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

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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.”

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