Merrill Garbus’ sandbox of wailing horns, tumbling drums, wavy synths, and unpredictable vocals has made her project, tUnE-yArDs, one of the most exciting acts on the summer festival circuit. The 33-year-old Maine native is still riding high off 2011′s w h o k i l l, whose breakout single “Bizness” branded Garbus as an all-out risk-taker, the antidote to factory pop stardom. Garbus, who is signed to 4AD, got her start in Montreal but now calls Oakland home, and we recently caught up with her to talk about the difference between the two cities, making a living off music, and why her unique sound isn’t necessarily brave.
Do you remember the first time you sang in front of people? What was it like?
I think it was probably middle school or high school. I was always really embarrassed to sing in front of people (or to be in front of people at all.) And I never had a solo-friendly voice; it was pretty quiet. So I’m sure it was some sort of traumatizing audition for madrigal choir or something, and that I turned bright red. I did make it into that choir, though! I had a good voice for blending in, and a good ear. I shied away from singing alone in front of others.
Talk to me about the transition from Montreal to Oakland. They are two very different places, one peaceful and idyllic, the other kind of scary.
All cities have their peaceful moments and their scary moments. In Oakland, it’s a bit harder to remove yourself from the realities of urban life, which is part of why I like it there. It’s difficult to separate what was going on in my life in Montreal from the city itself. In Montreal, I was having the most creatively free and joyful time of my life. I had an amazing band (Sister Suvi) with amazing musicians; I stayed out late and dumpster dove my food because I had very little money; I had very few responsibilities. And I suppose Montreal supported that lifestyle, because where I lived I could walk safely without fear of being mugged or harassed at any hour of the night.
Moving to Oakland has coincided with me taking a couple more steps toward adulthood, and has made me more involved in social activism. I suddenly find myself with more financial resources and responsibility, and more of a voice and influence than I’ve ever had before. Montreal has a vibrant activist community as well, but I was spending all of my time and energy learning how to be in a band, and figuring out how to feed and house myself as a musician. I’m sure the city of Oakland itself has inspired me to use my newfound power responsibly, too: I want to live in a happier, safer, fairer community.
You have a sound that is completely your own, which to me takes a lot of bravery. Do you see it that way?
I don’t often think about it that way. Musically, I think there are many rewards for being unique, and I’ve certainly reaped those rewards. Music is the easier thing to be brave with. The “other stuff,” like comments on my image, my sexuality, whatever people feel at liberty to comment on without much sensitivity or even correct information—those are the things that I sometimes feel I’m “brave” for, just to be out there on everybody’s computer screen as myself instead of a bland version of me that I’ve plucked and trimmed to be as uncontroversial as possible. But really, in the scheme of things, I don’t have one of those brave jobs. I have to express the things I do in my music because my life actually depends on it, so it’s more of a selfish act in many ways.
When did it first occur to you that you can make a living from your music?
My friend Patrick Gregoire told me I could do it. We started playing music together, and I had just “retired” from a career as a puppeteer, and was used to making a very meager living as an artist. I was writing songs on the ukulele and he said, “You know, these songs are good, you could make this your job,” or something to that effect, and I was like, “Nah, impossible.” But it was all I wanted to do, anyway, so I kept going, we kept going. I think he had been around the Montreal scene that produced Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, and saw creative music actually making bands successful.
When I got signed to 4AD I also started believing that I could support myself with music. I was able to pay off my credit card and felt like I wasn’t drowning in debt anymore (a rare feeling for someone in my generation.) The way that the label treats their artists is as if they will be musicians, full-time, for life. It took me a whole bunch of hearing that before it started to sink in that I was one of those artists, and that maybe I’d get lucky enough to do this long-term.
What are five essential items you need on your tour rider?
Nothing’s that essential; what a luxury to have food and things waiting for you when you arrive at a club. But there are things that I find we rely on when we’re on tour all day everyday: multi-vitamins, green vegetables, fruit. I’m into kombucha, I believe in the kombucha! Even if it’s a placebo, it makes me feel better. And lately we’ve been attempting to replace water bottles with a cooler to fill our reusable bottles.
If someone gave you one million dollars for a live show, what would you invest it in?
I’d probably use it to start a fund for giving to different organizations over the long-term. I’m interested in supporting arts education in public schools; women in central Africa who are being abused and tormented because of wars over minerals there; micro-finance for women-run businesses in the developing world. I just started learning about the destruction of wetlands around the Gulf of Mexico (at the rate of a football field an hour!) and how that’s impacting the future of New Orleans and all those coastal communities. In other words, there’s lots I’d want to do with money like that.
Have you begun thinking about your follow-up to w h o k i l l?
Very little. I think about dancing, most of the time. I need time alone in a secluded place to regenerate from a crazy couple of years, then I’ll get back to you…
Photography by Chloe Aftel