When Merrill Garbus first picked up a ukulele in 2004, it was to accompany a puppet show.
And when she quit being a puppeteer, and went to work as a nanny while wondering what to do with her life, she took to writing "sad songs" on the instrument, in her bedroom in Montreal, recording the vocals on a Dictaphone. As a starting point for stardom, it isn't the most likely.
But add a canniness with a looping pedal, which allows her to play and then layer different sounds and vocals, and give this one-woman-band the name Tune-Yards (or, rather, tUnE-yArDs) – and you've got one of the most hyped musical artists of recent years.
Tune-Yards' first record, BiRd-BrAiNs, was assembled by Garbus in 2009, using her handheld digital recorder and share-ware mixing software. The result was scratchy, shamelessly DIY and lo-fi in a way that won her a certain type of admiration.
Yet it was her live shows that really turned indie interest into full-blown fandom. As a support act for fellow pop deconstructionists The Dirty Projectors, she frequently stole the show, brimming with ferocious energy, her face smeared in tribal war paint. Garbus builds up layers of yelping, yodelling, crooning and bellowing vocals, complicated rhythms clacked out on drumsticks or walloped on a tom-tom drum, and tinny, catchy refrains on her uke. Onstage, her looping multi-tasking impresses with its technical virtuosity, but it's her beaming smiles and animal roars, how she moves from baring her teeth in a snarl to baring her soul with her lyrics, that made audiences take her to their hearts.
Meeting Garbus before a show in Lyon, it's obvious how important the live experience is to her. She grew up in Connecticut, her parents' home full of music and musicians – they met when playing at folk dances – leaving Garbus to wonder what wasn't an inspiration for her (she has been known to namecheck artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone and Bach.
She is clear, however, that the years she spent studying theatre have been just as much of an influence: "I see a lot of bands who don't focus on the performance so much which makes their shows boring. To me there's a sense of theatre and performance that is like sacred art. It's a moment when a community comes together and experiences a thing together. It's important to steer away from 'Merrill Garbus is the genius behind Tune-Yards and she does everything herself' and steer more towards me being part of a conduit that makes this experience possible for all of us."
She adds that, for her, it was never about "being a rich rock star; it was more like I want to be part of a powerful performative experience". But in the middle of a major solo tour, the 32-year-old has almost got both.
Her second album, w h o k i l l, released earlier this year, generated excitement beyond just hipsterish music websites. With its blending of homespun folkiness, African rhythms, R&B vocal stylings, dub grooves and driving brass and bass, the album won rave reviews. Gone was the Dictaphone; Garbus entered a studio and the record has a sheen and an expansiveness that reflect both that professional environment and her live performances.
"They're as different as they could be coming from the same person," Garbus says of the two albums. "Between [BiRd-BrAiNs] and recording the next album my life completely changed. All of a sudden, there was an extreme amount of interest in tUnE-yArDs, and we went on tour for a year and a half. And that experience of performing live for hundreds and sometimes thousands of people had this huge effect on the sound and how big I wanted it to be. So the main sonic difference is that it just has more room, more space to it."
But there was a pressure in following up her geekily guarded first album. She confesses to feeling almost paralysed by the weight of expectations, mostly her own. "The name of the album, whokill, came from this idea of killing – not things or people, but parts of me. I felt like I was going through this immense change ... I was filled with terror a lot of the time."
Garbus, who absently scratches at her arms throughout much of the interview, is clearly someone who has wrestled with demons of self-doubt. She describes the move from a tight-knit community in Montreal to Oakland, California, in order to record whokill as like "lopping off a limb". Selling "Fiya" for an American BlackBerry advert was "another chopping of this image that I had of myself as a pure DIY artist who would never do anything as grotesque as sell a song". It seems apt, watching her on stage a few hours later performing "Hatari", that when she roars "How did you get here?" her own answers are "Got on a plane/Hack off a leg".
For someone who makes such bounding, joyful music, Garbus's lyrics are frequently violent – whokill keeps returning to riots, blood on the streets. "Growing up as a woman, I had this very palpable fear of violence against me ... then there was the Haiti earthquake, not to mention New Orleans – there were all these reminders of violence in the world, and the death and then the rebirth of things. It sounds pretty lofty now, but I need those kind of really big themes to write music about."
But Garbus doesn't take herself too seriously. "Killa" lampoons the fact that she's become a hipster favourite, while "Gangsta" mocks the desire to be "street". And those phonetically spelt titles are also about being awkward, keeping the listener at one level of remove.
Discussing many fans' favourite Tune-Yards track, "Fiya" (sung as "fire"), she explains with some embarrassment that "it's an epic song that also has that introspective folk singer thing going on; every time I play it I'm like really? I started a song with 'When a girl feels so alone.' If I'd called it 'Fire' it would be this over-dramatic, over-romantic thing."
When asked whether that self-loathing has also been lopped off in the past year, she quips that such a feat would probably take another 30. But while success is a pressure, the changes of the past year have also been fortifying. "When you don't like yourself it's hard to get up on a stage," she says candidly. "I did a lot of work in the nine months we had off to help with that. I had to get to a point of loving myself and protecting myself from myself."
Perhaps it helps that, after the early years of performing entirely by herself, she has also found a way to let others in. It's not such a solo project any more: after doing some touring with other musicians, she collaborated further during the recording of whokill, even sharing writing credits on several tracks with Nate Brenner, her bassist and her romantic partner of two and half years. "The very first rehearsal we had together two years ago, that was challenging, we both had this letting go to do," she explains. "But we've come to a really good balance." On the current tour, she is joined by Brenner and two saxophonists, and while some fans might mourn the passing of the one-girl-in-her-bedroom stage, the bigger sound works.
When a girl feels so alone? Watching her onstage, flicking a smile at Brenner, or stretching her arms out to the audience, you feel Garbus is having no problem making a connection. The girl's alone no more.
Tune-Yards tour from WednesdayReuse content