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tUnE-yArDs and the Struggle of Letting Go

Nov. 9, 2011
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There's a tension attempting to pull apart almost any buzz band: In order to be successful, it's necessary to abdicate some creative control to overseers. A&Rs, record producers and even suited businessmen all have ideas on how to cultivate your talents for the masses. In turn, the more influence you allow them, the more it hinders your personal creative process. At least, that's the nagging thought that regularly creeps into Merrill Garbus' brain. She's decided she'd rather go without the help, thank you.

“There were times when I didn't feel in control of anything, and I felt my art was compromised," Garbus says. "Instead of doing exactly what I wanted to do, I was worried about what somebody else wanted to do.”

With tUnE-yArDs (the stylization was a Myspace gimmick that stuck), Garbus works diligently to keep her music just that: hers. She has managed to produce both tUnE-yArDs' records, direct a handful of music videos and travel with fewer touring mates, thanks to her looping pedal setup.

Her debut, 2009's BiRd-BrAiNs, truly encompassed that do-it-yourself aesthetic. Capturing every sound through a handy digital recorder, that album is a mash of coughs, tape hiss and Ping-Pong balls placed behind Garbus' sweet ukulele and booming drum kit. It's part folk music and part Afropop, but it always feels distinctly crafted by Garbus' hands.

“I have a very clear vision of what I want to do, and I'm comfortable taking the full responsibility,” she says. “I don't want to share it with anyone else.”

That bravado broke through on this year's w h o k i l l, a soulful record mixing Garbus' fondness for African polyrhythms, jazz and Appalachian folk with her sometimes-piercing yelps and other times soothing croon. It's a polarizing album, to be sure—instruments frequently fall out of tune and off the beat—but it has scores of hooks for those willing to wade through the abrasiveness.

tUnE-yArDs basically pays homage to a style of Afrobeat popularized by Paul Simon's 1986 hit record Graceland. Back then it was a throughway for the American public to the music of Africa. Now it can be heard in numerous bands, notably preppy scholars Vampire Weekend and tUnE-yArDs' one-time touring-mates the Dirty Projectors. Garbus notes the Simon similarities, but doesn't see her music as the same passageway to Africa.

“I think the benefit of how Paul Simon did it was that he stayed in the region,” Garbus says. “He said, 'I'm going to South Africa to make an album there.' And all these sounds that you've never heard of before, as Americans, were all coming from South Africa. As complicated as that was, and criticized as he got for parts of that, it was a very powerful and really strong way of exposing the music from South Africa.

“I don't know if I'm doing something so clear-cut,” she continues. “If people have never heard yodeling music from Central Africa, that might be something they're curious about, but I don't know what good that does, other than here we are enjoying this gorgeous music. Maybe that's enough.”

Her live performances are something else altogether. Garbus creates extra layers by looping her drum and vocal tracks on stage. It's a juxtaposition of being in complete control, since the pedals allow Garbus to play multiple parts by herself, and having none at all, since imperfections run rampant throughout the loops.

“The goal is to forgive myself for the small flaws and just move on,” she says. “The majority of people don't hear those small errors; I'm the one who's hyper-aware of them. Every night it's an endless struggle of letting go.”

That seems like the antithesis of Garbus' philosophy, but letting go has been necessary the more popular she becomes. A couple of years ago she was able to handle all of her concert booking; now she has an agent scheduling an entire tour. And w h o k i l l is more a collaborative effort with bassist Nate Brenner than the single-minded approach of BiRd-BrAiNs. But she says she's starting to relish the extra assistance, as long as it helps her voice be heard.

tUnE-yArDs plays Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Nov. 11, with Pat Jordache. Doors open at 8 p.m.


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