Bub­blebum pop? Mer­rill Gar­bus aka tUnE-yArDs on why she needed help from a hit-writ­ing man­ual,

To cre­ate her new al­bum as tUnE-yArDs, Mer­rill Gar­bus kept strict hours in the stu­dio, writ­ing songs and read­ing James Joyce. ‘He was one who re­ally shifted what words could do,’ the fast-talk­ing ex-pup­peteer tells Jim Car­roll

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Mer­rill Gar­bus has a re­quest be­fore the in­ter­view be­gins. “I’ve been speak­ing very slowly all morn­ing so I can be heard and un­der­stood clearly, so is it okay to speed up now?” The ver­bal de­cel­er­a­tion was so that in­ter­view­ers in Italy, Por­tu­gal and Den­mark could keep up with her. Such is the lot of a mu­si­cian pro­mot­ing a new al­bum: the world calls her up in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia and she talks and talks and talks, at dif­fer­ent speeds.

“This kind of thing is sur­real” Gar­bus says at one stage as she grap­ples with the world­wide in­ter­est in her and her mu­sic. “Who’d have thought I’d have an au­di­ence in Ire­land? That’s crazy.”

The rea­son for the cur­rent in­ter­est is Nikki Nack, the third al­bum by the New Eng­land na­tive and for­mer pup­peteer un­der the or­tho­graph­i­cally chal­lenged tUnE-yArDs moniker. As be­fits the fast-talk­ing Gar­bus, it’s a rush of giddy songs, en­er­getic eu­pho­ria and glee­ful grooves. Like its pre­de­ces­sors, BiRd-BrAiNs (2009) and whokill (2012), it’s the clat­ter of mu­sic that is out there yet re­mark­ably ac­ces­si­ble at the same time.

Nikki Nack is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent in some re­spects: Gar­bus says it took a lot of hard work to make it to the fin­ish­ing line, as she hit a wall and ideas dried up. She cred­its How to Write a Hit Song, Molly-Ann Leikin’s 1987 man­ual, with leading her out of this cre­ative cul-de-sac.

Is the DIY queen­pin hav­ing us on with this shout-out for a book about writ­ing and mar­ket­ing chart-top­ping lyrics and mu­sic?

“You can check my record at the Oak­land pub­lic li­brary if you don’t be­lieve me,” Gar­bus re­sponds. “I did bor­row that book and I read it from cover to cover. People may find it hard to be­lieve that some­one can be so des­per­ate.

“It’s a good book in a lot of ways. I’m not try­ing to write a hit for an­other singer or a pop singer and a lot of that book is geared to­wards that mar­ket, but it gave me tools and that’s what I was look­ing for. I was look­ing for some­thing to get me out of my own way and it served that pur­pose for sure. This was the first time I’ve done song­writ­ing in such a struc­tured way.”

Her use of the word “des­per­ate” to un­der­line her predica­ment is in­ter­est­ing.

“I think that most al­bums are made in des­per­ate cir­cum­stances at some point or an­other. I’m not the ex­cep­tion. In or­der to make an al­bum that feels like some­thing is hap­pen­ing and that there’s a trans­for­ma­tion go­ing on, in or­der for it to feel new and ex­cit­ing, there has to be some pain, un­for­tu­nately. It doesn’t have to be drink-in­duced or drug-in­duced or a case of self-in­flicted wounds.”

“You’re given this sup­pos­edly end­less time off, but there’s this un­spo­ken agree­ment that you’ll have a re­ally good al­bum at the end of it”

Gar­bus also kept strict hours. Ev­ery morn­ing with­out fail she’d head into her stu­dio, go to work with­out dis­trac­tion and leave punc­tu­ally in the evening. Lau­rie An­der­son, Damon Al­barn and Nick Cave, among oth­ers, swear by this method. (“Nick Cave is the name that comes up a lot when I talk about this and I don’t know his mu­sic all that well, so I’d bet­ter check him out”).

“How does a gen­er­ally spacey, dreamy, flighty mu­si­cian work with this time?” she muses. “How do you break it up into hours where ac­tual pro­duc­tive work gets done? You’re given this sup­pos­edly end­less time off, but there’s this un­spo­ken agree­ment that you’ll have a re­ally good al­bum at the end of it.”

The stu­dio rou­tine gave Gar­bus the means to do all of this by cre­at­ing the time for her to be an artist.

“The life of an artist is so chaotic that the idea of hav­ing a space and a rou­tine was so com­fort­ing to me and it was what I needed. I needed hours in the stu­dio where I could read James Joyce, for in­stance. I could read news­pa­pers or look through pho­tos of Char­lie Chap­lin. It doesn’t work for me to sit at a desk and write mu­sic. I need to be do­ing other stuff and then I start writ­ing.”

“Usu­ally if you go a day with­out get­ting any song writ­ten, you’re like ‘what the hell did I do with my day?’. Well, what I did was get my ass in a seat from 11 to 4 or 5 and I showed up. It may have been in­fu­ri­at­ing to get noth­ing done, but I showed up.

“It re­ally helped me to ded­i­cate time to the cre­ative process. It was time when I was not get­ting cof­fee with a friend, it was time when I was not cook­ing din­ner. This was cre­ative time. I had to cre­ate those bound­aries and make it clear to people in my life and my­self that I do have a job. I even kept track of my hours so I wouldn’t go in­sane.”

To make her stu­dio hours more in­ter­est­ing and var­ied, Gar­bus as­signed her­self dif­fer­ent tasks.

“A cou­ple of days, my as­sign­ment to my­self was to write a bad song You have to give yourself per­mis­sion to be bad, re­ally bad, and not edit yourself. The truth is the songs that ex­ist now on the al­bum are the ones I was the most com­pet­i­tive at. I don’t know if they were nec­es­sar­ily the best, but there was some­thing in them which caught my at­ten­tion and in­ter­ested me.”

It all added up to a very dif­fer­ent and more event­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. “I asked the ques­tion ‘why am I do­ing this?’ a lot. It was hard and un­com­fort­able and un­pleas­ant and stress­ful, so did I re­ally want to be do­ing this?

“The an­swer I came up with to all of that is that I’m ex­tremely grate­ful to be a mu­si­cian and to have the op­por­tu­nity to write these songs and per­form them. I didn’t want to be the whine, woe-is-me, poor in­die rock star. You know the type and I’m tired of that cliche. I tend to look for and seek to make mu­sic which is not that. I want mu­sic that cel­e­brates life or has some per­spec­tive be­sides be­ing an in­die rock star.”

Per­haps tUnE-yArDs’ next al­bum might see her ad­her­ing to the same rou­tine again, right down to the James Joyce books?

“That’s an idea. I took a course on Joyce when I was in univer­sity and I think he’s just the most amaz­ing, beau­ti­ful writer. He was one who re­ally shifted what words could do, he changed what could be done within the medium, yet you can re­ally iden­tify with the people in his sto­ries. That’s the in­spi­ra­tion for me, that way of chang­ing the whole way you tell a story and what you can do with words and songs and al­bums.

“Man, can you and me do an­other in­ter­view some time just about Joyce?”

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