Merrill Garbus, aka Tune-Yards, gave new meaning to the term “Do It Yourself” with her wonderful 2009 album Bird Brains. Originally released on cassette, the album was pieced together from audio captured on a digital voice recorder.
The album was one of our, and plenty of other music connoisseurs’, “best of 2009” lists. Bird Brains is all the better for its simple nature. It is a patchwork of Garbus’ unique voice, of her wonderful ukulele playing, of looped drumbeats and found-sound clips, all of which she recorded herself.
The result is a raw emotional statement that sounded like nothing else released in 2009. A New England native, Garbus recently relocated to Oakland, California. While managing a crazy touring schedule, she is slowly but steadily working on the followup to Bird Brains, which she said she hopes will be released early in 2011 on 4AD and Marriage Records, her current labels.
TWJ spoke with Tune-Yards in July, while she was on a two-week break from that tour, which included stops in the UK for the Glastonbury Festival, at the Hollywood Bowl in California and, most recently, all across Europe and other lovely destinations.
Garbus told us about seeing The Wu-Tang Clan live in concert. They were accompanied by The Roots, who she said is one of the bands she most admires (“They are total heroes of mine and expanded my mind at a time when it totally needed expanding,” she says). She spoke about the meaning behind the lovely song “Fiya,” and even wanted to hear what our interpretations were. She talked about the process of recording Bird Brains and what she learned, and her fears about a sophomore album slump.
What follows is the interview with Garbus, the contents of which forever endeared her to Matt and Sean (though we didn’t really need to be swayed).
The Wounded Jukebox: Who would you say you make your music for?
Merrill Garbus: That’s a good question. I wish that I could say something nobler than ‘Myself,’ but I think that what I’ve come to is that I have to make it for myself first and then when other people like it, great. But I’ve found that when I make music for other people besides me, it just seems dishonest somehow. So I would say first of all me.
TWJ: To us your music sounds like a scrapbook of different moments. Do you feel like this is something you could pass down to your grandchildren, like ‘This is what my life was like?’
MG: Man, the thought of having grandchildren is a huge one. The past year and a half of my life has been so wild and crazy. I went from touring in my little Chevy and releasing this album on a cassette tape to it being on a much bigger label and having people in Sweden and Japan buy my album. So it’s been me trying to wrap my head around what the hell is going on. But I think definitely the things that keep me sane are, instead of being like ’This is me trying to take over the world,’ it’s the moments where I’m just trying to make sense out of my own world. The scrapbook idea is totally awesome.
I am sort of obsessed with memory triggers — how a song or a smell or a photo or whatever can bring you back to a time — and I also like the evolution, my own evolution as a human being. That I feel I have the same brain I did when I was seven years old. Those scrapbooky things are definitely a part of my consciousness.
TWJ: There are a lot of interesting sounds on Bird Brains, like the clips of children talking or screaming and such. How did you gather the sound clips you used?
MG: Everything on the album went through this little digital voice recorder that I had. So every sound — in a stupid way that I will never do again — every single instrument and vocal take and also all of those clips of kids and voices and things went through this recorder.
It came from this time when I was a nanny for a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and he was an amazing source of inspiration and imagination. We spent basically two summers together. The second summer he was 2.5, so he was in total curiosity mode and observing everything. So all of those are from our interaction. I’m lucky his mom was cool with having him be part of that project. I really have to say that I miss that a lot.
I’ve been really struggling with making a second album for all the reasons of the sophomore slump and the pressure that’s on it. I miss having that. A kid will just bring you back down to earth and say ‘What’s important right now is that at 2 o’clock I get some goldfish crackers.’
It just brings me back to a very tangible and grounded reality. So I miss that. It was a great source of inspiration.
TWJ: Why did the ukulele become your instrument of choice?
MG: Two things I guess. My mom bought me a ukelele that I started writing songs on. She knew that I would like it because I was a puppeteer first. Right after college I started working with puppets and eventually I had this puppet show — a solo puppet opera. And I had some friends that said I should use the ukulele for my show. It had this really creepy sound, but also this really happy sound. It was kind of childlike. So I got myself one and started watching lots of George Harrison — “Concert for George” and other things where he used the ukulele. So that’s how I got started with it.
I’m a singer first and foremost, so it was great to have something that was easy to play. Cause I get frustrated really easily. If you can play ukelele, you can’t go wrong after that. So it was great to have something to play to accompany myself.
TWJ: Do you play anything else?
MG: I play the fiddle, and I used to take piano because my mom was a piano teacher.
TWJ: You just mentioned the fact that you worked as a puppeteer. Please elaborate.
MG: I studied theater (at Smith College in Massachusetts). Theater and African studies. And I wanted to work in an ensemble of creative theater where you’re not just reading lines, and where you’re creating a theater piece with other people. I found this great company called Sand Glass Theater (in Vermont). I went up there and pretty much immediately started learning the craft of puppetry from them. Their school of thought had to deal with a lot of high-minded thinking, like Tai Chi breathing and the whole philosophy of letting the puppet move by itself and you’re the channeler, basically for whatever the puppet wants to do.
There were a lot of techniques we learned in theater that kind of shaped my songwriting too. It was this totally weird, niche thing to do for the first four years of my adult life. To perform these weird puppet shows pretty much for adults. I can complain about not making money, but after being a puppeteer, everything feels like a blessing. That prepared me for a life of artistic poverty for sure.
TWJ: We’ve read that it was about a two-year process for you to put together Bird Brains. Is that accurate? And what was that process like?
MG: Yeah, that’s totally accurate, if not longer. I quit my job at the puppet company and I was just really depressed in general. Just the stresses of being an artist, which you can accept those stresses you know what you’re doing. But I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t want to do puppets anymore and I didn’t know what kind of performance I wanted to to do.
Soon after that, I started playing my ukelele. And the start of those two years was just me playing open mics with just me and the ukelele. And I got this 8-track tape machine and started doing demo recording in the basement where I was living. From that time to the time when the album was finished was probably about three years. But the way I started the recording was when I was a nanny I just discovered that I could put those voice files into Audacity, a simple editing program and I could multi-track that way. And I was like ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about recording at all but it sounded like stuff I’d never heard of before.
It reminded me of recordings that I love that my dad had of old-timey fiddle. He would listen to these recordings that were out of tune and clearly someone with a phonograph record machine went to this person’s house and sat there with them and recorded. Recordings with such feeling and such history.
When I had the digital voice recorder and things started coming out sounding like those old recordings, I was really intrigued by that. From starting that to honing the craft of doing that was a long time coming.
TWJ: Is it exciting to have put out a record where you pretty much did all the steps yourself?
MG: Totally. Very much so. I don’t want to give myself too much credit, but I believe I’ve inspired other people to do that, which was kind of the point. A lot of musicians that I know, when they have a band or start a project, they think ‘We need to go into a studio and spend a lot of money making an album.’ And I’ve seen people lose their shirts doing that and then lose their motivation after they don’t make that money back.
For me it’s been great to be able to say ‘You can do it.’ The sound’s not the greatest — it might not sound like a major-label album — but it’s gotten me pretty far.
I’m struggling with this second record, and I think part of it is now I have to ask for help in order to create the sounds I want to hear. And it doesn’t mean anything less about me that I can’t do every step of the process. And in fact there are stellar engineers out there who really know their craft and can do a lot of things that I absolutely can’t do. I’m learning, that’s the maturity part of it, that I can’t do it all myself.
TWJ: Your music seems deeply personal to us. What do you hope your music allows people to realize about themselves or what do you hope people get out of it?
MG: I know how limited my power is in the world. However, it would be cool to inspire people to know they have the power to create things themselves. And also, I think I am pretty weird at times, and I hope that inspires people to feel like they can be weird in whatever way they need to be. That there’s no right way of doing anything.
I question things a lot, and I love when other people do too. I don’t think we should ever say there’s one way of doing things, that this is how the music business works. I think it’s just really important to constantly question things to make them more like what you want to see.
Matt from TWJ: For a 3 month period I only mowed my lawn exclusively to your album.
MG: (very loud laughter) That’s awesome. I’m glad I could help people with such a task. Maybe you could put a sign on your lawn that says ‘This lawn courtesy of Tune-Yards.’ It’s really awesome to know what people do to my album… I guess that could sound dirty.
It’s so insane to have something that was so personal and think maybe ‘Oh, 10 of my best, closest friends will hear this album,’ and now to have people on tour be like ‘I listened only to your album on my way to work riding on the bus for the past year.’ And I’m like whoa, I can read people’s minds! That’s crazy.
TWJ: Is it a cool feeling to know you can inspire people, even in small ways?
MG: I have a friend who I made through her being a fan of the music. She said she was driving in her car in traffic and heard my song on the radio and was struck by a line of it, and since then she’s really become a musician. It really did alter that moment in her life, but then also what she did with her life.
And both of those things are crazy — to think that I can affect people the way songs have affected me in my life. To think about the power, that could change action. That’s crazy.
TWJ: You released your album on cassette first. What was the attraction of putting it out in that form?
MG: I grew up with cassette tapes, so if I thought when I was a kid about being a musician, I thought about releasing it in that format. I wouldn’t say it was a nostalgia thing, but I think it was what my brain was comfortable with. I like having to create an album that works well in succession, where you would like listening to those songs next to one another and they feel good coming in a sequence. Where it’s not about a single but about the whole experience of listening to the album.
I also like that it slows you down. It’s not an iPod ready thing to have an album that works that way. I like the thought of having a part in slowing people down in their lives and taking moments to reflect on the music and themselves. It’s also not the world we live in. I didn’t ever release it on a CD, and I was convinced to do so when a big record label told me they would give me money to do it. So I went back on my word to myself that I would never do that, but as a result a lot more people have heard the music. And I’ve heard them as singles like “Fiya” and “Hatari,” and people have heard those snippets and caught onto the album that way.
Download “Fiya” from Bird Brainshere.
TWJ: What is the song “Fiya” about?
MG: I generally don’t tell people what songs are about. But I’ll give you the following information. It was definitely written at a frustrating time for me at the demise or just non-beginning of a relationship.
And for me, all of my songs, I’m not happy with them if I feel like it is solely about me and my selfish, stupid human experience. But if one experience can relate to the world, then I feel like I’ve done my job. I guess what I felt was that personal frustration on a one-to-one basis with another person and how that really related to my frustrations in the world. That sounds simplistic, but it was like ‘Really this is happening when all this other shit is going on in the world I have to be focused on this very personal thing that is breaking my heart?’
TWJ: Thank you for sharing that with us. We really appreciate it.
MG: My pleasure.
Thank you for that.
The reason why I don’t like to tell people what I think it’s about is because everyone has their own attachment to it that I want them to have and it’s so beautiful to hear about those things.
Especially for me as a woman when I perform and I have to talk about feelings of ugliness, that’s really raw. I don’t think anyone likes to do that but as a woman performer to have to go up there and say these words, I cringe sometimes. I didn’t think I’d be playing these songs in front of hundreds of people. But it definitely came from a raw place.
–Sean and Matt