tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus talks bizness

In an industry that seems to be ruled by commercial interests, airbrushes, and DIY technology, it's become increasingly hard to find a musician that is truly original in every sense of the word. It's even harder to find one that is enjoyable to listen to. But spare 5 minutes of your time for tUnE-yArDs, and within minutes, both boxes will have been boldly ticked.


Born from the depths of New England native Merrill Garbus' imagination, tUnE-yArDs is a bizarre but mesmerising concoction of simple instruments, rough arrangements, and a voice capable of lulling a beast to sleep, before breaking out and becoming the beast itself. It's raw, it's messy, it's brilliant…and it's coming to Australia in 2012.


Although some have questioned the authenticity of Garbus' vision – is she just trying to be weird? Is the eccentric nature of her music just for show? Etc – when you talk to her about what she does, you immediately know that it's all real.


She famously ‘recorded' her first album Bird Brains on a home voice recorder, and speaking to Warp from her new home-state of California (where she moved to for love), Garbus explains how that process came to define her sound.


"I really didn't have any money…certainly not money to rent a studio, and I think I was too practical to go into debt for such a thing. I couldn't imagine spending thousands of dollars at a studio when I was on food stamps half the time. So it came to be out of necessity, but it really then became a fascination," says Garbus softly. "I discovered that this was a beautiful sound to an album."


The process for album number two, w h o k i l l, progressed somewhat in the technological department - something that Garbus found both enjoyable and difficult, as she struggled to maintain the rough, imperfect sound that she had become known for.


"First of all we went into a REAL studio," she laughs. "And I think that really affected everything after. I got to wrestle with the sounds…trying to make them sound worse than they did originally…wondering whether people who loved the first album would hate this one…or did I hate this one? So just changing where we initially recorded the tracks really changed the whole scenario."


As with any artist, the influences behind tUnE-yArDs are many and varied. Garbus spent a lot of her life listening to African music, and taking West-African and Afro-Caribbean dance classes. "I think a lot of my music comes from movement, and my desire to move," she explains. "But also really just having a sense of joy and celebration in myself and in my body."


She is also trained in theatre and puppetry – the former being quite obvious when you watch her videos, and the latter providing the epiphany that was the turning point in her career.


"I started playing ukulele when I wrote my first puppet show. It was a puppet opera and a friend of mine suggested to me that the creepiness of the lyrics would be complemented by the ukulele," says Garbus, sharing the fact that the lyrics in question were about a mother selling her child to the butcher for money. "We used very grotesque themes accompanied by this innocent-sounding instrument. So that was what hooked me…and I decided that there was a lot of power in a song, and I didn't' necessarily need a puppet to portray or evoke what I wanted to in a performance."


Now wonderfully evolved, Garbus' performance is renowned for featuring beats and vocals that are created, looped, and layered right before your eyes. And although she's never been to Australia, let alone performed here, Tasmania's MONA FOMA festival is sure to be a cracker of a debut.


When asked what silly tourist activities she'd like to do while she's here, Garbus laughs, saying that up until earlier in the day, she'd actually forgotten that she was even coming to Australia. "There's so much happening these days, I don't know what I'm doing until a week before."


"I fear there won't be much time between flying from one city to another [tUnE-yArDs will also be doing the rounds in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane], so we'll see," she says, adding sheepsishly: "I am a liiiittle bit obsessed with koala bears, as it turns out, so I'd love to see one."


Immediately recognising the cliché, she laughs heartily when I tell her that as long as she sees a koala, that's all that really matters, because it's probably the first thing people will ask her about when she gets home.


Despite enjoying so much acclaim and success (albeit on a cult level), Garbus remains grounded about the future. "It's very rare that you can actually do something that you feel passionate about, especially in an artists place," she says, pausing as if she can't quite believe that it's happening to her. " It's rare that you get these moments of culture approving of your art, and I think that's what's been happening. And I'm very aware that that's often a short-lived thing so I'm going to enjoy it while I've got it."


"Certainly there will always be more that I want to explore, but I feel really happy with the way things are now, I have to say. I can't imagine a luckier streak that I've had in my life."

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