Tune-Yards interview: ‘I have to sing to survive. Even as a f***** up mess of a white American’

The indie-pop duo had been too paralysed by cries of cultural appropriation to continue making their riveting takes on disco and hip-hop. Now they’re back with their fifth album. How did they move past it? A little bit of ‘f*** it’ attitude, they tell Helen Brown

Thursday 18 March 2021 12:10
Tune-Yards: Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner
Tune-Yards: Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner

urning 40 proved “a bit of a f*** it’ moment” for Merrill Garbus. The founder and frontwoman of indie-pop duo Tune-Yards (styled tUnE-yArDs) had spent decades agonising about “how much space to take up”. As a feminist, she wanted her voice to be heard loud and clear. But as a white American singer-songwriter, making money from records heavily inspired by black music, she felt an equal and opposite inclination to “disappear beneath a boulder of crushing guilt”.

On the sofa of her new Californian home, curled up beside husband and bandmate Nate Brenner, she leans in to our video call to tell me that making Tune Yards’ fifth album, sketchy, felt like a “thaw” of the paralysis she felt after being called out for cultural appropriation. “I mean, it might reveal the kind of ugly objects you find when the snow melts…” she laughs, “but still. A thaw.”

Although a conversation with them can feel a bit like a social studies seminar, they’re very funny. Brenner, the quieter of the two, dryly lampoons their hipster West Coast lifestyle. “We jog,” he says. “There’s no cheese, no sugar, no oil, no fun. Just nutritional yeast and beans. A lot of beans.” As they talk, their adorable chihuahua-mix Cocoa occasionally pokes her head out from beneath a blanket on their laps and they coo in delight.

As a long-term fan, I’m delighted to hear Garbus laughing again. Her lyrics have always tackled difficult, heavyweight topics, and yet her music has always been full of gleefully experimental spring and snap. And, while thoughtfully unpacking some of the “uglier” aspects of contemporary culture (white guilt, misogyny, environmental destruction, trickle down economics), sketchy comes spring-loaded with the band’s original spins on hip-hop beats, disco and funk. 

Garbus was born in New England 1979, the eldest of two daughters. Her parents are both folk singers but as a child she wasn’t gripped by their Bob Dylan records, preferring the bouncier sounds of Michael Jackson hits and Paul Simon’s Graceland. That early connection to African music led her to spend time teaching music at a Kenyan primary school while at college and travel around Africa to study the rhythms of the continent. 

She began her performing career as a puppeteer, “putting on intense shows in black and white, sleeping in a barn and cleaning houses to support myself”. But it gradually dawned on her that “people were more interested in going out to see colourful gigs than intellectually heavy puppet shows”. She took a job as a nanny to support herself through making Tune-Yards’ first album in 2009, BiRd-BrAiNs

Based around just her vocals and ukulele, captured on a handheld voice recorder and self-released on recycled cassette tape, BiRd-BrAiNs was playful but serious. It was also an instant lo-fi hit, slotting into playlists alongside music by Joanna Newsom, Devendra Barnhart and Jolie Holland. David Byrne and St Vincent loved it. Critics were bowled over by Garbus’s “barbaric yawp” of a voice and her original cocktail of folk, afrobeat and indie-pop. There was always inner conflict in her lyrics, though. “I could be the sunlight in your eyes,” she sang on “Sunlight”. But also: “What if my own skin makes my own skin crawl?”

‘There are a couple of songs I no longer play because I regret them so much'

Brenner signed on for Tune-Yards’ second album, 2011’s w h o k i l l. Along with scrunching horns and studio engineering, his fluid jazz bass added a depth and elasticity to their music. Hip-hop, reggae, punk and punk were all fused into a cohesive sound that they perfected on their third album, Nikki Nack (2014), the lead single of which, “Water Fountain”, they performed on Later with Jools Holland. Garbus was dressed in a red plastic dress with rainbow-gold sleeves roaring, whooping, clapping and pounding her drums, a stripe of tribal face paint slashed across her eyebrows beneath her shock of a peroxide mop.

But by the time I met them in 2018, the band were quiet, nervous and dressed in muted greys. Fourth album I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life found them responding directly to charges of cultural appropriation over her use of African rhythms, singing styles and narratives in which she imagined herself into the position of black women. “I use my white woman voice to tell stories of travels with African men,” sang Garbus on its track “Colonizer”: “I hear the blood in my voice.” The dance music the duo had created with their Prophet 8 was ridiculously cool and tendon-twanging. But Garbus sounded like a woman whose yawping wings had been clipped.

Today she says, “There are a couple of songs I no longer play because I regret them so much,” those being “Doorstep” and “She’s not Jamaican”. “I stand behind them but it was at a different time and because they were a part of the process,” she continues. “On the last album I was pretty paralysed by every note. I questioned if I was appropriating black culture just by opening my mouth. I didn’t want to be photographed. We didn’t know what to do with the artwork. I mean, what’s a good visual accompaniment to an album about whiteness and horrible self-realisation?”

But that’s when the “little bit of f*** it” came in. “There’s a fine line,” she says, “between not agonising enough and crossing over into self-centeredness and self-pity about how terrible you are. It’s important to stay with the discomfort of what you’re a part of and let the pain really sink in deeply enough to allow you to do the work you need to do on yourself and in the world. But then you need to move on. And I realised that I have to sing to survive. Even as a f***ed-up mess of a white American.”

In addition to attending workshops on white privilege and reading books by black feminists like Octavia Butler and Grace Lee Boggs, Garbus and Brennan had been taking singing lessons together. They realised they both “felt better physically and mentally” afterwards. “I mean, trauma specialists recommend singing, vocalising, humming as a pathway through the hardest parts of our psyches. Staying ‘awake’” – a term they use instead of ‘woke’ – “can be incredibly painful but music can be a balm.” And she realised that, without claiming to have all the answers, she could own her condition in song. “So I wrote the line, ‘In my voice you can hear what I owe’.” And she used a lot of repetition after realising the healing, meditative power of chanting. 

Buying their first home also allowed them to “be noisy at home for the first time”. Exploring new sounds reminded Garbus of her “Brecht thing”. 

“I’m always asking myself how I can use art without manipulating people’s feelings?” she continues. “How do you offer a space for them to feel what they need to feel?” In the event, this turned out to be: “thrashing out something on drums and bass, putting it through the sampler and chopping it up and… taa— blah!”

Jamming “like athletes” in their new studio, the pair found themselves using Beastie Boys as guides through the social minefield. “The remaining Beastie Boys are not cowering in shame over the money they made for a black art form,” says Garbus. “They’re talking about how they were made into a white hip-hop crossover group and they’re f****** hilarious about it. I still want to listen to them. They’re flawed and alive and joyful.”

So Tune-Yards have shed the grey-scale sounds and visuals of I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life and are ”back in colour”. Performing their new song “Hold Yourself” on The Late Show last month, Garbus dressed in bright, stripy dungarees and rolled around on a heap of pink and yellow beanbags. Against the warm embrace of a golden brass hook, she sang lines aimed sharply at the hearts of the Therapy Generation: “Parents they made us/ They tried to raise us/ But parents betrayed us even when they tried/ They held us close and dear/ And told us lies that they’ve been telling themselves for years/ They’ll suffocate me so I/ Hold myself now…” 

Although she won’t comment on her personal choices today, the song also finds Garbus speaking for the increasing number of women choosing not to perpetuate the emotional cycle by becoming parents themselves: “Child, I won’t have you/ I cannot have you/ I cannot mend this/ I can’t pretend without a break in sight.”

Garbus has often spoken about the importance of women expressing rage. In a Pitchfork article championing Yoko Ono – published shortly after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 – she wrote: “I can’t think of a better time in history to hear a woman scream-sing her head off. What a vulnerable thing it is to sing at all! Let alone sing in the unpretty, intense, often ecstatic timbres of life as a woman and mother, as a wife – this particular wife.”

Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards performing onstage in 2014

On sketchy, she delivers a formidable scream-sing of her own. The defiant “Nowhere Man” was written in response to the 2019 Alabama law banning abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. “That was f***ed up,” she says. “I felt constrained and terrified. I had a moment of wanting to do terrible violent things to old white men. I am aware that people will call it an ‘angry song’ but it was more complicated than just anger. Anger sounds like a flattening word. It was me questioning: what do I have control over? On whose behalf am I allowed to be angry?” 

“Living in a woman’s body,” she says, “I’ve been conditioned not to take up space, and that’s wrong. The feminist, educated, I-went-to-an-all-women’s-school part of my brain is always telling me not waste energy managing my body, shaving my f****** armpits. But then there’s the reality, which is that I’ve been very trained into thinking that I should be smaller, that my body is never OK.”

Using the not-especially-angry medium of magnetic letters, on her fridge’s whiteboard while cooking, Garbus wrote her “angry song”, complete with lines like: “Seems like Jesus and Dylan got the whole thing wrong/ If you cannot hear a woman then how can you write her song?”

She stresses that, despite being overexposed to his music as a child, “I have no particular beef with Bob Dylan. He’s just some dude. I really love the lap steel on Lay Lady Lay. And f*** him because he really does complexity that doesn’t always come from a white, male-dominant place. It’s not his fault he’s on every third cover of Rolling Stone magazine or every list of everything. But I’m frustrated with a culture that’s calling him a God. Can I say: what the f***, everyone? Where’s Joni Mitchell when you design those covers? Can we not have Odetta as our God? Can’t we just choose?” 

She sighs, then smiles warmly. “Being awake,” she concludes, “is like being in a Matrix movie. Making sense of where and who I am is going on for a really long time. Unwinding and teasing it all apart is complicated and painful. But I’m not going to squelch my own life force any more. Staying joyful is the trick, right?”

Sketchy is out on Friday (26 March) via 4AD

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