WHEN searching for ideas for her third album, Merrill Garbus headed for a public library. There the singer and multi-instrumentalist in US band Tune-Yards alighted on the book How To Write a Hit Song by multiple award winner Molly-Ann Leikin.
Among other things, Leikin’s tome argues that to be successful a song should hit its chorus in the first 30 seconds. The main thing Garbus took from the book was “learning that I’m not the only songwriter in the world”.
“As a songwriter you can feel like no one has felt misery like I’m feeling today, you have this sense of self-pity, isolation. If nothing else this author has the idea that if you are a writer you go in and write. You may want a magic wand and ‘poof!’ there the song is but for most of us it takes time.
“It seems funny that it’s such a revolutionary concept, but it was to me. She says you can do exercises. She would write, ‘List a schoolhouse – what colour is it? Who’s running around it?’”
Thus began a year-long process that resulted in Nikki Nack, released recently on the UK label 4AD.
Where on previous albums whokill and Bird Brains Garbus and partner Nate Brenner’s approach had been DIY, writing with “a looping pedal or ukulele”, here they enlisted R&B producers Malay and John Hill.
“We were curious about a couple of things,” says Garbus. “From me mostly it was, ‘How do hit dance songs get made for the radio?’ Both producers have experience with Rihanna, Shakira, Mary J Blige.
“As much as I want to make music that’s unique and different we both have a strong interest in pop music. It was an opportunity and I think what was nice was to have Nate there trusting my producerly vision would trump their producerly vision. Nobody would tell me what the album would sound like.”
Feeding into the grooves on this album was Garbus’ interest in Haitian percussion and dance – “I got pretty deep into those rhythms,” she says. But listen closer and the songs have lyrical substance. Her aim is to make people think as well as dance.
“I think that’s possible,” she says. “That’s my experience as a listener.” She uses the example of Human Nature by Michael Jackson. “It’s so poppy and well-known but devastating somehow. I want to be devastated as a listener at some point, to know a singer or artist has depth.
“To get obliterated and go partying I can always do that, that’s always available to me, but that’s not why I’m focused. I need a deeper solution – that’s what I want for myself as a listener.”
Tune-Yards play at The Cockpit, Swinegate, Leeds on July 1, 7.30pm, £12. www.lunatickets.co.uk