The decidedly non-bird-brained tUnE-yArDs is searching for freedom in her own back garden
Words Hazel Sheffield
Photography Dan Kendall
The first time I tried to listen to w h o k i l l, the second album by tUnE-yArDs, was on the morning commute. In the centre of a train in a hole crammed with suits, my ears were battered by sirens and yelling and stories about riots and murder splashed with bright gloss. Too much. I needed to be anaesthetised, not shaken awake by songs that sound like they belong on a breakfast cereal advert, danced to by a man with a CGI smile three times bigger than his face.
The second time I tried to listen to w h o k i l l was in my chair with a book, but that didn’t work either. w h o k i l l is a far cry from the soft lo-fi of BiRd-BrAiNs, tUnE-yArDs’ debut. Those were strong, but tamed songs. ‘Fiya’ even ended up on a Blackberry advert. Trying to read a book while listening to w h o k i l l was like trying to read in an Imax cinema while wearing 3D glasses. I kept losing both plots.
Merrill Garbus, the 31-year-old behind tUnE-yArDs, has always cared more about making an impression than being instantly liked. “My music is straight,” she explains down the phone from Oakland, California, where she has just returned after SXSW. “People say they don’t really know how to categorise it. I hope that it gives people the freedom to think in different ways. For me it’s very satisfying to say, ‘That’s mine.’”
Her sound certainly is distinctive. Dubbed ‘polypop’, Merrill’s music spans hip hop and African rhythms, filling them out with her tremendous voice — the same voice that won’t be relegated to the background.
Theatre training and four years working as a puppeteer after college gave Merrill that kind of confidence and stage presence. But sincerity in a world of cynicism hasn’t always served her well. On seeing her live in 2009, Jon Caramanica of The New York Times said, “The first bug-eyed incantation feels fresh, the eighth begins to grate.”
For Merrill, that expressiveness isn’t staged: it’s the only way she knows how to work.
“It’s really important for me to engage physically in the music. Whatever that means — rhythmically or moving on stage,” she explains. Often the cross-rhythms she uses are so complicated she has to remember them in her body rather than trying to write them out.
“I felt my whole life that I wanted to be physically free,” she adds.
Merrill was born on the east coast and moved several times during her childhood as her architect father struggled to find work during the recession of the 1980s. His work took their small family from The Bronx to Poughkeepsie in upstate New York. They eventually settled in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“It was just tennis and country clubs,” she says of New Cannan. “I definitely had this sense of being an outsider, and also this sense from a young age that money takes all the fun out of everything.”
Later on she would visit Africa as part of her studies and eventually settle in Montreal because she was “searching for that outsider’s perspective”. An intense period of depression followed.
“My mid-twenties were one of the most hellish times I’ve ever lived through,” she says. But while most kids fresh from university are worrying about themselves, Merrill’s problems seemed to span the globe.
“After going to Africa I had a hard time understanding my role as an American or as an artist,” she explains. “I think I wondered why I wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer, or someone who could make a huge difference in the world.”
Did she ever work that out? “No. But my life is going to be spent asking those questions. I think before I thought I’d come to some great solution and miraculously find a way where everything makes sense. The truth is that nothing makes sense.”
Though she was born a radical, Merrill was terrified of attending riots while living illegally in Montreal in case she was deported and lost everything. So she returned to the States.
“I realised that it was a good opportunity to build a relationship with my country, which I have a very mixed opinion of,” she explains of her move to Oakland. But it was also because she fell in love.
“I find that now I’m in my thirties I’m trying to really engage directly with my own life; to not leave decisions to other people and not feel passive, but really engage,” she continues. “I feel I can do that here. In our society there are very limited acceptable outlets for releasing a lot of energy. I’m just happy to have found one in my work, and to be able to channel it.”
Hear a tUnE-yArDs track from w h o k i l l on our issue 31 mixtape here