A month back, I met Merrill Garbus, better known as Tune-Yards – or tUnE-yArDs, if you're feeling fingery – in a Tufnell Park pub for a mooted magazine feature. Unfortunately the feature stumbled over the issue of photos, but not before the interview happened, so rather than let it go to waste, I’m posting it here in its unedited entirety. We talked BiRd-BrAiNs, w h o k i l l, Kenya, loop pedals and recording devices (mainly in the opening section – apologies if you find that too teccy, but stick with it, it gets lighter), gangs, women and, inevitably, cultural appropriation.
You’ve been something of a next hype for over a year now. Did you feel you had lots to live up to with this second album?
Yes, or a little to live up to, depends who you are. A lot of people didn’t respond to my first album (BiRd-BrAiNs) at all. It was more myself that I had to live up to, and make a change. A person has to evolve in some way. I knew I wanted to track in a studio cos the first album was on a dictaphone like this [points to my voice recorder]. It had a stereo mic and a built-in compressor so it had a unique sound that was all over that first album. Then I would multitrack it, then I’d mix it on Audacity, shitty freeware. As long as the track’s playing at the same time, there’s your multitrack recording device.
Let’s say I was recording drums, I’d record a kickdrum into that thing. Then I would copy and paste. It was slooooow, stupid, I would never do it again. This time I learned ProTools. You can stick a mic in and record three minutes of a song and then listen to it. It’s a humane way of recording. This was slow, but for someone who’d never recorded before other than with a 4-track, it was illuminating. At first there were too many compressed vocals on top of one another.
With the first album, could you record it all on the hoof; vocals one day, then bang a few drums in a hotel room the next?
Yes, very convenient. A lot of I did in Martha’s Vineyard, I was a nanny there, a lot I did in my bedroom. I took samples of all these songs. The whole process of recording it, it necessarily had more sound samples. The ferry I took to get the island, I used that as a rhythm track. I’d record myself playing the ukulele around other people, so you’d have all these other voices in addition to it. A dog was waggling its collar, that would get caught in there. I loved the outside sounds. This time it was difficult, because you’re in a studio playing it. We’d track it and I’d be: “OK, it sounds like we played it. Boring!” Having recorded the last one the way we did, this seemed dry, like a vacuum. There were a couple of tracks later on where I needed a real drummer, a keyboard player came in; as my mind expanded I thought more about what this album could be.
And then do you let them play on the track and then loop them up so it sounds more like something you would’ve done?
Exactly, which sounds a bit patronising. I consider a lot of what I do to be editing work, selecting where and when certain sounds happen. I learned Cubase and ProTools. I did it all in nine days, but then took a couple of days and listened to it again and thought this is the most boring thing I’ve ever heard. It felt flat and unexciting, particularly since I believed in the songs so much, they weren’t alive, it was all pretty dead. At that point I realised I had chopped up too much, introduced samples that didn’t belong there. It was too complicated. I was using a shallower version of the tricks I was using in the first one. I had Eli Crews, who engineered the album, help me mix it. He knew how to treat my voice, to make it pop out and shine. We argued about how much reverb to use, I argued against it. I found myself doing things I never thought I’d do.
Is there a political attachment to lo-fi? Are you suspicious of high-gloss entertainment?
Yup. Although I love my Michael Jackson, I love Prince, these people who are high gloss, so I can appreciate it, but I know I’m not that, and there has to be room for people who aren’t high gloss. If I’m political, it’s only to argue that you don’t need a lot of money to record an album. And for women, you don’t need men who apparently know more than you to tell you what your music should sound like. But then, what a hypocrite I am to say you don’t need all this money to make an album. We didn’t spend $500,000 on it, but I spent about $10,000 after the musicians were paid. As with anybody, there were hypocritical moments. Now that’s the new position I find myself in, of having mentioned resources and trying to find a way to use them in a way that chimes with my politics.
It seems to be a good time at the moment for women to make records that aren’t overtly feminist but are made with full control and presented in a non-sexual way, people like (my personal hero) Fever Ray. Is this a product of the new technology, that maybe rock & roll works in a macho way and electronic music doesn’t?
I think being able to make home recordings certainly is a liberating tool for anybody, not just women, but people without money or power. Electronic vs rock: I don’t know, I still struggle with where I fit, I’m neither and both. This time I’m using synths more and it’s not all acoustic, it’s very rarely acoustic. But that’s where it differs from electronic music, there’s no drum machine, no quantising to correct all my wonky drumming. So it’s a good time for women, but at the same time we still see women as objects in the industry continuously. So that keeps going. But Micachu and the Shapes are one of my favourite bands of the past few years and it’s not talking anything about feminism, but she and the rest of the gang are doing crazy, fucked-up shit and no one’s saying “How dare a woman do that?” People always say women don’t have a hard time in the music industry anymore and I just say “Ha ha ha, you try doing it”. But I think the tools are now there in a way that they weren’t in other areas.
Your buzz grew more as a live thing than from the record. Is that because when people see you live, you take the music to a different place? Or is it more because of the tricks, it’s like a magic show, or a puppet show (Merrill was a puppeteer after leaving university)?
It’s a bit of both. There is a sense of miracle with a looping pedal. How does she possibly do that? Even for people who know looping pedals, it’s hard to grasp what’s going on. Because I was trained in theatre and live performance, acting etc, that’s what I think I’m good at. I had those skills and the philosophy behind it. So I know how to do something so people will pay attention; to go, “Stop talking into your beer”. I have those skills, while I had no skills in recording. Plus my parents are musicians. My mum’s a classical pianist and also plays folk music which is what my parents were doing when they met. My mum plays harpsichord and old-time Appalachian folk music and my dad plays Appalachian fiddle. My mum’s from Kentucky, my dad’s from the Bronx. I grew up outside of New York, in Connecticut mostly.
My dad in the '60s and '70s picked up the banjo and the fiddle. As a Jewish kid from New York he was playing Appalachian music, people who were generally Christian and from a different world. So did my mum have any more right to play this music than my dad because she was from there? Probably not, because she wasn’t living in the mountains…well, she was living in the mountains, but she wasn’t living in a one-room shack; they had a house, her dad owned a grocery store. It’s funny. Where are we justified in borrowing from each other? They played square dances, my dad played the fiddle, my mum played accordion and the piano and they met each other through that community, a community that is based on continuing the tradition of American folk music. To me, it always seemed more legitimate than what I do because it’s from America, which is where we’re from. But still in America, as in Africa, there are a thousand different cultures or tribes or ethnic groups, whatever you want to call it. But there’s lots of stealing and borrowing going on between these traditions.
You spent several months in Kenya after university and African music plays a major part in your sound. Did you go there because you loved the music or did you discover the music out there?
The first African music I ever heard was [white-led South African band] Johnny Clegg and Savuka, when I was about ten. That was a time when my uncle and aunt, who are both medical practitioners, spent a year out there. I had this very idealised notion of what Africa was. I was trapped in Connecticut, in this very limited and unrealistic world, and they had found this new freedom in a completely new part of the world. There was something about that that was so appealing to me from the get-go. When I got to school I was always planning to go Africa, to Kenya, so I studied Swahili at school. I had to go to another university to find a Swahili class.
Where did you go to university?
At Smith College, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Luckily at Smith there were lots of people from Kenya and Tanzania who could be my tutors, so I could have discussion classes with them, get to speak it. When I got there, it was a study-abroad programme, I found myself in a community I hadn’t expected to be in. First I imagined Johnny Clegg, then Paul Simon’s Graceland; here I am exposed to that I Know What I Know song, the one with the [makes a high-pitched birdlike noise] in the background, and I always pictured myself jumping on these savannahs with coloured paint on my face, a complete fantasy of what Africa was gonna be. I was in Mombassa, which is Muslim. They trade with the Middle East and have done for thousands of years, so it’s often more like the Middle East than the centre of Kenya. I studied music there, studied tarabu, and got to work with a very well-known harmonium player and got to play the fiddle as well. I was playing taarab-style violin.
And you were teaching kids how to sing at the same time?
I was mostly teaching music-theory class, I guess. But we did sing as part of that.
You said in interview that we borrow from Africa but we also steal from Africa. In musical terms, what’s the difference?
I think I was talking about economic theft.
Do you think there is such a thing as theft in music, other than straight plagiarism?
Plagiarising a song is something that happens often. But I was just talking about this in the previous interview: what is that difference? Obviously this idea of sharing, African musicians borrow from Western traditions and it’s very rare that we accuse anyone of doing that because that’s just how cultures swim into each other. But when you deconstruct it a bit, it has these distinctions. Westerners colonised Africa. African musicians using Western music is almost like, “We will find our own power stealing your music, making it part of ours.” It brings up these interesting relationships and power dynamics. I guess what I regard as thievery is stealing shit that’s not your own, and not giving anything financially, politically, back to wherever you’re taking from. I’m into borrowing, it’s a total part of music, but whatever I do I want to keep it in this social context. You can’t just take African music, put it in pop music and just say, [smug voice] “Yeah! The world is just music, man.” I hate that. Where did you get that music? Who recorded it? Did they get money from it? What’s the relationship? I guess I find it more complicated than many musicians portray it as.
Do you find someone like Vampire Weekend problematic? [awkward silence] Sorry if it sounds like I’m trying to start some kind of war.
You know what I do to not be in some kind of war with them? I don’t listen to their whole album. Sorry Vampire Weekend, but I haven’t. Yes, I do find it problematic. I’ve read a bit about them and I think their perspective is, "It’s a world of music, we’re allowed to do what we want". I see how it’s a valid argument. They make good money, but they’re not U2. Maybe if they were they would be able to give back. Musically, I find the Very Best a lot more interesting. They clearly took the Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa song. Vampire Weekend were obviously borrowing that and put it in this African tradition, and then [Esau Mwamwaya of Very Best] takes it back and samples it. It makes it a more interesting song. I think we are flawed beings, flawed as people existing in the world, polluting, exploiting other cultures, wearing clothing made in other countries where people make pitiful amounts of money making it. We’re in this relationship the whole time so I can’t crucify anyone else for being a certain way, but I can be musically interested in something over something else.
Your music dabbles in African, folk, there’s elements of hip hop, elements of electronica. Would you ever be tempted to make an album in one of those genres, just a straight genre album?
Yeah, for sure. I wonder how purely I could stick to it, but yes. Lately I’ve been thinking about sludge metal [laughs], how cool that would be. Not making a sludge metal album, but there are parts of that that would let me get out of whatever genre people think I’m in. But certainly I would like to make a great dance album, every track thumping dance party music.
With vocals. Even if it wasn’t all vocals, I could treat them so I could sample myself, like I would with other musicians, I can do it myself. You don’t always have to be the lead singer, but there can be elements of my voice.
When you’re working with loop pedals live, what do you do if it goes wrong? Is it possible to make a 'wrong' loop? And if it is, do you get halfway through a song and say, "This is fucked up, it’s the wrong note", then delete it and go back to the beginning?
You should ask audience members how much I’ve done that! I try not to stop in the middle of a song, but yes. The worst example is when the loop gets erased, maybe there’s a surge of electricity and it erases everything I’ve just done. All of a sudden you’re in the middle of a song and there’s no loop on it. The most embarrassing thing is having to recreate the loop.
Do you get enormously self-conscious when it goes like that?
Puppeteers, because you work with physical objects that tend to fall apart in performance, for instance a leg might fall off, I was taught to handle it. The school had a very specific approach to mistakes, which is that the audience is 100 per cent aware of what’s going on and the moment you make a mistake you have the most of their attention. That’s not something to be ashamed of or afraid of, it’s the moment you embrace. My experience lately has been that the audience is on my side. It’s very rare now that I find myself in a place where everyone seems like my enemy and I have to fight to gain their attention.
Did you find that a lot before?
Yeah, open mic, nobody listening at all and I had to fight for attention. I was using a Line 6 delay pedal, a more delicate looping pedal. And I’d do these tiny percussive things on the ukulele, banging on it, and that was going through the looping pedal. So it was much more delicate and when you’re in a noisy bar at an open mic... My voice was my primary tool. People don’t always know what’s happening and you can get away with a lot in a live performance, but it’s not like having a laptop there and that goes wrong. Then you’d be screwed. The looping pedals are more hands-on and that makes it interesting.
When you’re in front of a hostile or indifferent crowd, what do you use to turn it around? Humour, aggression, both? Or do you just ask the soundman to turn it up and maybe start crying?
No crying at all. Both [humour and aggression]. My job is to get people to listen. With my old band [Sister Suvi] we opened for much bigger bands like Islands. We were playing to teeny-boppers who just didn’t care about our music. It wasn’t their fault, it was our job to do something that was captivating and when we fell short of that I felt very strongly that it was our fault. My first solo performances, I knew it was do or die, I could either bust or I could captivate people. Truth be told, I think it was in the quieter moments that I really got them, really pulled them in so they had to concentrate to hear. I learned how to go between being loud and whispering so [whispers] you have to concentrate to hear every word. You wish.
Did you have standard lines for dealing with hecklers at open mic?
[laughs] No, I did a lot of improv at college, it was all different every day.
There’s a couple of songs on the new album I want to ask about. What’s Gangsta about?
I tell you what it came out of. When I first started visiting Oakland, which is now where I live, there was a gang that formed outside of [her bassist] Nate’s old house. There were a couple of violent incidents that happened, he was telling me that young kids in his neighbourhood were forming a gang. I made friends with the younger sister of one of them, she was eight or nine. She was beautifully young and naive. It was striking to me that her brothers were reaching this age. They had very little place to go or much power in their social situation. Their response was to form a gang to protect themselves. It seemed natural, in a very disturbing way. That was the source of it. These were kids I became more and more afraid of because they started to have weapons, become more antagonistic. Other times they’d be nice neighbours. So the family next door, I had a very good relationship with this young girl and an antagonistic one with the boys. I started to think about people and power and how they’re attracted to power and their need to feel empowered in order to get by.
The song Bizness has the line "don’t take my life away". Is that a reflection of how you feel about the music biz?
Yes, that’s one side of it. I think a lot of my songs start with an impulse, which was "don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away. But that song was supposed to be a Christmas song [laughs]. It was round the time of the Haiti earthquake. I was trying to have any inkling of what it’s like to be in that situation, being a victim of that, so "don’t take my life away" was about that as well. Most members of the global community understand the reality of a people elsewhere. If you’re living in Haiti you’re well aware of people being more well off than you and being able to help you, but maybe not doing. I really don’t want to write songs that are me whining about the record industry. Here I am making a living, a beautiful living, you’re asking me questions about myself. How much better can life get? But at the same time I worry about what part of myself is lost when I become part of this bigger… The definition of my band all of a sudden starts to define me even though I want to squirm and wriggle out of those definitions, as any human being would.
And make a sludge metal album.
Yeah, if I want to [laughs]. I will if I want to, damn you. I like that song cos it can mean a lot of different things. It’s also about personal relationships. There have been changes in my personal life in the last couple of years.
Performance-wise, is it still just you and Nate?
For this next tour we’re taking two horn players, so it’ll be four. For some songs it’ll be me and Nate, but Nate will start to play more percussion and drums. I got lucky with him; not only is he a great human being but he’s a drummer as much as a bass player.
Will you be looping up the drums and brass lines the way you do with your voice and percussion?
Yeah, I haven’t thought about the brass lines yet, but I’ll be sampling some of Nate’s drums, my drums, my vocals, his percussion on bottles. There’s a lot that can be done. That’s why we’re bringing in this soundman, it’s going to be very complex.
So you’re both front woman and this crazy little technician, running about grabbing bits of what everyone else is doing?
Oh yeah, I’m not happy unless I’m meddling in whatever everyone else is doing. Total control freak. It keeps me on my toes.
You played at Yoko’s all-star concert in LA last autumn. How it was being onstage with Lady Gaga and Rza?
At the end we were all on for Give Peace A Chance, and I found myself next to Lady Gaga, who I didn’t think was an actual human being before.
Just pieced together from different marketing concepts.
Yeah, exactly, but she’s real. Nate and I did a cover of a Yoko Ono song, which was amazing for me because like many people I didn’t know her – what’s the word? – oeuvre until I started picking out the song I wanted to do. For reasons we all know, she didn’t get her credit as a songwriter. The one we did, We’re All Water, is often attributed to John Lennon because he played guitar on it.
She obviously has a bit of a bad rep in the rock world, but when you hear her good stuff, it’s easily up there with someone like Nico.
The Plastic Ono Band with John Lennon, those are totally great. She’s abrasive, her voice is purposefully abrasive. I find that with myself as well sometimes, that people just aren’t interested. It’s not soothing, it’s challenging. When I first came out, the New York Times wrote this great article saying my voice was somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Yoko Ono. Oh my god, that’s heavy! But I didn’t even know what Yoko Ono’s voice sounds like. But when I heard it, I was incredibly complimented by that. Her work’s very idealistic, every word that comes out is a haiku poem, but also it’s all about peace in the world, super-idealistic in a way. I can be too, but then I think ‘Oh, that’s so cheesy’. But so what if you’re an idealist. You’re able to get these things out in the world as best you can. That’s something I admire about her: she still sticks with slogans from the ’60s even though it’s not fashionable anymore.
And you’re working with her again, I believe.
Yeah, hopefully. We know Sean Lennon well, because he’s a fan of Tune-Yards and us of him. So we’ll see where it goes.
The new album is called w h o k i l l. Explain the lettering on the album title. Is it an aesthetic thing or a cryptic thing?
It’s just the way it came out. And I have a history of sticking to my guns over form and text. I studied Dada a lot and the Dadaist way of screwing with text is compelling to me, a subtle way of fucking with civilisation and language. It’s always been there. I don’t know if you’re into graphic novels, but I think it’s part of our generation’s artistic right to fuck with what we want to fuck with. Throughout the recording it was called Women Who Kill, but spelt as one word. I changed my mind, based on the reaction of some trusted cohorts.
What was their reaction?
We could’ve got away with calling it womenwhokill, but you and I would’ve talked a lot more about women than I feel the need to. That was the argument people had. "If you want this all to be 'this is about women being empowered and we can kill too', if you want to talk about that for the rest of your life, then fine, call it that." When I really thought about it, I felt there was way more to this, about violence, about killing; there’s plenty of that in there without it being a women’s issue. No need to go there.
It does also sound like a tatty TV show.
Yeah, that also. It was compelling to me because women aren’t expected to be violent and I think it’s a great title, but w h o k i l l is great too. It could be a bird call, it could be Tune-Yards who kill, it’s open ended. I love my music to be as open-ended as possible.
But it’s not some cryptic thing, or an acronym?
No, no. Or maybe it is and I will never tell [laughs].