Playing against type
Merrill Garbus is tUnE-yArds. And she cares even less for stereotypes than she does for cases. Her influences are many, her sound is lo-fi, her style is homespun . . . and her look is exactly what she wants, she tells
same accessibility; of being involved in people’s stories.”
BiRd-BrAiNs was self-recorded on a digital voice recorder, and Garbus used free editing software to multi-track it. Aware that this is as basic as recording gets, she is blown away by the success of the album. “I really like these songs, and as soon as I started this method of making recordings, I was intrigued by it. I was bored by so much pop music and dismayed by a music culture where faults are not allowed in recording studios anymore. There are just so many techniques that take the human element out of recording.”
Garbus admits it was a “time-consuming and private way of recording”, but it gave her the autonomy to make her album sound exactly the way she wanted it to. “I knew I was breaking so many recording rules, but I liked how things sounded. Although it was embarrassing when 4AD [her UK label] sent the album to Abbey Road to be mastered and the engineer was like, ‘you CAN’T do this’.”
This resistance to doing what people expect extends to her tUnE-yArDs name, (yes she likes the mixed capitalisation, but only did it to stand out in the infinite sea of MySpace profiles). There is something very uncompromising about Merrill Garbus, even though she’s warm and self-deprecating with a big laugh. She talks of overcoming shyness and self-loathing; of learning to accept herself and being vociferous about control of her own music.
“As soon as I began recording these songs in the way that I did, I decided I was going to be stubborn about it. I’ve met women in music and we’ve all felt that lack of power, with people telling you what to do, because it’s so male-dominated. I’ve worked with great guys, but sometimes there is a sense that men don’t understand what the experience of a woman artist is. If you do things differently, you can get a lot of flak for that. I didn’t intend this record to be a feminist statement, but it turned into one right before my eyes.”
On stage, Garbus – perhaps in a throw back to her theatre days – often appears with her face daubed with paint. It’s a statement about art as much as it is about physicality, and the conversation turns to women in music and the pressures placed on them regarding appearance.
“I’ve never felt conventionally beautiful, and one of the reasons I quit puppetry was because I had this fear of being on stage. There was a sense that if I didn’t look like everyone else, I didn’t belong there. With music, I dodged this expectation that I would be a slim, porcelain-faced woman, but I still get amazingly cruel comments online about my physical appearance. I’m not a skinny blonde woman, but there’s a punk-rock spirit where you don’t have to be pretty, and neither does your music. It’s something I value about the genre I’m in: the ability for women to be ugly when performing. And I’m intentionally ugly on stage.”
Her next album is at a tentative stage, but she plans on working with several female contemporaries such as Thao Nguyen, White Hinterland’s Casey Dienel and New York noise artist Bora Yoon. “I have no idea what the next record will sound like, but I’m dedicated to human flaws being a part of it.”