tUnE-yArDs: Out of the Woods - NME (2014)

In a colourful studio space beneath downtown Oakland, California, tUnE-yArDs are rehearsing an album fraught with uncertainty. Three years have passed since the band last made a record and singer Merrill Garbus has been pushing herself hard, trying to turn a crisis of confidence into a dizzying set of songs.

‘Nikki Nack’, the eagerly awaited result, manages to be both musically complex and loaded with commercial ambition: all sing-along infectiousness and wild percussion. More significantly, it furthers a career arc that’s beginning to resemble one of the most exciting trajectories in music.

Dressed in a resplendent co-ordination of pastel colours, Garbus stands over a keyboard and drum kit in the centre of the room, adjusting intricate song arrangements for a new five-piece version of the band. The atmosphere is focused but fun; the songs distilled to a deceptive simplicity.

Jo and Abigail, two back-up singers, link into feather-light harmonies while dancing on the spot, knocking their woodblocks together while grooving as if in slow-motion rewind. But when bassist Nate Brenner gives a pep talk about the band’s upcoming arena tour with Arcade Fire, tUnE-yArDs’ humble beginnings suddenly feel like a lifetime ago.

In 2009, debut album ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’ required little more than a ukulele and some basic beats to introduce Garbus as a unique presence. She pairs an arresting vocal range with a melange of exotic rhythms, blending hip-hop, jazz, show tunes and assorted strands of African music into a cohesive identity.

The addition of Brenner as a songwriting partner helped finesse that variety into the more polished ‘whokill’ in 2011, earning tUnE-yArDs’ a critical breakthrough for their catchy-but-complicated dynamic. But somewhere along the way, Garbus shifted from being seen as a “kooky outside-artist” to a brash, uncompromising songwriter with difficult things to say.

“I get built up as something other than I am,” she says now, explaining how any summation of the tUnE-yArDs story tends to overlook inconvenient truths. The events so often harnessed as reference points – her spell as a puppeteer in Vermont, an eye-opening trip to Africa, the summer job as a nanny in Martha’s Vineyard – were all mired by depression and uncertainty. But when ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’ and ‘whokill’ materialised as assured DIY documents, people assumed that any self-doubt had been conquered, that any questions had been answered.

‘Nikki Nack’ proves otherwise. As Garbus reveals on album opener ‘Find a New Way’, there were times where she considered never singing again. Ultimately she decided to embrace her shortcomings for the sake of musical reinvention, but the process only exacerbated her self-consciousness.

“It felt like something that no one was going to understand,” Garbus says. “When you’re in that fragile creative state, you lose all perspective. There’s a moment where you go to the worst-case scenario of, ‘We won’t be able to make a living doing this anymore. What if this album ruins our reputation? What if people say the band is crappy? If Pitchfork give us a 3.0 [rating] then I’ll go back to school and become a voice teacher.’ It’s not like that all the time but in the low moments, those are the thoughts we have to filter out just to make the album.”

Garbus grew sick of herself while touring ‘whokill’. For 15 months, life on the road involved leaning on bad habits, growing de-sensitised to accolades and feeling like she wasn’t living up to expectations. “I’ve learned now that if I can’t be grateful that an audience is appreciative, it’s time to stop. That eroded my confidence, I think. I felt two-dimensional, so it was really important to take time off and get back to who I was.”

When life settled down again, however, one fear remained: that there wouldn’t be anything left to write about. The feeling nagged away at Garbus until she grew determined to break out of her creative comfort zone. Ditching the ukulele and looping pedal, she enrolled in Haitian drum classes and dance lessons, learned to smooth the ‘yodel’ out of her voice and read about how to write a hit song.

‘Nikki Nack’ felt like “a scary leap to take”, she says. It’s pop... but not as we know it. The only foundation beneath its dense and unpredictable song structures are Brenner’s off-kilter bass-lines, which pitter-patter between the beats. Driving everything along is a push-and-pull momentum between the buoyancy of the melodies and the flecks of frustration they contain.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the warped R&B of ‘Real Thing’, where Garbus cheerfully sings: “Aren’t you tired of this game, and all the emptiness of your fame?/ You can’t hold tight to what you have, ’cause there is nothing there to grab.

Asking Garbus about that level of honesty inevitably brings up tUnE-yArDs’ reputation. Some people may not like to hear her worrying about album reviews or writer’s block, preferring to stick with the image of the 35-year-old as a source of social commentary and a voice for the marginalised.

“I feel uncomfortable with that perception,” she says. “I do feel like I strive to open people’s minds to think about things and conditions that they may not hear in other pop music. But do I want to be a representative for marginalised people? Hell no. I mean, who am I? I’m just another person who’s part of the problem, in most cases... I don’t want to write songs that tell people what they should think or do.”

Whatever issues the songs touch upon, be it female body image or ‘white guilt’, Garbus prefers to keep them embedded in the abstract. Beyond the insecurity that shaped ‘Nikki Nack’, she says it’s no less personal or political than tUnE-yArDs’ previous work. People just like trying to find stories.

Walking along Oakland’s Lake Merritt, where Garbus often brainstorms songwriting ideas, she points out the water fountain that inspired the album’s rip-roaring first single, ‘Water Fountain’. In the brief time since its release, it has been interpreted as both a commentary on the degradation of her community and of worldwide water shortages. But the area is picturesque; the water fountain perfectly functional.

“The songs aren’t about anything,” she says. “There’s no way you can translate all those lyrics into one specific meaning. They’re all over the place.” All of this, it should be said, is expressed with self-deprecating candour. Garbus is funny, intelligent and unpretentious, posing almost as many questions as she’s asked while peppering her own answers with a musical giggle.

On the walk to tUnE-yArDs’ studio, Oakland’s graffiti-covered streets don’t seem that different from parts of downtown San Francisco. But the city has a reputation for violent crime and there is a perception that Garbus moved here in order to live somewhere grittier. Is that true?

Not quite. Ever since growing up in Connecticut, where she felt estranged from the upper-class culture around her, Garbus has preferred to live in places that reflect the real world. The downside, she says, is consciously contributing to the city’s “first generation of gentrifiers”: artists who move into cheap places, create a nice environment and then end up pushing out those who can’t afford to live there anymore.

Garbus addresses these sort of pre-conceptions with grace and humility. It doesn’t faze her in the slightest, for example, that the input of producers Malay (Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean) and John Hill (Santigold, M.I.A.) on ‘Nikki Nack’ may quash any notion of her as someone who makes “art for art’s sake”.

Creating danceable pop was always the intention, she says, and part of her wishes that music as weird as tUnE-yArDs could find a wider audience. “Like, why is Katy Perry’s shallow song about ‘feminism’ allowed to be successful and ‘Real Thing’ isn’t?” She laughs. “I kinda want to get in the game a little bit more.”

Besides, she adds, how do people expect her to make a living? ‘Water Fountain’ has already attracted offers from advertisers [‘Fiya’ from ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’ was previously featured in a Blackberry commercial] and Garbus believes tUnE-yArDs will inevitably have to make compromises that could lose them fans. She’s not complaining, she adds, but to expect otherwise is unrealistic.

“What if at a certain point I have the power to change a corporation’s behaviour around something, like outsourcing labour to horrible sweat-shops in India? I think with more success you can make these bigger decisions and be a model for others. I don’t see any inherent contradiction in that.”

Having turned a lack of inspiration into her finest work, it might be tempting to conclude that Garbus has learned not to second-guess herself. The truth is there are countless things she’s still unsure about – and no narrative can frame it any differently.

“I’m a complex human being,” she says finally. “I think people are uncomfortable with that grey area: the idea of me or anybody else just being a real person instead of a hero or an anti-hero. Any time someone tries to boil it down or simplify it, it’s going to be a shallow version of me.”

tUnE-yArDs: Interrupting Yr Broadcast - Wears the Trousers (2009)

“Whoops!” – tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus is falling off her seat. She’s vivacious, engaged and sailing on nervous energy, barely recognisable from the person who introduced herself with the words, ‘Listen, I’m nervous’, just hours before. She was postponing the interview and skipping dinner, she explained, to make sure her voice was in the right shape. From a distance, there seemed little reason to be jittery. Two nights earlier she took Paris by surprise, upstaging tour mates Dirty Projectors and clearing €600 worth of albums and merchandise after the show. Even now, hiding in a darkened room in the bowels of London’s Scala, away from the supervision of her label reps, she’s continually interrupted with the words “That was amazing!” from surprised passers-by.

Perhaps it’s because Garbus knows that her sound polarises: there are those who see it as arrestingly fresh, and those who find it unpalatably radical. She steps out each night not knowing which one will comprise the majority, but Garbus excels at being the underdog. Clad in black spandex with every contour of her body on display, she stands barefoot and without make-up, her hair shaved short on one side and left long on the other.

Most people would find this level of exposure intimidating, particularly given the sort of crowd that Dirty Projectors attract (a blend of the hipster elite and connoisseurs of all-things alternative), but as the squiggle of war paint on her cheek suggests, Garbus is ready for battle. She picks up a ukulele, taps a loop pedal and erupts with a yodel-like blast. It calls the room to attention, hushes the chattering, and brings together a style and sound that has taken years of floundering in self-doubt to discover.

There was a time when being a musician was the last thing Garbus wanted. Her parents were both performers who met while playing square dances in New York City. Eventually they settled in Connecticut, where their idiosyncrasies left the family feeling like “the odd one out” in what was essentially a wealthy outer-suburb of New York. “In a lot of ways it was a difficult place to grow up for me and my sister,” Garbus says, “but also in that there was something to resist against, something we didn’t want to be – which was this homogenised, very white upper-class culture.”

She was the shy type in school (“Straight A’s, a nerd – totally”) and writing represented something quiet and creative. But in her final year, she was struck by the impulse to swap calculus for acting classes. “I was seeing plays and kept watching the stage, thinking that I should be the one up there. So finally I decided I would start performing. I was very quiet up until then and I think that theatre work got me to be a little more articulate and brave and… brazen.”

A spell studying theatre in college led her to a summer job at Brenton Puppet Theatre. The dynamics involved in operating a giant puppet with three others developed a taste for ensemble performance, leading to an internship at Vermont’s Sandglass Theatre. Eventually Garbus would create her own solo puppet show: an opera about a girl being fattened up by her mother so she can be sold to the butcher, based on Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay A Modest Proposal.

She spent a year touring it independently, no longer working at coffee shops or cleaning houses as she did before. But this, in turn, led to another epiphany: “Puppets are difficult because you’re working with an object that doesn’t always cooperate.” She takes a tight breath and crosses one leg over the other, the sound of Dirty Projectors’ harmonies rising from below. “I realised that it wasn’t the thing that I was most passionate about…” she adds. “I was really more interested in thinking in a musical way.”

Suddenly it all clicked: Garbus had been groomed to be a musician without even realising it. Her mother played accordion and piano, her dad “an old timey fiddle”, and both had taught her from an early age. They had taken her to English country dances and a summer camp where her mother taught medieval and early renaissance music. She had even been learning how to arrange a cappella singing in college, tuning her ear to break up music into intersecting parts.

“In some ways it’s amazing that I didn’t think I would end up being a musician. I was being pummelled by music. I really wanted to play piano when I was six. I mean I really fought for it. My mom wanted to wait until I was old enough but I sort of demanded it. Then when I was 13 I was having teenage fits about what I wanted to play and what I didn’t want to play. And my mom said, ‘Enough! I don’t want to be your mother and teach you at the same time anymore’. So instruments really plagued me. I didn’t have the patience for them.”

But it was a six month trip to Africa that changed everything. She became fluent in Swahili, absorbed cultural studies on the coast of Kenya and spent time with hip-hop musicians in Nairobi. The impact of it all, however, would only sink in much later.

“It was life-changing, absolutely. But it was hard, to be honest. I didn’t take it well. I came home and I was really depressed and was probably depressed for years after that. Unfortunately I took a lot of guilt… a lot of guilt and shame. I became very aware of how the West influences Africa and I didn’t like what I saw; I felt pretty powerless to change it. I was really young and on bizarre anti-malarial medication. Now looking back on it I think, ‘No wonder I thought I was going crazy!’ It was just very hard not to take a lot out on myself and say, ‘It’s your fault these people are living in such poverty and have no resources’. These things haunt me, but they should haunt me. I think they should haunt everyone. It’s an everyday part of my reality now – remembering that experience.”

With only an inkling that music might be a viable option, Garbus quit puppeteering and took some time out to find a way forward. “I was 26, totally depressed and had no idea what I wanted to do. My mom had just got me this ukulele, so at that time I was like, ‘Oh, stop thinking so much. Just go home and play your ukulele’. Music definitely saved my life in that way. Doing something creative with whatever miserable feeling I was having or any feeling at all, just to put it somewhere.”

Becoming a nanny in Martha’s Vineyard, an island off Cape Cod, was another pivotal moment. For two summers in a row, she could escape to the woods or to the beach, testing out songs in solitude. During the day, she’d perform for an audience of one: a little boy whose sense of wonder provided its own inspiration. Though he was too young to understand what was happening, he became an unwitting collaborator. By keeping her voice recorder constantly at the ready and finding musicality in unlikely sources, Garbus could maintain a flow of creativity throughout the day.

“Usually I would just have the recorder secretly when we were picking blueberries or whatever. Sometimes he would see it and start munching on it. And we made music together. He knew. I would sort of show him what I was doing and we would dance together. I introduced him to some reggae and African music. So he had the sense that we were having music lessons as well as babysitting. It was the best experience of motherhood I could have before the real thing. I think to see a human being be so creative and so curious about the world – there’s nothing really like that in terms of turning your brain around. The 20s were not an easy time for me. Things are looking up now but just getting me to focus on what’s really basically important in life – young kids are really good for that.”

Snippets of their interactions appear throughout her debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, a complicated but catchy clattering of bedtime stories, Tanzanian folk, show tunes and hip-hop that blazes like a Roman candle. And if the songs stand as even a partial document of their time together, it makes Garbus sound like the world’s coolest babysitter. Even now, years later, that maternal quality still comes through in the way she gasps and marvels at whatever story she’s held attentive with. Her laughter, too, is just like on the record: a soft, musical chuckle that rises slowly.

After building up a well of material, Garbus began recording songs on freeware audio programmes that would give the album its clunky, lo-fi character. There are no smooth segues; no seamless production sheens. Instead the songs smash into each other, fizzing and stuttering uninhibitedly. But making an album independently was the only way that felt right.

“There aren’t so many women whom you’d assume do everything themselves, and there are a lot of assumptions that men do everything behind the scenes. So I felt stubborn about recording my album and the result – while I’m not an expert engineer – is all me in that way, flawed or not. I am a feminist and I consider myself a strong woman but I didn’t say, ‘Oh, this is going to be a feminist document’. It occurred to me later that it was. As I started recording, people kept offering to help and I started saying ‘no’ more and more. So I started seeing it as an opportunity to be inspiring to other girls and women, to say, ‘There’s no secret genie or magic person behind me’. It’s all me.”

The sense of self-assuredness behind these words doesn’t sound like someone who could have spent years feeling lost and questioning her worth. Perhaps it’s relief, now that she’s 30, at finally having something to show for those struggles. But as she admits, the same drive and tenacity that kept her up at night for so long still remain. “I guess at every time of my life…”

She trails off, pausing to reflect. “There’s lots of depression in my family. It’s funny that there are times in your life when you’re like, ‘I can’t remember why I was so darned unhappy’. More so now that I’ve spent a lot of time in Montreal in the last three years, just doing something for myself and not worrying about what people wanted from me. That started the good part of my life where I felt free of obligation. It was probably on account of feeling the burden of all these jobs rather than feeling free to do what I wanted.”

She breaks off again, this time to munch on some crudités, no longer able to hold her hunger for the brief lapse that each question provides. “I feel like I always have something to do. I never want to go asleep; I’m too worked up about all the things I need to do. So this has been an interesting moment in my life where now I have this label that does so much for me. It’s the first time in my life where I feel like I don’t need to overwork myself… and it scares me a little bit.”