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Interview: Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards)

Tune-Yards has been creating music for almost 10 years and has been a creative writing outlet for Merrill Garbus and her fascinating explorations of rhythm and verse. She spent a few moments out of her busy touring schedule to talk on the phone with me about her writing and collaboration process, and how she approaches her live performance in preparation of their show at the Taft Theatre Ballroom on Sunday, May 13, 2018.

Hello! I’ll fawn for a quick moment: I’ve been a fan since Nicki Nack, and then found your earlier works, Bird Brain and w h o k i l l, all at once, which is a fascinating way to ingest music you love. Your new album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, is phenomenal.
Thank you. Thank you. I’m excited to come to Cincinnati! Cincinnati is fascinating to me.

I read that this latest album is more collaborative than early productions.
I think that I was the most vulnerable for this one during the process. I gave the most creative leeway to Nate, who I’ve written with for a really long time. All of our albums have been collaborative, but it felt like time to let people know how important his contributions have been to the process. I started the project as a solo thing, but Tune-Yards wouldn’t be what it is without him. While I do all of the lyric writing myself, we have a really balanced way of composing with each other. The process is really fluid, and it feels like I can let go a little bit now. I held it really tightly for a long time, and I think this is a good thing.

If your earlier work was mostly just you writing, what made you write under the name Tune-Yards and not under your own name?
That’s a good question. I think it is mostly so that I could end it if I had to, without feeling like I had to be ending myself. I knew what it was - I was a chick with a ukulele and a voice recorder making an album - but I didn’t have the faith when I started that people would embrace it. I like the idea that it could be something separate and let it go.

Have you ever written anything that didn’t sound like Tune-Yards?
Oh yeah, a lot! Earlier, we worked with some producers and it was really clear to me that some of what came out of those working relationships didn’t sound like Tune-Yards at all. They would say, “we really want to add a little bit more 808 kick drum”, or “let’s try and make your voice sound a little bit glossier”, and some of that leaned too far into clean pop. It was totally clear to Nate and me that it wasn’t what we knew we sounded like. Tune-Yards has to have just the right amount of dissonance, clatter, and clutter.

And I feel grateful to have been composing for other outlets. I composed some scores, and I wrote a song for Mavis Staples recently that was really FOR Mavis Staples and not a Tune-Yards song at all.

Does getting the opportunity to write for other outlets help with your Tune-Yards process?
Yeah. I think one of the first projects I did after the Nicki Nack tour was a tour with Laurie Anderson where she invited me to do some improv. I got to do some songs as part of a much bigger project, and it was relieving to have to make music for this totally other context. It was what I needed to get out of the cycle of “write an album”, “tour an album”, etc. It felt like I was doing what music is meant to do, which is bringing people into collaborative relationships and creating with each other in fresh ways.

So as you’re preparing for your tour, do you change it up each night?
Nate comes from a jazz background, and right now we’re touring with drummer Hamir Atwal, who also comes from a jazz background. Nate and Hamir have been playing together for a long time. I feel like I’m an improviser at heart, so what’s amazing is that we have this band full of improvisers. We don’t get bored with the songs, but we demand from ourselves - and each other - that music be fresh. Part of the joy of music is how it is different even if it’s different energy. We change up the order of songs a lot, and we’ve been adding songs into the set. So it’s ever-changing, and I hope it always will be.

Is there a certain type of event that helps bring out the improvisational energy or creativity?
I think sometimes a tightly scheduled 45-minute, better-know-what-to-expect festival set can feel like a constraint, but in the end, the crowd feeds our creativity. When we know the audience is really there for us, when a packed house with lots of people who are ready to go the same music destination, it can help us on stage be more in the moment.

Is there type of location that helps with that?
It’s less about location, and more about the individuals that are there. Because we’re really invested in improvisation, it becomes a sort of agreement between the band that we will always listen to the music and go where the music wants us to.

Are you doing any writing while you’re touring?
Yes, a little bit for other people. In terms of new Tune-Yards stuff, it is more improvisational. I write each morning, but inspiration for new work comes all the time - during sound check or an idea just pops into my head. The creative juices are always flowing.

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