The case sensitive tUnE-yArDs bubbles up

To create her new tUnE-yArDs album, Merrill Garbus kept strict hours in the studio, writing songs and reading James Joyce. ‘He was one who really shifted what words could do,’ says the fast-talking ex-puppeteer

Fri, May 2, 2014, 00:00

Merrill Garbus has a request before the interview begins. “I’ve been speaking very slowly all morning so I can be heard and understood clearly, so is it okay to speed up now?”

The verbal deceleration was so that interviewers in Italy, Portugal and Denmark could keep up with her. Such is the lot of a musician promoting a new album: the world calls her up in Oakland, California and she talks and talks and talks, at different speeds.

“This kind of thing is surreal” Garbus says at one stage as she grapples with the worldwide interest in her and her music. “Who’d have thought I’d have an audience in Ireland? That’s crazy.”

The reason for the current interest is Nikki Nack, the third album by the New England native and former puppeteer under the orthographically challenged tUnE-yArDs moniker. As befits the fast-talking Garbus, it’s a rush of giddy songs, energetic euphoria and gleeful grooves. Like its predecessors, BiRd-BrAiNs (2009) and whokill (2012), it’s the clatter of music that is out there yet remarkably accessible at the same time.

Nikki Nack is a little different in some respects: Garbus says it took a lot of hard work to make it to the finishing line, as she hit a wall and ideas dried up. She credits How to Write a Hit Song, Molly-Ann Leikin’s 1987 manual, with leading her out of this creative cul-de-sac.

Is the DIY queenpin having us on with this shout-out for a book about writing and marketing chart-topping lyrics and music?

“You can check my record at the Oakland public library if you don’t believe me,” Garbus responds. “I did borrow that book and I read it from cover to cover. People may find it hard to believe that someone can be so desperate.

“It’s a good book in a lot of ways. I’m not trying to write a hit for another singer or a pop singer and a lot of that book is geared towards that market, but it gave me tools and that’s what I was looking for. I was looking for something to get me out of my own way and it served that purpose for sure. This was the first time I’ve done songwriting in such a structured way.”

Her use of the word “desperate” to underline her predicament is interesting.

“I think that most albums are made in desperate circumstances at some point or another. I’m not the exception. In order to make an album that feels like something is happening and that there’s a transformation going on, in order for it to feel new and exciting, there has to be some pain, unfortunately. It doesn’t have to be drink-induced or drug-induced or a case of self-inflicted wounds.”

Garbus also kept strict hours. Every morning without fail she’d head into her studio, go to work without distraction and leave punctually in the evening. Laurie Anderson, Damon Albarn and Nick Cave, among others, swear by this method. (“Nick Cave is the name that comes up a lot when I talk about this and I don’t know his music all that well, so I’d better check him out”).

“How does a generally spacey, dreamy, flighty musician work with this time?” she muses. “How do you break it up into hours where actual productive work gets done? You’re given this supposedly endless time off, but there’s this unspoken agreement that you’ll have a really good album at the end of it.”