Peeling back the layers of tUnE-yArDs

New England’s Merrill Garbus’ musical project, tUnE-yArDs, has turned heads and gained massive attention for its unique sound. ANNA CAMPBELL PHOTO

Labelled one of the buzz-worthiest indie albums of 2011, tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l, is a unique and eclectic sound, paired with one hell of a powerful voice. Although it may not be for every taste, there is no denying that front-woman Merrill Garbus is one talented lady.

As the musical project of Garbus, a multi-instrumentalist, she’s been known to command the stage with her showmanship and complexity with instruments, all while layering her voice during her live shows.

With her second self-produced album, Garbus lays it down that she’s just as powerful (if not more), than your typical indie front-man. She stops to answer some questions for The Weal.

J5: You used to be a puppeteer. How do you compare yourself with John Cusack’s character in Being John Malkovich using his puppets to act out his fantasies in comparison to using music as perhaps a way to act out a different sort of fantasy?

MG: WOW. I think that’s a stretch, but thanks for the imaginative question. I’d say the songs I write in tUnE-yArDs aren’t fantasies that I want to see played out; they’re reactions to a very real world around me.

J5: How did your experience from previous band Sister Suvi shape your direction with tUnE-yArDs?

MG: I was very selfish with tUnE-yArDs from the start; possessive. When something is finally all yours and yours alone, it takes a second to be generous with it. I also think doing a solo thing for awhile helped me clarify my musical direction, and I knew I needed that. But my collaboration with Patrick (Gregoire) and Nico (Dann) in Sister Suvi was incredibly rewarding. We had some moments of totally life-birthing creativity, on stage and off. So I was looking forward to having that experience again, the one that can’t be created by one person alone.

J5: Your albums are self-produced, so the finished product is very much your own. Why did you feel it important as a female artist to self-produce your own work?

MG: To me, production of an album is just as important as the songs. The sound means everything. It creates a very particular world for a listener. So to me, producing is not so much of a feminist “see I can do this too” thing as a need as an artist to get the sound I want (but see, I can do this too…).

J5: Are there any other female artists past or present that you admire for their creative control or independence in the historically male dominated music industry?

MG: Joni Mitchell. Yoko Ono. Missy Elliot. These days, Micachu and the Shapes, St. Vincent, Wild Flag…there are others of course. But do you know which women have a large hand in producing their own albums? I often don’t. I think it’s usually assumed that the girl writes the songs and that there’s a man out there somewhere making it sound good. That’s an oversimplification, but I even catch myself thinking so. Because women are supposed to be spaced-out creative types with no idea what happens when you crank the gain or put a low-pass filter on something. I think a lot of women, including myself, are getting more into recording themselves and taking time to learn the ins and outs of technology so we can twist and manipulate it to our liking. I’m about to coin the term, “womanipulate,” watch out.

J5: The last few artists I’ve interviewed and asked about influences, have all answered with strong, powerful and talented women which includes you, PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, Feist, and St. Vincent. Are people looking at talent over fame?

MG: Some people are looking for talent over other fame-oriented stuff, of course. I think the majority of big-time female stars rely on sex a lot. I think we “indie” lady artists are also pushed to add that into the mix, but we can get away with leaving it to Beyonce and Gaga. I feel very lucky that it’s not a necessity. And come on, a powerful woman with a very loud instrument in her hands is far more sexy than Katy Perry’s tits (can I say that in an interview?)

J5: You’re from New England, you’ve lived in Africa and Oakland, and worked with artists in Montreal, where will you be going home for the holidays?

MG: I’m staying in California for the holidays. Home is where your butt is the most, I figure, so right now the tour van wins, and I’m aiming for California to beat it out by…2014.

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