The name of Merrill Garbus' musical project is tUnE-yArDs. It is not Tune-Yards. Garbus herself is lenient about this distinction, but the wacky lettering hints importantly at the ambitions of the Oakland artist's work: tUnE-yArDs leaps out from the order of a normal sentence. It refuses — bravely, but also somewhat childishly — to go along. It jolts you up and down, forcing you to deal with it not being like the rest of the words. Along the way it prods you into remembering that, with a little creative rebellion, letters can become small semantic roller coasters, startling and thrilling their readers, and maybe pointing them toward some new freedom.
Welcome to the edge of experimental pop in 2011. Garbus has just seen the release of tUnE-yArDs' second album, w h o k i l l, which seems all but certain to accelerate her rise from DIY curiosity into one of the most interesting artists making music today. She has gone from playing small house shows across the country to opening for Dirty Projectors, performing in front of 17,000 at the Hollywood Bowl, selling a song for a BlackBerry commercial and getting noticed by The New York Times and Rolling Stone.
She's thrilled about it, of course, but along the way, the socially conscious Connecticut native has ruminated deeply over every move — from even deciding to concentrate on her art at all, in lieu of, say, becoming a doctor or a pro bono lawyer ("It's something very recent for me to be, like, you know what? Forgive yourself, you have to do this"), to allowing herself to exhibit her love for African music.
"When I started tUnE-yArDs ... I made a decision to forgive myself for what sounds were coming out," she says. "When I give my influences, I give who they really are: I took this yodeling style from Central Africa, and I took this chordal harmonic sense from Hukwe Zawose in Tanzania. It seems like a tightrope walk of sorts, because one could accuse me of political correctness in the same breath as thievery of African musical traditions."
But instead of copying African music, Garbus recombines its elements into a new sound. The music flusters conventional demarcations of genre and style in the same subversive way that alternating capital and lowercase letters mocks standard grammar. Its main instrument is her endlessly versatile voice, which moves so powerfully in both lower and higher registers that it can be difficult to tell whether it belongs to a man or a woman.
Using looping pedals onstage and in the studio, Garbus layers the shards of her vocals, basic drums and the flutters of a ukulele into intimate grooves whose mood ranges from celebratory to haunted. Many of those songs carry a flavor of various African styles, soul and R&B, but there also are elements of folk in her emotional lyrics and delicate voice. The agile bass lines of Nate Brenner, of Bay Area experimental outfit Beep, add a jazzy dimension that's accentuated by the saxophone flourishes on w h o k i l l. And Garbus' obsession with the DIY ethic comes from a love for American indie-rock music (at SXSW this year, she spoke on a panel about Michael Azerrad's seminal tome of underground punk history, Our Band Could Be Your Life).
Though these elements are clearly influential, part of what makes tUnE-yArDs such an intriguing project is its utter strangeness. "Bizness," the standout first single from the new album, begins with a descending rhythm pattern of vocal notes tuned to sound almost like steel drums. Subtle percussion embellishes the groove before Garbus' strained voice comes in to nearly shout the verse lyrics. Eventually, Brenner's bass mumbles to life, and the song slowly rises on layers of vocals to a triumphant yet shaky climax. Garbus arrives at her peak, howling out of both freedom and fear, punctuated by a saxophone attack: "What's the business yeah? Don't take my life away, don't take my life away."
The music isn't as difficult as it sounds. Much of w h o k i l l is immediately funky; some songs practically force you to dance. Even "Doorstep," a song about racial violence partly inspired by the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, is stunningly beautiful, with layers of Garbus' voice rendering the chorus line, "Policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep" in pristine falsetto. The words betray an adult's perspective, but she sings them with what seems like a young person's innocence, and the song fits neatly into a stuttering groove.
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tUnE-yArDs' new album, recorded at a studio in Oakland, also sounds far more detailed and spacious than its predecessor, BiRd-BrAiNs, whose ultra-lo-fi production (it was made on a digital voice recorder) likely turned away many potential listeners from what was striking, vital music. Garbus initially resisted the idea of recording in a studio. But that started to change one day while she was listening to her self-recorded demo of "Bizness" next to a song from Paul Simon's The Rhythm of the Saints. "I said to myself, 'I want that for my music,' " she remembers. "Why can't I have something that mixes that sense of space ... with my do-it-yourself vibe?"
Indeed, over the last two years, Garbus has slowly allowed herself to move in a direction that will enable more people to appreciate her art — which hasn't been easy. "Part of why it's called w h o k i l l is that there's a sense of killing, of killing parts of myself, or killing myths that I had about myself or even hopes that I had about myself," she says. "There was a part of me that just wanted to live off the grid, and not participate in a lot of stuff that real life is."
But eventually she decided her call to music was too strong to ignore.
She lived in Africa briefly, and hopes to return there to work with the artists who inspire her. But the singer's progressive goals are already reflected in the radical work of tUnE-yArDs — right down to the project's chaotic name. "I want to use tUnE-yArDs as a way to feel free of those chains, to bring the hope to other people that you can do anything," Garbus says. "Because I believe that."