TBT: A Chat with Merrill Garbus

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by Shannon Jay

I was lucky enough to meet the auteur Tune-Yards at the Future of Music conference back in 2015. After a few laughs, she graciously agreed to do an interview for the second issue of my online zine Crust. We talked about her activist work and the podcast she hoped to make reality in 2016. Below she discusses the idea behind C.L.A.W. featuring strictly female MCs and hip-hoppers. 


Against a graffitied wall hundreds of miles away via webcam was Merrill Garbus, whose infectious smile took up most of my computer screen. The chatter of outside conversation, whizzing of passing cars, and faint barks of dogs could be heard behind her stream-of-conscious thought, the convolution of which she unnecessarily apologized for.

“Sorry if I’m not articulate, I’m still kind of waking up,” as the noon Oakland sun shined on her face outside of Rooz Cafe. “I’m a rock star, it IS first thing in the morning!” she qualified.

Garbus is the brain-child behind tUnE-yArds, the one-woman turned multi-orchestrated wonder whose musical process is as much fun to watch as it is to hear. She caught the cusp of the loop machine wave early on, which got her noticed. She’s since used her popularity as a platform for big issues, small bands, and the greater good.

Before taking the reigns of a loop machine, she was armed only with a uke and professionally wielded a puppet. During her time in college studying theater, she took a job at a non-profit puppet theater. For the theater’s puppet operas, she wrote music and played the ukulele.

Although from a folk-revived family of multi-instrumental musicians, these plays are what peaked her interest in performing. “I got into playing music that way,” she said, “I liked the songwriting better than making a puppet seem like a real life thing.”

Desire lead her to the open-mic circuit, where soon her unique soul yearned to be more than “just another chick with a ukulele,” as Garbus said. The instrument’s lacking rhythm and a suggestion from a friend lead Garbus to the Line 6 looping pedal. “It’s a way to have a one-woman band, and at that point, I was into that,” she said.

With this, she added a new dimension to her sound, creating backing drums by recording bangs on her uke. Layers of rhythms and harmonizing vocals were laid down piece by piece live, quickly separating Garbus from her strictly acoustic counterparts. This tantalizing process skyrocketed the success of her debut album, “BiRd-BrAiNs.”

Looping got Garbus noticed by Dirty Projectors, who asked her to join them on their 2009 European tour. “Shit! I don’t have enough, I’m not loud enough,” she said about her intimidation of playing aside the band in large venues. “I didn’t feel like I had a low end or bass frequency down,” she said, “if you don’t have some kind of low frequency, people kind of tune out.”

Garbus invited now-fiancee Nate Brenner to fill this sonic void. Although he aided with some of “BiRd-BrAiNs,” he officially became a band member after the tour, during “w h o k i l l.” Brenner helped with much of the songwriting for the sophomore record, such as “Bizness” and the single, “Gangsta.” With Brenner’s help, Garbus was able to focus more on investigating rhythm. She said the duo made tUnE-yArDs “less of a one-woman band and more…one woman voice & rhythm stuff with his bass playing.”

Garbus’ exploration of rhythm and expansion of her band perpetrated in her latest release, “Nikki Nack.” Haitian percussion was a huge inspiration, which she studied for a year in Haiti. Drums with intersecting parts enchanted Garbus, and utilizing this on the record taught her how to dissect a song and weave voices “to make the whole sound.”

Not only had the sound developed, but so has Garbus’ message behind her lyrics. She said they lyrics in “Nikki Nack” “had to do with these things that we take for granted, and maybe not taking them for granted anymore - specifically water.” Residing in the drought-ridden state of California has made Garbus appreciate H20 in a new way, along with increasing her anxiety about the growing problem.

“The best way…to deal with fear is be proactive,” she said, and she’s succeeded in combating fears with the Water Fountain Fund. Started after the reluctant sale of the catchy “Nikki-Nack” single “Water Fountain” to SONOS, the company struck up a deal to use the song only if they began Garbus’ fund. Since then, $1 from each ticket sale has been pooled and dispersed to several organizations helping with different water-related causes.

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Funding has aided in Gulf restoration, community water centers in California, and Haitian medical wells. Garbus also used some of the money to send the Haitian drum group she studied within Oakland to play in their homeland for the first time.

In an effort to stay connected to the community as her success exponentially rises, Garbus has begun producing smaller artists albums, such as San Francisco based Sunny and the Sunsets. “I just hope I’m helping them make their musical dreams come true,” she said. One of Garbus’ new year’s resolutions is to keep her ear close to the ground, hoping to reconnect with the Montreal scene where she got her start and see more local shows.

Garbus also resolves to continue drum lessons, begin vocal lessons, and release a new tUnE-yArDs album in 2016. One of her most exciting ventures for the new year is her podcast, the working title of which is “Transformers are Women.”

The podcast searches for a diversity of voices in hip-hop, focusing solely on female MCs and producers here in the U.S. and abroad. Garbus’ friend and Istanbul-based producer Grup Ses inspired the project with his compilation of Turkish female rappers against his beats. “Rapping in Turkish is fuckin’ dope!” Merrill exclaimed.

“Women rappers are so important,” said Garbus, whose time spent abroad proved to her just how far hip-hop has spanned the globe since late-70s Brooklyn. Garbus said she hopes to “bring hip-hop in different languages and different cultures…more exposure.” and spark a “global conversation of women in hip-hop and beat making through this portal.”    

Since the success of “Nikki Nack,” Garbus has exercised how mainstream artists can potentially use their powers for good. Her philanthropist efforts in the past year and true love and respect of the music scene illustrate the folk ideologies her parents grew up on, exercised in the same vein as revivalist Pete Seeger. Constantly, Garbus is shifting the spotlight off of herself onto important issues and budding musicians, monopolizing on her notoriety to make others take notice.