Merrill Garbus’s music is hard to define or readily summarize. Her song forms are asymmetrical, filled with jagged lines, sharp turns, and jump cuts, yet simultaneously deliver a steady dose of catchy hooks and memorable choruses. Her tonal language is more dissonant and chromatic than you’d expect from something so danceable. Her swooping vocal glissandos and ululations could be heard as cartoonish, but are delivered with such conviction that they feel totally appropriate for the context she’s created. The various stylistic reference points—hip-hop beats, avant garde horn flourishes, Bosnian women’s choral harmonies, R&B vocal virtuosity, Olympia indie folk ukulele—are filtered through such a personally crafted lens as to call into question whether they are in fact influences or simply coincidences.
The music coalesces into a kind of uniqueness that generally comes from one of two extremes: either the accomplished musician who has assimilated so many techniques and approaches as to gain the freedom to shatter pre-existing formulas; or the wide-eyed outsider novice who has no pre-existing notions of those expectations to color or constrain her work. In some ways, both are true for Garbus.
While she is completely self-taught as a musician, she is a highly trained artist, just in another field. She has an extensive background in theater, having studied it as an undergrad at Smith College, then working with the Sandglass Theater in Vermont. She developed a strong aesthetic identity and philosophy, and with that in place, shifting mediums appears to have been mainly a matter of applying an already internalized set of answers (or more likely, questions) to a new set of physical techniques.
On her first album as tUnE-YaRdS, BiRd-BrAiNs, you can literally hear that process in action—the tinkering invention of the improviser at work, captured directly to tape, fearlessly accepting and incorporating so-called “mistakes” and rising to the challenges they present. By the recording of w h o k i l l, these qualities are embodied with such confidence, executed so masterfully, to the point where no listener need question Garbus’s intent or technique.
The Rumpus: I got the sense from songs like “Hatari,” [on BiRd-BrAiNs] that you compose to tape. There were performance inconsistencies that seemed to be raised to a formalistic level. It gave me the impression that you’re recording and composing at the same time.
Merrill Garbus: Yes. Absolutely. That’s what’s so cool about recording, to me, it’s its own kind of lab improvisation. Before working with Eli [Crews, the engineer for w h o k i l l], I clung so much to having my hands on the thing, and that’s why. It is a type of composing for me. Especially since I’ve never been to music school and really can’t compose on paper unless it’s geometric shapes.
Sometimes I listen to “Hatari,” for instance, and go “Wow. I left that in there?” Especially on the first album, it was really like, “First thought best thought.” Whatever came out of me in that raw state was most often what stayed, including being out of tune in my singing, being less precise in rhythm or with the playing of the ukelele.
Rumpus: Did that change at all between BiRd-BrAiNs and w h o k i l l?
Garbus: Yes and no. With the first album, I was definitely recording more than I was performing, and as you say, composing through the recording process, then often translating to the live stage after that. [w h o k i l l] was the opposite way around. Live first. Really composing through live improvisation with the looping pedal, then recording the way we’d been performing them.
But once we had stuff down, I thought, “Oh there’s no way that this is a TuneYards album. This is a live record of what we’ve been doing, but this doesn’t sound like me and the recordings I want to make.” My original intention was to mix the whole thing myself, which now I laugh at because I have so few mixing skills. But I got Pro Tools and I took the files and I just went on editing and composing that way again. Songs definitely shifted through that process, so that was a whole next level of composition.
There were probably four or five upheaval times while I was making w h o k i l l. I would think, “No it’s going to be this thing now. Noooo, that’s not working out…” I edited a lot of stuff on my own. Eventually I came back to Eli and had him mix the tunes with me and Nate [Brenner, bass player for TuneYards and Garbus’s partner] in the room. Doing the album in stages like that helped give it a layered quality.
Rumpus: Could you talk me through a typical composition process for one of the songs on w h o k i l l?
Garbus: “Gangsta” had a pretty clear process. A lot of the songs on that record came from me improvising on the looping pedal. On the first record they were much more ukulele-based. This time around I was visiting Oakland. Nate and I had just gotten together so I was just here as a visitor. He would leave for some of the day to work or go to rehearsals and I was left to experiment, partially with his drums. Most of the songs start musically rather than with a lyrical idea. And that was certainly true in this case.
I had this thing in my head for bom-buh-buh-BUH-bo buh-bom-buh-buh-BUH. The rhythmic idea first. Then I made the siren loop with the looping pedal. It was just those two things together for a long time. The rhythm reflected to me a kind of toughness or strut, like a macho stance or posturing. That intersected with what was going on outside the apartment window, which was that these kids were starting to get guns and get arrested. They were just teenagers and we were following what was happening. The words came from that. An intersection of the music with the neighborhood situation I found myself observing.
With a lot of songs too, at a certain point I’ll say, “Okay Nate, time for bass.” There’s so much room for him there, especially when I’m just working rhythmically and with a couple other elements. So, we’d get together and he’d try a bunch of things and we would go through this awkward process of me sculpting and changing what he’s doing, and him being extremely patient with me asking him to try different things. I’d give him vague directions like, “No. More out of tune.” Or “Less in the key it’s supposed be in and more in the key that’s a half step up.”
We were touring with Dirty Projectors at that time and just played it in front of people in a very un-finished and awkward state. It was a priceless experience to have an audience for that moment of experimentation—a really generous audience most of the time. I could instantaneously see what was and wasn’t working.
Rumpus: And that definitely yields different results than working alone in your bedroom?
Garbus: Totally. They’re clearly different albums. I’m sure I’ve just begun to understand what’s different about it. There is a new level of vulnerability. There’s also a new level of pressure—especially now that tUnE-YaRdS has had so much more exposure than it ever has in the past. That’s become a new conundrum for me. How to write without being self-conscious. How to write with the positive aspects of knowing there are people out there listening, while leaving the negative aspects of that behind.
Rumpus: So how do you do that?
Garbus: I don’t know. I wish I did. I think in some ways I’m making a bigger deal out of it than it actually is. Every musician is vulnerable. Every musician knows their music is going to be heard by other people. That, in and of itself, is terrifying on some level. At least that’s been my experience. The fact that now there are thousands of people listening…it’s a new level of that vulnerability, but it’s the same thing.
I guess it’ll be the same as last time where I go, “Well, fuck it. This is what I hear. I can’t be self-conscious.”
I think what it’s going to mean for me is really taking a substantial break from touring. Touring takes you into the minds of your audience, which is great. But it takes you out of that place you need to be in as a composer, where you’re left alone with your ideas.
Rumpus: Jumping back to process for a second, do the words come after you’ve already developed vocal melodies?
Garbus: Yes. And often that means that [sings wordless melody] is how it starts. “Blah blah blah blah blah, gangsta.” It starts way more with the sounds of the words and the sounds of the vocal melody than trying to shove words or ideas into a melody.
Rumpus: On the hierarchy of the compositional elements in your music, what significance do words have, or where do they fit in that hierarchy?
Garbus: They’re totally crucial, but there are songs where I feel like, “Oh yeah. That was the right word. That was the word that I meant to use.” Then there are songs where I feel more like, “Well, I tried on this one and I’ll do better next time.
“Es-so” [on w h o k i l l] was derived from very stream of consciousness things going through my head during my plentiful walks around Lake Merritt [in Oakland]. There were so many possible words, that what I eventually settled on was sort of arbitrary. Sometimes I think I should change the words every show because this is what I’m feeling today and that was what I was feeling then. I believe they have the potential to mean a lot to people, and seem to mean something to some people, but they were just random thoughts that I was having in my head and less of a constructed poetry.
On the other hand, I believe in a magic that happens in sound. When you go back to how language was originally formed, I really do think that a lot of it must have had to do with sound and which sounds sounded like the thing you were talking about. I tend to rely heavily on that kind of alchemy, where if I just start with a sound, then the right words will appear, and that something—if you wrote it out in a sentence would be nonsense—evokes far more to people than a more correct sounding sentence.
That’s no revolutionary idea on my part, but sound is my way of accessing that magical abstract language that can hit me in poets like Cummings or Joyce. People who are writing in a channeled kind of way. Gertrude Stein. You sort of go, “what??” but something about it really hits you as a human, the way the words are put together, the choice of words.
Rumpus: How do you hear music? When you’re listening, what do you prioritize? Where does your ear gravitate first?
Garbus: Probably rhythm first. Words are probably last. Rhythm and—I guess I should just call it harmony—notes intersecting with one another as opposed to melody. So, rhythm, harmony, melody, words in that order.
Rumpus: So the vocals, the quality of the lead voice, is not necessarily the first thing you’re hearing?
Garbus: No. I was recently working on a track that had very specific guidelines. It’s sort of a cover of a theme song, and they asked if tUnE-YaRdS would do this for a television show. So because these other elements are more important to me, I decided that the lead vocal should be done in a light, childlike voice. I sent it in and the comment was, “What’s up? Where’s the Merrill vocal. The Merrill vocal is strong and powerful and chesty, and you know”…whatever.
I realized I can think all I want about the flexibility of my voice, but from the outside there’s a very specific character that people are hearing and now looking for. Which is interesting because in my mind, every one of the songs on the album has a different vocal quality to it.
So no, apparently I’m not thinking about that as much as some other people do.
Rumpus: You do have such a versatile and constantly changing vocal approach. Is there something about playing characters or inhabiting roles in what you’re doing?
Garbus: When you do theater vocal training, a lot of it is to awaken different characters of your voice. So I have that practice, but it’s not like Nicki Minaj actually embodying different characters in one song. What she does is completely amazing. In her rapping, within one verse she’ll take on two or three different caricatures of people she’s invented. I don’t ever think about these character changes in my voice like that. But there’s a physiological training I have to let my voice do different things and not judge. Just let it come out.
Like with the song for the TV show I was talking about, I think, “This is my instinct to sing it like this. My voice wants to do this in this range to fit the mood of the song.” It’s on a song-by-song basis, but not necessarily a kind of rule or character that I’m embodying.
Rumpus: I was really struck by that with your voice; a willingness to be outrageous.
Garbus: Certainly the experience of performing in front of people a whole bunch, you start to get used to making a fool out of yourself and develop a harder shell about that. I did a lot of improv comedy and that’s exactly what it’s about—falling flat on your face in front of people.
Ava [Mendoza, guitarist] and I are working on this Buster Keaton silent film project, scoring some movies for the SF Film Festival. It’s that kind of slapstick sense of things. When you act the fool like Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle, it gives people a real freedom in themselves. I’ve realized I don’t need my ego intact that much. I could sacrifice making a fool out of myself if it meant that the gift of the performance was a kind of freedom that everyone would have. That’s what I commit myself to when I perform.
Rumpus: It strikes me that there’s a new archetype on the rise that you’re tapping into of the female version of the Fool of the Gadfly. Does that resonate for you at all?
Garbus: Totally. Put that in there. Particularly because often there’s not a female version of anything. So for that sake, yes. Let’s do it.
I think a lot, as I’m sure many people do, about the incredibly crazy state of the world and an important thing that I forget to do is laugh about what can be laughed about. I was talking to Ava about Eastern Europe. One of her parents is from Serbia and one is from maybe Bosnia. She was talking about people in recently war-torn countries having a dark, dark sense of humor, but a brilliant one. Humor is such a huge part of surviving trauma.
All that’s to say, I will gladly carry the humor torch if that’s something I can do. There are many female comics who I think find it to be an incredibly difficult thing. As a woman performer, it’s sort of suggested to you that you look good. So if you look bad or foolish on purpose, or act really grotesque on purpose, you’re really going against the grain. I would proudly stand in the brave ranks of those women.
Rumpus: We’re kind of skirting around the edges of overt feminism and politics in song and I wanted to touch on that a little bit. I take it to a certain degree you’re thinking actively about political music.
Garbus: I mean, we can talk about what that means. But in a short answer, yes.
Rumpus: Let’s do talk a little about what that means to you.
Garbus: I guess the reason I say it that way is it’s a question I’m getting asked a lot lately: “So, you’re a political artist. How does that make you feel?” What troubles me about that conversation is that there’s a differentiation being made between a human being and a political human being. It’s just my understanding that being a human means being aware of the world around me, and my place in that world, and my part in what’s going on in the world around me.
I’m not political in the, “I want to make you feel this particular way that is my political stance.” And sometimes I worry people think, “Oh she’s a political artist. I don’t want to hear chanting slogans about the Democratic Party. I don’t want to listen to her music.” Mostly I want music that makes me feel good and all I want to do is turn on the pop music radio station and feel good. What I’ve been wondering is how can we feel good in music and also have material there to chew on once we’ve listened to that song twenty times. Can loving music be not a guilty pleasure but a real meaty pleasure?
Sorry if you’re a vegetarian.
I don’t feel like I’m any more or less political than the people around me, but maybe I’m just talking in my songs about how I feel as a human being in the world in an honest way. And when you talk about being a human in that way without trying to throw up a haze or film or glossy sheen on everything, then maybe what’s left is politics?
Rumpus: There’s certainly a move between the two records—the first record being more internal or inwardly focused and the second record pivoting to the outside world. What was behind that move?
Garbus: I was trying to create w h o k i l l from the current place I was living my life, and that happened to be one in which I was far more exposed, in terms of the public knowing who I was, and also one in which I had moved to Oakland away from Montreal, which is quite idyllic. It’s a city, but it’s a beautiful, wonderful, low crime city. I wasn’t conscious of anything other than just being honest about what was going on in with me in my life at that point.
Rumpus: What significance does children’s song or children’s music hold for you, or what kind of role does it play, either for you as a songwriter or for listeners in general?
Garbus: One thing that comes to mind is in the song “Little Tiger,” on the first album I sing, “Eeny meeny tiny miny, catch a little tiger by the toe.” In that case it was these memories of songs that you have in childhood, which upon adult reflection you find different things in. Darker things. “Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop,” is a really dark song, but at the moment that you’re being sung to as a child, you’re often just taking it as a very comforting thing.
I always appreciate children’s music and books and art when it’s also relevant to adults. And I think parent’s do too, of course, when they can get as much out of a book as a child does. That to me is a brilliant piece of work because it’s almost like you’re writing in code or something.
Children’s rhymes also have a lot of onomatopoetic words and percussive words. They’re associated with sound and early language—these kind of sonic memories and word memories. I love that kind of language. It’s about the sound versus the more adult, classical, meaningful language. A more instinctual or gut language.
Rumpus: You use your voice so instrumentally. When you’re writing a song and you get to the wordless melody, do you ever think, “That says what I’m trying to say already. It doesn’t need the words. It doesn’t need the linguistic component because it’s already expressing the thoughts and emotions that I was feeling in the making of that song.”
Garbus: Yes. Though when I’m creating a pop music album, I also realize that a really important part of pop music, at least in my mind, is words. And words for people to sing along to.
I’ll improvise something, a song that’s gibberish, gestural. Whether it’s a vocal gesture or a facial gesture, whatever it is, there are very few words involved, and at the same time, I feel like I’m putting across a lot of feeling and meaning that people can really identify with. But because I’m in this genre where people do call upon words as a point of access to the song, I have a great incentive to keep going—crystallizing what I really mean with those sounds. Some of those words are still going to be nonsense, but I push to keep going and challenging myself to clarify what I mean as much as I possibly can.
Rumpus: You conceive of what you’re doing as pop music?
Rumpus: Even though the sound of your music is unusual for what might be considered pop?
Rumpus: How important is it to you to be intentionally creating a new sound or a distinct sonic artifact versus just making pop?
Garbus: It’s quite intentional. I wouldn’t be making music if I didn’t believe that I was contributing something to the future of music. That sounds really egotistical, but that’s how I feel. I’m extremely self-critical and part of that is asking, “Is this worth anything? Is this adding anything to the field?” Because if it’s not, then I’m just another person throwing garbage out into the world. And if it is, then maybe I can justify my existence here on the planet. That’s where my brain goes. So yes, I don’t know to what degree I can do it, but it’s certainly my aim to be furthering music and I guess maybe I’m just more comfortable furthering pop music because I think there’s a long way for it to go.
Rumpus: How do you understand, just for your own terms, how such unique music has connected with so many people on such a large scale.
Garbus: I don’t know. Gosh. I can’t believe it. I totally think, “Wow, this is so weird. Who’s going to listen to this?” Or, at other times I go, “I just wrote a soul song, and I’m not really a soul singer. What is it doing here?”
I do think that dancing has a lot to do with it. Physical motion. People are ready to be captivated by music to that point of being compelled to move by it. That’s maybe the other reason why I put myself in the pop genre. I love that connection with people. It gets away from the intellectual judgment of music and into a real visceral understand and appreciation of the music.
But also on another level, a lot of the songs on the album [w h o k i l l] were directly influenced by Thriller. I thought, “I just want to make, for this millennium, a punk, feminist version of Thriller.” I wanted that degree of accessibility on a musical level. So even though I weirded them up, sure, a lot of the songs have grooves, a lot of them have super-catchy melodies and super-catchy horn lines. I wanted that quote unquote mass appeal. I’m not sure how mass that mass is.