Anything can still happen in the avant-indie savant’s gifted musical hands, as her new album and accompanying tour (dates listed here) are proving.
BY HAL BIENSTOCK
tUnE-yArDs’ 2011 album whokill was a surprise breakthrough, landing the band on the top of many year-end lists, including Blurt’s, where bandleader Merrill Garbus was named Artist of the Year. (Read our previous interview with her, “Taking Care of Bizness,” Dec. 27, 2011.) What followed was a year and half of touring around the world, collaborations with people like Yoko Ono and ?uestlove, and a role in the occupy movement, including one famous concert where Garbus led the audience from New York’s famed Lincoln Center to occupy Columbus Circle.
Once the cycle was done, Garbus took some much needed time off, where she traveled and tried to forget everything she knew about songwriting. The process led to her latest album Nikki Nack, which incorporates everything from Haitian rhythms to sing-song chants to ‘80s R&B. It maintains whokill’s sense of anything-can-happen whimsy, while also having its own unique identity. We talked with Garbus.
BLURT:Your career took off quickly after whokill . What was that time like?
GARBUS: Mostly it was being on the road. Like people say, “Success brings more work.” Do people say that? It’s “work begets more work.” If you do well, you get the chance to do more work. If the album does well, you get to stay on tour longer. [Bassist Nate Brenner] and I had been on tour since 2009. whokill came out in 2011. We just stayed on the road playing shows. We were traveling a lot. There was a lot of excitement and also a lot of exhaustion. Before this album was the first time in 10 years that I was at home resting. That felt like a reward. I had well-deserved time to rest and write new music from scratch, rather than whokill, which was written on the road
What did you get from the break?
Being a human again. It really was crucial. I didn’t realize it until now when I can look back and remember how I felt and how I was coping with being on the road. I was coping with the wonderful sense that people were enjoying what we do enough to buy tickets. That’s all great.
I learned what I needed as human to survive long term. I just turned 35. I was 33 then. It was time to think long term suddenly. In my 20s, there was no need to think long term. Who in their 20s thinks about when they’re going to die or retire? I reflected about what I wanted out of this. If you don’t assess what you want can get into a troubled place down the line.
Was it harder writing knowing that there were high expectations this time?
I actually think whokill was far more daunting in terms of the pressure of audience because the leap from [2009’s] BiRd-BrAiNs, which was me in bedroom with a tiny voice recorder, to a record label and an international release and the masses of people that come along with a label the size of 4AD, felt like a really big leap. I understood the expectations that were there this time, but I also understood what the experience would be of tuning those voices out. Nothing can kill creativity more than worrying about what people will think.
How was the writing process for this album different from whokill ?
I tossed my looping pedal. It’s back now. I used it primarily to write on whokill. On my first album it was the ukulele. I didn’t allow myself to write on either this time. I was thinking about the craft of songwriting and how I could get better at that craft. In January 2013, I went to my studio, keeping office hours as much as I could. I started from scratch, using whatever scrap of a musical idea I had that morning.
Writing with drum machines and starting with vocal melodies were two pathways I found this time, especially drum machines, which I didn’t expect to find so much creativity in. That informed the album a lot. tUnE-yArDs to me has been about imperfections and ugly truth and not making things sound too pretty. I thought drum machines would be too digital, too perfect. It was interesting to find a way that drum machines can reflect human imperfections.
You’ve talked about the need to be constantly moving ahead and doing new things. How do you continue to do that as your career goes on?
That was my question to myself. Going in and saying, “How do I push myself out of my comfort zone and how do I push music or pop music without injuring myself, hating myself and having the whole thing be an entirely negative affair?” The first way was to get rid of all the old crutches. That was a scary process. The second was to take lessons in what I thought I knew how to do – singing lessons, drumming lessons. I knew I had room for improvement. I took dance lessons. Like an athlete would train, I wanted to be taught how to use my instrument and my body better.
There were points where I went too far in the direction of, “I have to be innovative so I’ll make a long drum pattern that never repeats and try to make a pop song out of it.” Nate said, “Don’t do things to try to be different or prove you can write a different kind of song. Push yourself, but where’s the line where you’re pushing just for the sake of pushing rather than being true to the vision of the band?” It was helpful to have someone remind me I didn’t need to relate to what other people are doing, just push myself to a limit that felt good.
Do you see a theme on the album?
It’s hard to boil them down. I think a lot about the degradation of society; the crumbling of the infrastructure of society. That tends to be a huge fear of mine as we move forward with technology advancements and cities that are often too big for their britches. The cities we built up in the heyday of cities are not supportable based on the current economy. I live in Oakland. It was a very dynamic place. Downtown was thriving from the ‘30s to the ‘50s. It was abandoned not too long ago. Now it’s going through a revitalization, which also means gentrification and higher rents and pushing out people that are residing there. A lot of themes of the record emanate from living in an American city and in this particular city. “Water Fountain” and “Look Around” both have elements of that.
Another theme is the self-examination I was going through of, “How can I be a better person? How can I be a better musician and what does it mean to change? Can you bring on your own personal transformation?” The answer is probably no, but if you’re looking for it, you’ll find yourself in an appropriate situation.
Is that what “Find a New Way” is about?
For me, I feel a wonderful relief from the self-hatred that has colored my music in the past. That song is one that says, “This isn’t working anymore.” Using the whip on myself isn’t working. Maybe it used to get results, but it isn’t anymore. It’s just killing me slowly. The life of an artist is so rich and wonderful, but it’s also odd to have your personal experience spread around the world on blogs and articles. I always feel the need to share what’s honest and true. Not all my songs are autobiographical, but there are pieces of truth in them. I use words that are not just applicable to the microcosm of my world, but might reflect on other people’s world as well; songs that have a human truth to them, not just my truth.
Garbus’ tour for Nikki-Nack resumes in the UK and Europe any day now. Dates at her official website.