Merrill Garbus, a.k.a. tUnE-yArDsPhotograph by Chloe Aftel
Merrill Garbus, the 33-year-old embodiment of the musical sensation and copy editor's nightmare known as tUnE-yArDs, arrives for our interview at an Oakland café clad in a cacophony of black, hot pink, and bright green. A highlighter-yellow scarf is thrown haphazardly about her neck. Her signature asymmetric hairdo is somehow chaotic and totally deliberate at the same time. Her smile is huge, her voice booming, her vibe effortlessly effusive.
It's all in a day's work for Garbus, who burst onto the indie-pop scene in 2009, upending the status quo in a genre whose performers seldom stray far from established boundaries of cool: tUnE-yArDs' scratchy self-recorded debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, featured a solo Garbus banging drums, picking on her uke, and weaving quirky harmonies from her immensely versatile voice by means of a looping device. Impressed, the Pixies' old label, 4AD, reissued a vinyl version and signed her up for the next album. She moved to Oakland from Montreal, recruited a kindred spirit, bassist Nate Brenner, to round out her sound, and then proceeded to tear up every rule in the book.
In tUnE-yArDs, music meets performance art; Garbus combines face paint, homemade costumes, African-influenced beats and melodies, and in-your-face physical elements to raw, rapturous effect: Take the video for her song "Bizness," off 2011's w h o k i l l, wherein Garbus and a troupe of look-alike dancers twist and contort grotesquely like grown children feigning insanity or ecstasy. "What drove me with tUnE-yArDs," she explains, "is I wasn't seeing women aside from like Peaches or Ani DiFranco pushing the boundaries of what it is to be an acceptable female pop star. There's just not a lot of examples of rad women being loud."
Garbus was raised in Connecticut by folk-musician parents before heading off to women-only Smith College in Massachusetts. Given the awkwardness of high school—"sexual roles just never really made sense to me at all"—Smith was a welcome haven. For a time, Garbus studied abroad in Kenya, where she initially proposed tailing Somali pirates. Instead, her professors wisely redirected her toward the region's Taarab music, which is based on Swahili poetry. But it was the ubiquitous Congolese pop blasting from Kenyan radios that proved to be most influential.
"I think a lot of what I picked up in my time there was just listening to all this music all the time that my ears had never heard before," she says. But wherever her influences stem from, Garbus' pop sensibilities often harbor a tone of charged, if subtle, politics. "Policemen shot my baby crossing right over my doorstep…Don't tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this," she intones in "Doorstep." "Part of my experience as a human being is questioning my role in the world," she explains. "So I guess to separate political music from apolitical music seems absurd to me."
Garbus will be touring in the United States and overseas through August before returning home to start work on tUnE-yArDs' third album. Given her general attitude toward her art, it is unlikely to disappoint. "If it's not breaking some kind of ground," she tells me, "it just seems pointless."