A Groove of Her Own

tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus ’01 aims to ‘move pop music forward’

by Christina Barber-Just

Merrill Garbus ’01 catapulted onto the music scene in 2011 with w h o k i l l, the second album from her tUnE-yArDs project. The band’s 2009 debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, was critically acclaimed, but w h o k i l l was a different animal altogether—a release that made more than 100 critics’ top-10 lists and captured the raw, experimental zeitgeist of indie-pop music. Rolling Stone called it the year’s “most thrillingly weird record—a joyous, idea-stuffed album built on a stream of horns, loops, ukulele riffs and skeletal dance grooves, and powered by Garbus’ bucking bronco of a voice.” Garbus talked to the SAQ about her unique sound.Merrill Garbus

How she builds a song: I have this thing called a looping pedal, and a mic goes into it. I hold up the mic to a drum and do a very short recording of something on it. Then I press the looping pedal again, and whatever is going into the mic is then looped on top of that. So, if I start with four tom beats, then the next layer can be snare hits on beats two and four, and then I can add a vocal line on top of that. It’s like a mini recording machine that puts looping sounds in layers.

Finding her voice: Part of what I love about live performance is a sense of miracle or magic—doing things that aren’t supposed to be humanly possible. And because I found the most strangeness in my voice, that’s really where I try to bring that sense in.

What’s with the face paint?: It’s part of the ritual for me. I like to separate Merrill the human being from Merrill who is on stage, because it is a sacred space and something else happens there. I need to be able to do things on stage that I can’t do on the street or in a smaller group of people. I need to be able to access something deeper.

Writing her “feminist anthems”: My experience being a woman in the world has been very influential in my [songwriting]. Part of that is getting in touch with my frustrations about being a woman, or just speaking from a woman’s perspective. That is where I feel a lot of tension between myself and the world.

Smart pop: Somebody’s got to move pop music forward. I want be there. I want to be in the vanguard. I want to push what pop songs talk about and what pop culture is talking about. I take it really seriously.

Next up: I’m hoping the [next] album will start to come together. I’m also hoping there’ll be room for trips and studying. I’m studying Haitian drumming and dance right now. I’m also continuing with my vocal studies—just studying more of what I’m interested in so I can really grow as an artist and fulfill myself.

Ten things about Merrill Garbus
1. Music is in her blood. Her mother, a piano teacher, also plays the accordion and harpsichord. Her father plays the fiddle and banjo. Her sister, Ruth Garbus, is a member of the band Happy Birthday.
2. She majored in theatre and lived in Tenney House.
3. She studied Swahili at Smith and spent a semester of her junior year in Kenya.
4. As a student, she sang with the Smithereens and then the Noteables.
5.  For a while after graduation, she was a puppeteer with Vermont’s Sandglass Theater.
6.  In her early days as a musician, she lived in her aunt and uncle’s basement in Northampton and performed at open mics around the city.
7.  Before founding tUnE-yArDs, she was in a band called Sister Suvi.
8.  She lives in Oakland, California, with her boyfriend, Nate Brenner, bassist for tUnE-yArDs.
9.  Her cousin Rachel Garbus is a member of Smith’s class of 2013.
10. She’s on Twitter @tuneyards.