy and a smile – that would lovely. Bringing joy to people, that would make me happy.

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