VERY DAY, one of the things I dreamed of once upon a time, actually comes true.” Merrill Garbus, breathlessly marching up a hill in search of coffee on a sunny California morning, can’t quite believe the year she’s had. Rewind 12 months, and her tUnE-yArDs project was in its infancy, playing shows in people’s basements on a tour she financed herself.
In September, she supported The Dirty Projectors in Dublin and the post-gig consensus was that she had almost blown her hosts off the stage. Not bad for a woman possessed solely of a drum, a ukulele and a blustery voice that dips and weaves like a kite.
“The stage part of what I do comes from my background in theatre. How I am on stage is a big part of what people respond to. The first album was made before this live show really existed, so when I started out, it was just me quietly looping my ukulele. Now I’ve added a bass player, which allows me more flexibility about what I can do. I access a similar sentiment on stage now to the one I used to use in puppetry.”
Garbus studied theatre for four years, and one project, a solo puppet show called Fat Kid Opera, provided something of an epiphany about the direction her love of performance was heading in. “It made me realise it was the songs that had the power – and that maybe I didn’t need to be fidgeting with all this other stuff. Something I’ve kept from my puppeteering days is a sense of demanding that an audience not only pay attention, but get involved in the performance.”
Growing up in Connecticut, her family background had a strong musical slant. Her mother, a piano teacher, gave her lessons until her early teens and her father taught her how to play the fiddle (including several Irish tunes). Sister Ruth plays drums with Sub Pop band Happy Birthday and is a member of Feathers. Garbus admits that despite such proximity to music, it “kinda drifted away” from her for a while, but she never lost touch with it. “I always thought music became a side thing for me back then, but in retrospect, I was still very involved. I was always in choirs and was in an a capella group in college.”
It’s interesting to hear that at a time when Garbus considered herself slightly alienated from music, the projects she was involved in