Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards on Fusing Art, Music, and Style Onstage
Seeing Tune-Yards live is not your typical concert experience. Once you step into whatever cavernous, densely packed venue they're playing, expect to see elaborate costumes, a highly visual set, and an ample amount of face paint. On the whole, the show feels more like a performance-art piece than a standard music gig, and that's thanks in no small part to frontwoman Merrill Garbus. After getting her B.A. in Theater from Smith College, the jack-of-all-trades musician did a stint as a puppeteer at the well-known Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont before bringing her artistic eclecticism to the freak folk duo she currently fronts with her partner, Nate Brenner.
Tune-Yards burst onto the indie music scene in 2009 with their debut album, Bird-Brains, and, ever since, has continuously entranced audiences with their infectious, highly danceable Afro-pop, which sounds like an amalgam of Vampire Weekend, The Go! Team, and Alabama Shakes with a tinge of '80s New Wave. Now, the band is out with their third full-length effort, Nikki Nack, and a worldwide tour to boot. We caught up Garbus after checking out her jam-packed show at N.Y.C.'s Music Hall of Williamsburg. Here’s an excerpt of our chat:
What was your goal in creating this album? I felt stuck at the end of [2011's] Whokill. I wanted to grow as a singer and prove my own legitimacy to myself, in a way. As a female producer, musician, and songwriter, there's always a weird sense of needing to feel accomplished and knowledgable, so when someone says, "She's just an of-the-moment buzz band," I can back myself up with real musicianship.
Can you speak about the spoken-word interlude (Why Do We Dine On The Tots) on the record? Is that based on [Jonathan Swift's satirical essay] A Modest Proposal?In my twenties, I was writing a puppet show called The Fat Kid Opera that was based on A Modest Proposal. I facetiously talked about eating Irish babies as a solution for starvation and hunger, and that same metaphor of eating our own children seemed very applicable these days.
Why is that? To me, it speaks to our policies and how they address or disregard future generations. It's very rare that we're actually making decisions as a country that are for the long-term benefit of our species. So, in the song, the grandpa asks, "Why are we eating our own children?" and the mother says, "Well, think about it, they're smelly and they're just a pain in the butt." There are plenty of reasons to not make powerful climate change policy, or keep using fossil fuels, or do all these things that are threatening our world for future generations, and they seem to make so much sense. So, to me, it's a totally grotesque and weird metaphor, but it felt appropriate.
What did you listen to growing up?When I was ten years old, my aunt and uncle lived in Kenya, so that really opened up my mind to the fact that there were many other parts of the world, and I started learning more about East Africa. That was also around the time that I first heard Graceland. Suddenly, African music became of interest to me, but I was also living in Connecticut, so I was listening to Z-100's top hits, like Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and Debbie Gibson.
Was your home music-filled? My mom is a piano teacher and a classical pianist, so she gave me lessons when I was a kid. She and my dad played folk dances in New York City in the '70s. I haven't exactly mastered any one instrument myself, but I play a tiny bit of piano, ukelele, old-time fiddle (which is basically like the violin, except I can't play the violin), and drums.
The set design and costumes for your current tour are very eccentric. What was the inspiration?We started a Pinterest board with palette of things that resonated with me with this album: bubblegum, taffy, mint green and red—sort of a Pee-wee's Playhouse-type thing, because, sonically, the album has so much going on. I had also recently gone to Haiti, so I was looking at a lot of Haitian art, where there's a real attention to color and pizzazz. All of the pieces I wore onstage were commissioned by artists we found on Etsy.
Watch the music video for "Real Thing" below, and buy Nikki Nack for $10 on the iTunes Store.