Merrill Garbus cheerfully describes the starting point for Tune-Yards’ fourth album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, as “total confusion”.
“I just started walking to work every day hoping and praying something would come of it,” says the 38-year-old US singer, musician and songwriter.
“I think a lot of it actually started with my newfound career of DJ-ing. Someone had offered me a gig and I went [sounding incredulous] ‘How much money are you going to offer me to play other people’s music for an hour alone carrying a box of records on a USB stick?’ That really encouraged me to really practise DJ-ing .
“If anything that was probably the starting point – learning how to DJ, learning how difficult it was, but also it’s quite similar to looping actually and the idea of matching rhythms to one another. That’s been a part of our show for a long time, connecting songs to one another. It felt fun to do that with other people’s music.”
Garbus found her songwriting directed “more and more inward” in response, she says, to the daily crises that seemed to be going on in the outside world. “Maybe it’s because I tend to want to control things and this world feels to out of control. But I also think there’s a lot of value in understanding how we want to be in the world when it’s so creepy.
“Clearly I think I’m understanding I will not end injustice in my lifetime, I will not see the end of racism, I will not see the end of sexism. As a 38-year-old I’m not so old but I think that’s probably old enough to see that’s the truth, so if that’s the case then in my small interactions with myself and others how do I practise what I preach, so to speak, how do I live my life? So I think I find a lot of value in those microscopic internal goings-on.”
The heavyweight subject matter in I Can Feel You Creep... she sees as part of an ongoing dialogue with an audience that has grown with each release. “I think the word ‘dialogue’ is key. A lot of people will use the word ‘message’ or ‘point’; I certainly do not have a message nor a point because I realise how little I know,” she says. “But gosh, if we could just talk a little bit more. I think it’s very hard to talk with one another these days.”
The new album is the first to feature Garbus’ long-time partner Nate Brennar as an official member of Tune-Yards. “I worry that calling it officially a duo underplays his role before,” says Garbus, “but I think we wanted to acknowledge the depth of his role in the music.
“He’s been a collaborator for a long time but if you think about it I started Tune-Yards as a solo project in which I did everything myself, and made a point of doing everything myself. The first album [Bird-Brains] was made in 2007-08 and I felt like I didn’t know any other women producers. I had a very limited technical knowledge but I wanted to make clear that I had done everything however flawed myself and so that’s where I’m coming from, feeling a need to claim this space as a woman artist to say there is no men behind the curtain. Because of that I think it’s been a very full process for me – even for someone as close as I am to Nate, that was still very hard for me to open that level of collaboration, but definitely he’s listed as a co-producer now and it felt very clear that this was the most he had been involved in the actual sound of the record and that felt really important to be clear about.”
If Garbus’ vocals on the new album often sound like she is trapped in a machine, the effect is intentional. She explains: “I had been listening to some Annette Peacock and how she filtered her voice through an MS-20, and certainly Laurie Anderson has done that, then of course we had AutoTune trend in hip-hop and R&B and I have played with it too but certainly these days I think a lot of people are feeling trapped, whether economically or feeling powerless politically or feeling consumed by social media and the internet and our stupid phones, it feels like the right time to be trapped in a machine fully.”
It smelled of that kind of cover-up that happened culturally where you know that there are women doing this work but they’re just none of the ones that get the attention so much. So I started sniffing around.Merrill Garbus
Garbus’ regular show C.L.A.W. on Red Bull Radio was born after she began searching for female producers to work with on her last album, Nikki Nack. “I really got a lot of blank stares when I started asking around,” she says. “The are a couple of big-time producers of rock records or super-pop records but hardly any names that filled out a list. It smelled of that kind of cover-up that happened culturally where you know that there are women doing this work but they’re just none of the ones that get the attention so much. So I started sniffing around. It’s called Collaborative Legions of Artful Women because I really wanted there to be an element of introducing women to each other, especially women rappers to women hip-hop producers. I have been a fan of hip-hop for a long time, though not the most dirty, but I always felt there’s room for one or two women rappers and I think in the past few years I’ve happily been uncovering more. I wanted to be selfishly learning about more women creators then also at least facilitating collaborations between other women.”
Tune-Yards have also been working on a film score for the sci-fi comedy Sorry To Bother You. “We met Boots Riley, the director, a few years ago,” says Garbus. “I love his band The Coup – talk about inspiring musicians with social consciousness and having social consciousness be at the forefront of their music – so I was kind of awestruck, but he is still a wonderful human being and he expressed interest in having Tune-Yards do the score.
“It took a long time. I’ve seen him go through funding and go through Sundance-related workshops, where he got to workshop the script and learn to be a director because it was his first time directing. It’s been a year’s-long process but it’s been so valuable and Nate and I have learned so much.
“It made me think that’s the right way to write music, having a visual element, because it’s so helpful for inspiration instead of inspiration being the thoughts in my head which are usually very disorganised and very self-critical. Instead you have a very clear objective: make music that is appropriate for the visual and story, so in that way it was really enlightening as to maybe another technique for composition.”
I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is out tomorrow. Tune-Yards play at The Church, Leeds on March 17.