Oakland based musician Merrill Garbus aka TUNE-YARDS (stylized as ‘tUnE-yArDs’) has been delighting fans for years with her music that is pretty unclassifiable: it is at times atonal, with spoken word elements, songs stop and start when least expected. If we have to use use a genre, TUNE-YARDS is best described as patchwork folk: it’s lo-fi, it’s homespun and incorporates some unique and odd instruments, giving it a world sound that is thoroughly contemporary. What started as a project using free software, a voice recorder, a ukulele and unusual percussion, which she released online for a sliding scale price, has morphed into TUNE-YARDS making several ‘best-of lists,’ and opening for bands like DIRTY PROJECTORS and ARCADE FIRE. Just before she releases her third album Nikki Nack, NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION sat down to talk to TUNE-YARDS about the nature of living in a foreign land, returning when politics suit you, whether or not Merrill is actually an important person and Haiti, (among other things.) Let it be known, TUNE-YARDS is extremely lively and friendly. She arrived at the interview wearing a fuzzy necklace, yellow Converse, and turquoise and yellow eyeshadow, and after checking in about some mutual aspects about “being from California,” we began.
Tell me about moving to Oakland. Something said it was your visa that made you had to leave Montreal, Canada.
Yeah, I just was on visitor’s visa so I had to leave every six months anyway. Which was fine because I was touring with another band and with TUNE-YARDS. It was a few things, one was that Nate was there and he and I were starting to date and I went to visit him and it was fun there.
Never gets as cold as -40.
Yeah, and it was also around the time Obama was elected…was that in ’08? Is that true?
Yeah, he was elected in November 2008.
Time freakin’ flies. It just felt like a time… I kind of fled the States for Canada during the Bush era, so it kind of felt like it was a good time to go back. It was hard to leave, I’d been in Montreal really three to four years on and off and so it was hard to leave that community. But it also felt like a good time to be in my country and not feel like an outsider. It helped me for a long time to feel like an outsider, there was some kind of freedom where I could be myself more than I could in my own country. It gave me good perspective on myself. I felt like it was time. Even in those adult ways, like ‘When was the last time I saw a dentist?’ When you are escaping the infrastructure of your own country, you are kind of escaping all these adult things.
That’s a great way to put it. I felt like being in a foreign land you learn about yourself and you learn about what’s important to you. You think a lot about it, more then when you live where you are from.
Exactly… TUNE-YARDS was very influenced by that time because it’s always been that kind of looking form the outside onto society onto culture, onto myself I guess. So I never really thought about that way, but that definitely played a part. And just to see how Canada functions in a lot of ways more efficiently that the States does..
Speaking of going to other countries you went to Haiti to learn dance and percussion recently. So it’s the poorest country in the western hemisphere, the news is full natural disasters they’ve suffered, but I’m curious about your perspective on the country, beyond the usual media portrayal of Haiti.
I think that’s really what Daniel, my drum teacher, who brought us, he really did want to kind of prove to us that Haiti was way more than these fears people have travelling there and way more than a country that deserves our pity. And that was the context that we went there in. We wanted to learn about the dance, we are here to learn the language, the culture and that’s what really what it felt like. I keep talking about being an ethnomusicologist. That was something I thought about doing when I was younger. I really do actually enjoy– I can be immersed as a musician and not as a scientist studying. That actually offers me a much different and maybe a deeper connection to the music I am studying, that I don’t have to be on the outside all the time. This is what it felt like when we were bearing witness to the Voodoo ceremonies: we saw to the realities of a bunch of young dancers in Haiti who have really dedicated their lives to dance and with very few rewards. There are a few that get into companies and tour but it was ..I don’t know, it was a very overwhelming (in a good way) experience.
I think in a situation like that when you are meeting people of little means with very little chance of success in the sense of it being heard or seen far and wide…are you attracted to that? That type of art creation just because it’s this impulse in you.
You mean in terms of the Haitian stuff? That makes me think of folk music. This is the Haitian folkloric tradition. My parents come from folk backgrounds and met playing American folk music. Yes, that is what helps me even in times like this. You’re interviewing me as if I was an important person to interview versus just communing with people. I’ve enjoyed these interviews a lot because most the time it’s just an intelligent conversation with other intelligent people. The same with music: I do need to kind of calm down the ‘Eeehh…you’re opening for ARCADE FIRE!’ or ‘You’re playing in an amphitheater!’ You know all the kind of romance most people associate with fame and celebrity and stuff like that. So I don’t intend for celebrity to take over my life. A: we are not that famous and B: music is what roots me to the earth instead of what carries me off into this cloud of egotism and ‘I’m better than everybody else.’ I really struggled this year and with this album to keep it that way. So learning another folk tradition did really help with that. In folk music you are one small piece of a greater whole. I really appreciate that and kind of rely on that perspective.