Our 2011 Artist Of The Year looks
back on what was an amazing year for her even as she plots her next
move. But first, there’s some apartment cleaning to do…
BY MAX BLAU
It’s hard to imagine how Merrill Garbus could’ve had a
better 2011. The tUnE-yArDs frontwoman released an eclectic-pop masterpiece
with her sophomore effort w h o k i l l (4AD),
grew tremendously as a performer and garnered a reputation as one of
indie-rock’s most dynamic figures around. She was even named BLURT’s Artist of the Year. Not bad for someone who not too long
ago resisted the idea of a career as a professional musician.
As the calendar comes to an end, we talked with Garbus about
what has been a whirlwind of a year for her. Even with all the year-end
accolades, she admits that there’s plenty of work left to be done. That’s not
to say she remains unhappy about her progress, but rather she’s trying to take
the good and the bad in stride when reflecting upon her work. We recently
caught up with the now Oakland-based songwriter, who discussed her thoughts on
the past year as well as what 2012 has in store for tUnE-yArDs.
tUnE-yArDs has been widely praised and acclaimed this year, how would you
assess yourself in 2011? What do you think you’ve done great and what do you
think you still need to improve on?
MERRILL GARBUS: I have to stop myself sometimes to take a look
back and be proud, to give myself a reality check about all the things I’ve
accomplished this year. Honestly, life gets pretty messy when you spend
eight months of every year on the road, so mostly what I’m focused on is
staying healthy, getting bins to organize all of my crap, paying my rent on
time and/or soothing the nerves of my landlord… you know, mundane
stuff. All to say, there is PLENTY to work on. The fact is, I’ve hardly
found time to work on music this year, as in rehearsing and writing and
practicing, and that’s what I really need to change in the future.
I think the “Bizness”
video is great and that was hardly my doing, but the hard work of a lot of
talented artists, dancers, directors and choreographers in the Bay Area. I’m
proud of the Roots appearance on Jimmy Fallon, mostly just that I didn’t pee my
pants. I’m proud that I pushed through and finished the album, because it
was a long undertaking with much self-doubt woven into it.
Initially, you were
resistant to becoming a professional musician. What’s been the most
difficult and enjoyable part of the journey to where you are today?
The enjoyable stuff is pretty clear… it’s a wonderful,
wonderful thing to bring a night of celebration to people and to have that
centered around these strange songs that I wrote and that somehow people
connect with. Every artist, I think, is looking for that opportunity to
resonate with an audience, however small or big that audience is. And I’ve
suddenly tapped into an incredible appreciation of my work, by thousands of
people. I couldn’t ask for a more encouraging environment to keep making music.
really difficult at times… if you’re not drunk or on drugs most of the time,
which I am not. But otherwise it’s very hard to complain. Sure, it’s
stressful, and it’s a bizarre up-and-down life where you’re showered with
accolades one minute and then hauling amps through a piss-filled alleyway the
next, but every night we get to raise people’s spirits, inspire them to dance,
and receive this huge burst of energy and joy.
certain things that you still struggle with as you continue to become more
seasoned as a professional musician?
Sure. The whole thing’s a struggle. But that’s
what life is, no? And it turns out I get incredible rewards along the way.
For me in
particular, I guess keeping my voice and my arms and wrists together is a
struggle. Not much you can do when your body revolts. And there’s the
struggle of running a small business at the same time that you’re appearing in
front of hundreds of people every night, which is a struggle I’ll continue to
wrestle with until I figure some better systems out. I try to remember
that I’m fairly young in this industry and need to be patient with
myself. Honestly, there’s a struggle I have with feeling detached from my
friends, my community, with real life. Touring is a very warped way to
live. Especially now, when Oakland
is alive with the Occupy movement, I often wish I had more energy to give when
home, instead of feeling like I need to curl up in a ball on my bed.
After being someone
for years who wasn’t a professional musician and had other interesting
things you focused on (music being secondary), what do you do for fun
on the side nowadays with your music being your priority?
Fun?! Fun these days is NOT having fun, sort of… I
consider my working life fun, especially since we bring the party every night
of the week, so fun is now being in bed or (the most fun) cleaning my
apartment. Every night. Seriously.
You’ve played live in
a variety of configurations, including recently in Atlanta
as a quartet. What would your ideal setup be and why? Do you enjoy
performing as a multi-instrumentalist doing as much as you do in
a four-piece (as
opposed to say, just percussion or just ukulele and vocals)?
I think the configuration of tUnE-yArDs is bound to change
over the years, because it can, and should. The whole thing is very free
and flexible, and I think it is best that way. Right now, I juggle a lot
on my own but am then supported by these stellar musicians around me. In
this way, I think the audience gets that exhilarating “it’s magic!”
feeling when I create the loops while at the same time not feeling sorry for me
that I am working my ass off up there.
I always want
to steer away from being the center of attention all the time, though I know
that’s what’s happening these days. For my own mental health, I think it’s
important to see myself as part of a greater whole, and playing with other
skilled musicians has been a great way to do that. What’s far more
interesting in the end, I think, is what’s happening to all of us together in
that room, versus just me.
As dynamic as
tUnE-yArDs is on record, the live show has this whole other powerful
component to it. It’s almost like watching a song be constructed
in the moment during a concert. You could have a drummer or
trigger programmed beats, but you’re looping live percussion. Do you find
that people engage on a different, more curious level, because of your
Yes, absolutely. Again, “magic!” They
know it’s not magic, of course. But I’ve always wanted to give people that
old-fashioned sense of entertainment where the performer is doing something
that they feel they could never do. Like the circus: the excitement is
that the impossible is being performed. And that means so much on a
grander scale, because if she can do the impossible, what else is
possible? That’s when the whole thing gets inspiring, and spiritual, even.
In some ways, w h o k i l l, feels like a
culmination of what you started with 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs, in terms of properly recording your work. Have
you started working on a third record?
I have started writing songs but that’s all the thinking
I’ve done about it. It could go many different directions. The only thing
I know is that I want to focus on the voice and all of its potential colors and
As someone whose
expressed an affinity for lo-fi recording and having one “higher”-fidelity
record under your belt, do you have a better sense now of what you
prefer? I think many lo-fi devotees stick to that because they’re
not comfortable with more traditional studio recording.
I think it’s a distinction that I want to blur. I will
always want to hear humanity within a recording, and that, to me, means never
hiding behind the technology. Never masking the mistakes, the ugly parts,
the grit. I just want the recordings to remain interesting sonically. Like
that really interesting person you have a friend crush on because they have so
much life in them, and scars, and wrinkles, and strange vocal ticks and
It has been my
experience that it’s not just about the songwriting. It’s about how the
song is evoked through the recording process. How it lives in a space,
where that bird chirp came from, where the musicians were when they
recorded. I think a lot of musicians lose that humanity that came through
in their earlier, scrappier recordings, and I don’t want to lose that, because
I think it’s the key.
How has your end goal
with tUnE-yArDs changed in your mind since you started? How do you think
it’ll change if at all moving forward?
I don’t think a lot has changed in terms of my mission, just
the circumstances. I have the same fire in my belly as I did when I was alone
touring in my Chevy, but now I have to fight a bit more to focus in on
it. There are a lot of distractions (a bigger, nicer van, with more dudes
in it, and a lot more t-shirts, and a much bigger audience. Everything,
you see, just got bigger).
process, of growing tUnE-yArDs, has been a big lesson in how powerful I am, how
much power I wield. This has been a hard thing to believe, and then to
embrace. My hope is that I grow that I’ll be able to use this power for
positive, meaningful action, and that I will use it to show other people how
much power they have, too.
Would you mind
elaborating “My Country,” particularly on the line “The worst thing about
living a lie / it’s just wondering when they’ll find out?” It’s one
of those lyrics that’s been stuck in my head this year…
Hmmmm… I had a kid tell me that it’s the line that
inspired him to come out to his family. I’ve heard audiences sing it back
to me like a war chant. It seems to be something that everybody can identify
with, in their own way. (How many lies being lived out there? How heavy the
weight of those lies!) There are the lies we as a country are suddenly exposed
to about our banks, our government. Fabric-of-our-society lies. I’m
not sure that we as a society know what to do with this information.
that’s how I prefer to write songs: a Dadaist smattering of lines that can poke
a nerve at any moment, and come back on you when you don’t expect it. A
line can mean 8 different things no matter where I originally derived it from,
and I want it to mean all of those things. Does that make sense?
long-winded way of saying I’m not telling…
I only found out
recently that the child samples were you as a kid. How did you come with
the concept of juxtaposing yourself at different ages?
I just came across a cassette tape at my grandpa’s house
that said “Merrill at 2 and a half.” I was fascinated by
it. Once I was a bit older than two, I was very shy, around other kids and
in the world. So it was amazing to hear this very pure, unadulterated
(literally) version of myself, being a performer, loving to hear herself
sing. It made me feel like I was getting back to something I had lost for
a long, long time.
Also, my grandparents, who are featured
in those recordings, both passed away as I was finishing the album. So it
became even more important to celebrate the influence they had on me by weaving
them into the recording.
What’s next for 2012?
Are you working on a follow-up record yet? If so, what sort of direction
are you going in so far? If not, what are your plans for next year
(musically and non-musically)?
we’ll go to Australia and New Zealand, Europe again, then festivals over the
summer. I’m hoping there will be room in there for writing. Mostly it
feels like we’ve gone through the grueling year of an album’s release, and that
hopefully this year we can enjoy it a little more, and slow down and remember
to get inspired.
Given the season for
‘best of’ lists, would you mind sharing your favorite album and favorite
artist of 2011, and what about each appeals to you?
My favorite album of the year is Beep’s City of the Future,
an album you have never heard of. It happens to be my Nate Brenner’s band,
but please don’t think I’m just favoring those who are near and dear to
me. The Beep album is daring like few albums are these days.
I don’t like
playing favorites. But favorite artist this year… I’m going to say Low
Cut Connie, my friend Adam’s band. Nasty, gritty, good ol’ rock and roll
and no hipster knows what to do with it.