From her head-thrown-back shrieks to the paint streaks smudged under her eyes, Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus is anything but meek. In the video for her latest single, "Bizness," amid blasting horns and looping tracks of her making dewy bird chirps, Garbus contorts her face into sour expressions and thrashes her tongue about. Clad in a tunic stitched with feathery neon tulle, Garbus is both enchanting and unsettling--an exotic bird with ruffled plumage and razor sharp claws.
"I'm pretty fascinated with wildness and feralness and these sort of more animalistic parts of the human," Garbus said.
Garbus formed Tune-Yards (stylistically written as tUnE-yArDs) in Montreal in 2006 as a solo bedroom indie hip-pop project, mashing together found sounds, hissing vocal loops, ukulele and thrashing sub-Saharan African drum beats. Her debut album Bird Brains was entirely self-recorded and produced.
"When I was making Bird Brains, I was making it at night after the kid I was babysitting for would go to sleep ... or going to my car to do the loud songs so that no one would hear me," said Garbus. "That was the glory of doing it all on a tiny little digital voice recorder, that I could really do it anywhere."
And though Garbus didn't have a technical background in music--she studied theater at Smith College, an all-female liberal arts school with famous feminist alumni like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem--she was motivated by a DIY ethos to complete her first album without any outside influence.
"Eventually, after I had done the first three tracks and they sounded really great, I thought, 'I can do the whole thing all by myself,' and I can then say for the rest of my life, anything that anyone liked from this album--if they liked the arrangement of the song or the melody of the song or the rhythm behind the song--there would be no question that there was some man in the background producing it," said Garbus. "It's all me, both for its flaws and for its successes."
As it turned out, Bird Brains' successes greatly outweighed its flaws. After finding a limited-edition vinyl release through Portland, Ore.'s Marriage Records, the album caught the attention of record label 4AD (Blonde Redhead, Deerhunter, Bon Iver), which re-released it in November 2009. The single "Fiya"--a lo-fi jawdropper filled with kid squeals, plucked ukulele, glitchy beats and soothingly cooed lyrics like, "Why'd you think I'd put out your fire / don't you know I breathe in fire / breathe out fire"--even found its way into a Blackberry Touch commercial.
For Garbus' second album, Whokill, released in April, she scrapped the lo-fi bedroom hiss and went into an actual studio. Tune-Yards' touring bassist Nate Brenner performed on the album and co-wrote a number of its tracks. Though it was difficult for Garbus to relax the reigns of creative control, Whokill benefitted markedly from the collaboration. The notoriously persnickety Pitchfork gave the album an 8.8, "best new music," and NME dubbed it "an eddying, rhythmic record stirred by joy, compassion and fury."
"[Brenner and I] toured basically straight for a year and a half last year ... We got really tight as a band and really started to write more as a unit ... We also had this experience of just seeing the music be performed in front of, all of the sudden, hundreds of people, and I think we knew that we had that space when we went to the studio," said Garbus. "Not that we were consciously thinking, 'What's going to go over well with the masses?' But I think, inevitably, we had this sense of who we were performing to."
Though Garbus admitted it was difficult to shake that newfound sense of self-awareness when recording Whokill, she nonetheless was able to tap into the same rawness that made Bird Brains a cult favorite. The album, originally titled Women Who Kill, smooths out some of the quirky pops and cracks from her debut, but keeps the chaotic, lushly layered earnestness.
Thematically, Whokill tackles a number of weighty topics, including violence--like on the breathy, dub-laced ditty "Doorstep," where Garbus lilts "policeman killed my baby walking right over my doorstep," or in the siren-filled "Gangsta," or the frenzied "Riotriot," where she screams, "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand."
"When I use the words 'women who kill,' part of it was you don't expect women to kill. We don't think very often of women being violent, and that was also speaking to that gray area of violence, where violence can come out of something that has a good motivation ... something positive at its root," said Garbus. "Also that title had to do with the expectations of women and what I constantly try to rail against; what I feel is being expected of me as a woman."
Garbus tackles those expectations with a frankness uncommon in pop music. In the sexy, languid "Powa," for example, she openly sing-songs "my man likes me from behind," while in "Es So" she confronts body image issues. Though it might seem difficult to revisit these themes night after night in front of an ever-growing audience, Garbus explained that when she's onstage with her loop pedals, drums and ukulele--rocking out with Brenner and their recently added saxophone section--it's all about the process.
"I don't carry that vulnerability every night ... When I get up there, it's very technical. I'm really actually considering how I'm inhaling and the placement of the notes," said Garbus. "At that point when we're on tour ... the job of getting lost in the music is up to the audience."