tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus talks puppetry, playfulness, and learning to use her voice

I'm positive that Merrill Garbus didn't answer her phone the first time I called because she wanted me to hear her voicemail greeting. 

"Thi-iS iS m-m-E-rr-ilL l-E-a-V-e A m-esS-age," a creaking voice insists, while bounding up and down amidst an octave's worth of notes.

And just like that, the deal is sealed: There is not a single thing that is boring about Garbus, the songwriter, lead singer, multi-instrumentalist, and founder of tUnE-yArDs. Her project, which is so stubbornly set on being groundbreaking that even the spelling of its name forces typists to shake themselves from their usual routine, has been causing music critics to flip their shit nationwide ever since the release of her sophomore album,

w h o k i l l

, last month on 4AD.

Though the record builds on the looping techniques, playfulness, and unbridled joyful experimentation of her debut record, BiRd-BrAiNs, w h o k i l l is a triumph in its ability to capture the full range of Garbus's many impressive talents -- from ukulele plucking and vocal acrobatics to poignant songwriting and dizzying arrays of sonic layering -- with an astonishing, immediate-sounding clarity.

Garbus will return to town to play her biggest local show to date this Sunday at the Cedar Cultural Center with Buke and Gass. We caught up with her over the phone somewhere outside of Denver to grill her on her new album and current state of mind.

Gimme Noise: There has been a deluge of positive tUnE-yArDs press lately. How do you feel you've been portrayed so far, and does any of this come as a surprise?

Merrill Garbus: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I'm really grateful for it, and I guess it's just weird now to have this concern about being portrayed as anything, if you know what I mean. It's just a strange phenomenon to have a public persona. But honestly, I have to not read reviews unless it's specifically pointed out to me that I ought to. Like I did read the New Yorker piece, but I don't know what it is exactly, but I can't really read about myself otherwise. I have to get it from the people that I trust, because I think it puts me in a space sort of outside of myself, instead of being me. So it's been pretty important to me -- a little while ago I was just like, oh, I can't do this anymore. I really can't read or listen to other people's interpretations or opinions of me. Even the positive stuff. But from what I hear, everything's going really well. [laughs] And the New Yorker piece made me cry, positive tears. It's quite amazing. I think also just the fact that people are buying the album in numbers that I could never fathom before is pretty amazing. It's really, really great.

I saw you speak on the Our Band Could Be Your Life panel at SXSW, and I really liked what you had to say in terms of the "Do It Yourself" work ethic: that the most important part of the equation is actually doing something. Where did you first find your drive? What pushed you to create?

That's a really good question. Because I think I was doing it before I was doing music, I was doing it with puppetry. But I think it took me a really long time to sort of connect the dots. Like I remember I did this internship with Bread and Puppet Theater -- it's a puppet commune of sorts. They are puppeteers living in Vermont, and they have a history of doing these incredible, giant-sized puppets that they use in protest marches a lot. But they have a farm, and everybody participates in work, communally. They cook for each other, and garden, and create shows together. I think that was my first experience of this kind of hands-on art. They have this thing about cheap art, that art should be for everyone and art should not have to be made with expensive materials... anyway, it was a mind-blowing experience. I think I was 19 at the time. For a 19-year-old to all of a sudden be not longing to make art anymore, but just to be told that it was in my hands and in my power. That was probably the first time that I had an experience with that kind of "do it yourself" attitude. 

And with music I think it came from my friend Patrick Gregoire, who I had another band with in Montreal [Sister Suvi], because he had this real fire to do music, and he was like, 'Your songs could make you money some day.' And I was like, 'No way!' And he -- if I hadn't had another person sort of pulling me, holding my hand and jumping off the cliff with me, I don't think I could have done it on my own. That's who I started booking tours with, and creating our own musical community, and just doing it from the ground up, all the artwork and posters and all that stuff. So I really learned a lot from him, which I think he had learned from living in Montreal, which has a really strong sense of people doing it themselves and doing their own really independent, unique music projects.

One thing that has always impressed me about watching you perform is the range of your voice, and the way you seem to use every possible part of it. I'm wondering, when is the first time you realized the full range of your voice? Was there ever a moment where you were like, Woah, I can do that?

It happens every day that I find something new. But I took a workshop with these people called the Roy Hart theater company, and they do vocal technique that's really for theater work, but they really start you from the ground up. Their method is really about freeing the voice, and I just took a day-long workshop with them after hearing about them for a long time, and I found that after a day of doing like baby infant sounds and totally bizarre physical exercises, that by the end of the day I was singing higher than I'd ever sung before. That was really influential on me.

I'm curious about the snippets of voice recordings on w h o k i l l. I know the recordings on the first album came from a job you had as a nanny. Where were these new segments recorded?

The ones on the new album are actually me when I'm two and a half, with my grandparents. It's from a cassette tape I came across at my grandpa's house in Maine. It was so amazing to hear my personality before I even knew that I had a personality. And then I guess right about that time my grandma got really sick, and -- not to be a downer -- but my grandparents both passed away during the making of that album, which was really crazy. So it was this thing that I was thinking about using, and then it became more meaningful as the whole process unfolded.

Some of your lyrics are so intensely personal, yet your performance style seems so confident and self-assured. How do you stay focused and confident when you're on stage, even when you're dealing with matters that might be close to your heart?

I get asked that a lot, and I think I forget that they're personal. Meaning that as soon as they come out of me -- that's my process, is the writing of the song. And maybe at the beginning it's a bit weird to perform them, but the beautiful thing about performance is I get to let it go, and I give it to other people, or it's in front of me. I was trained in these theater mechanisms which are the opposite of method acting, where you are really internalizing everything and feeling everything in the moment -- I've been trained in the opposite way, which is like, this is removed from me, and because of my removal from it, I can have more perspective on it, which gives me more clarity. And I think also, most of the lyrics, a lot of them are fictional. Or, if it's not fictional, they're like these shards of my life, they're not the full-bodied truth. So in that way, too, a specific line can have a huge resonance, but it doesn't have a resonance from this painful experience in my life, necessarily. It has a shard of resonance that sheds light on other stuff.

I like to imagine that all of your songs are autobiographical just because I selfishly want to relate to what you're saying, but I've always wondered if that's actually the case, or if it's just little bits of truth sprinkled into characters or fictional stories that you're weaving.

It's definitely a bit of both. I don't know if this makes sense, but it all feels true to me. Like I never feel like something is coming from a dishonest place, but a lot of it -- especially on this one, a lot of the songs are fictional characters or, again, starting with a sliver of my own personal experience but then I expand it to something that's a real story. It's funny, because I think with songwriting people do assume that more than with short stories or creative writing or novels, I think very few people make the assumption with that kind of work that the author has necessarily experienced those things. But because of the singer-songwriter culture, I think that's sort of the trend, that you talk about your own experience. My life has been interesting, and I wouldn't take it back for anything, but I don't think that people just want to hear about me and my life for hours and hours.

There's something honorable about being able to speak with empathy about the human experience without having experienced it personally. 

Yeah, and it's tricky. With something like "Doorstep" or "Riot Riot," those are two songs that really take on fictional characters, and part of me is like, 'Well, what right do I have to tell anyone else's story?' But however problematic that is, it's my way of investigating or getting that empathetic view of walking in someone else's shoes, and that is really important for me to have as part of my musical adventure.

What led you to incorporate sax and horns on the new album?

I'm a big fan of Afrobeat music, and I felt like something like "Bizness" really lent itself to having a horn section. I'm lucky enough to have moved into the Bay Area. I had access all of a sudden to some of the best musicians I've ever met in my whole life, so I had the resources to have Matt Nelson and Kasey Knudson come on tour.

Your music is often described as childlike, but it is also technically so complex -- that's an interesting dichotomy. How do you maintain that balance?

That's awesome to hear. There are certain things that I defined tUnE-yArDs as before, that I really wanted to hold intact, and now just come a little more easily. I think the idea of dichotomy in general appeals to me, like a lot of people have commented on the lyrics being dark or serious versus the sound of the songs, which are really joyful. And I find that there's this really exciting friction that happens when you're pulled in two opposite directions. I'm a really serious person. I can be a really self-serious person and annoyingly so, and I think it has come to my attention through playing music that if I'm not having fun doing it, then it's sort of pointless. Because there's not a whole lot of money or glory in touring, and I don't mean to whine, but it's not something I should be doing unless I'm having a lot of fun with it. And that's something I want my performances to be full of, is that kind of childlike joy and curiosity, and the things I find sorely lacking in adult life. These shows that we've been doing have been really awesome, really high energy. Some of the most special shows I've played, all smack dab in a row.

Are the audiences familiar with the new songs already?

Yeah, a lot of them are. It's pretty awesome to hear them sing along.

So here's an idea I wanted to float past you. It's not necessarily in your music, but more your approach, your creative freedom, and the success you've achieved so far by blazing you own trail -- but there's something about you that reminds me of Ani DiFranco. I'm curious, has she been an influence on you at any point?

Yes. Thanks for saying that. I think it's pretty amazing how much of an influence she was on me from age 17 until like 22. And it's weird, because I haven't thought about her in a while, except in the past year when I've been making business decisions, and just the fact that she started her own label and did things her way and felt like her art was going to be compromised if she had signed with a bigger label. That stuff has really come back to be relevant to my life, and the choices that I have been faced with in the past couple years. But yes. Just the fact that at that point in my life she was one of the only women musicians -- there were other women musicians doing their thing, and that was awesome, but she was not one that was concerned with her voice sounding pretty, or her guitar sounding pretty, or anything being pretty. In fact, she was talking about being 'Not a Pretty Girl.' Her thing was not being that, and that was a huge, huge influence on the way I thought of myself as a woman. That was a huge growing point for me. I hope I meet her someday and can thank her in person. I don't hear people talk about her very much, but she clearly influenced an entire generation of women musicians, I think. And men.

tUnE-yArDs perform with Buke & Gass on SUNDAY, MAY 8 at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER. All ages. $12. 7 p.m.

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