Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus has added critical kudos to a cult following with her sonic junkyard tour through pop, reggae, dub and world beats.
Garbus, 32, dropped a life of impoverished puppetry for genre-dabbling pop as colorful as the facepaint streaked across her cheeks.
Utilizing a jungle of loops, floor toms, ukulele, non-western rhythms and vocals that slip between full-chested yodelling and sweet soprano, her spirited second album Who Kill (4AD) saw acclaim as one of 2011’s best, recently nabbing top spot on Pazz & Jop, the Village Voice’s annual critic’s poll.
She’ll be roaring at Festsaal Kreuzberg on Tuesday, February 28.
How have the audiences changed since you worked as a puppeteer?
A music audience is there to be a community and to have a good time together as a group, or at least that’s what I like to instill in shows – the sense that we’re all there to have a mutual joy.
Theater audiences vary: some of them can be very judgmental and cold. Others are just as awake as music audiences can be. Venues are the hard thing. That’s why I left theatre, because I didn’t feel like I was reaching anybody.
Through pop music, all of a sudden I have access to thousands and thousands of people that I never would as a puppeteer.
And now you’re involved with Occupy Musicians, and songs like “My Country” discuss alienation within the state. Are you moving towards direct political criticism?
As an artist, I get mad when I hear other musicians say, “Art isn’t political – I’m just doing my thing.” I’m of the opinion that everything is political; you’re taking a position or fulfilling a role – you’re participating – whether you like it or not.
That said, I never want to chant slogans within one song. I never want to take one side. I’d rather ask questions. In a way it’s safer, but I think it’s also more true. It allows more people into the music, which is what I want.
I want to be reflecting people’s positions or lives or perspectives. And you can only do that if you allow for a wider take on an issue instead of treating things as black and white.
Don’t you want your music to be confrontational?
Yes, absolutely. There’s a call to action somewhere in there, and if that’s confrontation that’s fine with me. I’m not interested in soothing people necessarily all the time. I’m much more interested in rattling them and creating some kind of vibration that sets them off into action.
But towards what?
Who knows? That’s the thing. Towards engaging in their world. I spent a lot of time depressed. And not engaged. Part of the reason I was depressed was the sense that there were a lot of people in the world who weren’t paying attention or seeing the consequences of their actions.
When people look at how their actions impact somebody across the world, then I think we are living in a much more aware, awake state and in a state of empathy. I know what my behavior is doing to someone else, whether that’s my neighbor, my partner, my family or a stranger I’ve never met.
Being part of Occupy Musicians is one way. I haven’t done much action with them: a lot of them are based in New York and doing their thing over there.I don’t know what that next step is, but I feel a responsibility as an artist to stay engaged in the present tense of this country and this world.
Are the discussions post-Graceland revival/Vampire Weekend/DP about how white American kids are using African influences something you think about?
Oh yeah, all the time. If I had drowned in that argument… if I have no right to any of these influences, then I shouldn’t be making art at all, because these are my influences.
Having spent time in Kenya and studying Swahili and Kenyan culture for a while, I was exposed to this music that was so joyful – I’d never heard anything as joyful before!
And then Mangala, this Congolese pop and dance music that has this completely wild fervor to it – what I accepted was that I’m a human being in the world and I’m struck by these musical influences just like so many of us have been struck by them.
No matter what culture you come from, race, color, economic strata, there’s a way that human beings respond to music. I had to make a decision.
Was I going to hide under the shame of being a privileged white person, which I did for a long time? Or was I going to contribute something and at least gnaw at these problems and gnaw at them publicly and gnaw at them within music?
And you know what? My life has become a lot better since. It’s opened up dialogue for others, and that’s all I can hope for.
Your career arcs from DIY recording and cassette releases to professional studios and a commercial for Blackberry. How does that transition feel in regards to staying true to your political ideals?
You have incredible questions to ask me before I’ve had any caffeine! I grapple with it all the time. The Blackberry commercial was a really big moment for me. I got this message from a friend of mine that was, if you make money you get to decide where this money goes. Meaning: you can do good things with money.
And coming from the time I graduated school, I had gotten used to living with no money, and that was my comfort zone of not dealing with money, because money was evil and did bad things.
It suddenly became this revolutionary idea to me that money could be used for good, that I was actually shooting myself in the foot repeatedly to reach this hatred towards money and that kind of financial success.
That said, I think I’m choosing my own role. I need for there to be incredible musicians who play only on the streets because that’s where they feel they belong. I need that too, in order to exist myself.
I also feel that, as a large-bosomed woman of life looking at her age and body type, I need to have a space on TV; I need to take up that space when it’s offered to me.
TUNE-YARDS W/ THULEBASEN Tue, Feb 28, 21:00 | Festsaal Kreuzberg, Skalitzer Str. 130, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor.