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.”

The studio routine gave Garbus the means to do all of this by creating the time for her to be an artist.

“The life of an artist is so chaotic that the idea of having a space and a routine was so comforting to me and it was what I needed. I needed hours in the studio where I could read James Joyce, for instance. I could read newspapers or look through photos of Charlie Chaplin. It doesn’t work for me to sit at a desk and write music. I need to be doing other stuff and then I start writing.”

“Usually if you go a day without getting any song written, you’re like ‘what the hell did I do with my day?’. Well, what I did was get my ass in a seat from 11 to 4 or 5 and I showed up. It may have been infuriating to get nothing done, but I showed up.

“It really helped me to dedicate time to the creative process. It was time when I was not getting coffee with a friend, it was time when I was not cooking dinner. This was creative time. I had to create those boundaries and make it clear to people in my life and myself that I do have a job. I even kept track of my hours so I wouldn’t go insane.”

To make her studio hours more interesting and varied, Garbus assigned herself different tasks.

“A couple of days, my assignment to myself was to write a bad song You have to give yourself permission to be bad, really bad, and not edit yourself. The truth is the songs that exist now on the album are the ones I was the most competitive at. I don’t know if they were necessarily the best, but there was something in them which caught my attention and interested me.”

It all added up to a very different and more eventful experience. “I asked the question ‘why am I doing this?’ a lot. It was hard and uncomfortable and unpleasant and stressful, so did I really want to be doing this?

“The answer I came up with to all of that is that I’m extremely grateful to be a musician and to have the opportunity to write these songs and perform them. I didn’t want to be the whine, woe-is-me, poor indie rock star. You know the type and I’m tired of that cliche. I tend to look for and seek to make music which is not that. I want music that celebrates life or has some perspective besides being an indie rock star.”

Perhaps tUnE-yArDs’ next album might see her adhering to the same routine again, right down to the James Joyce books?

“That’s an idea. I took a course on Joyce when I was in university and I think he’s just the most amazing, beautiful writer. He was one who really shifted what words could do, he changed what could be done within the medium, yet you can really identify with the people in his stories. That’s the inspiration for me, that way of changing the whole way you tell a story and what you can do with words and songs and albums.

“Man, can you and me do another interview some time just about Joyce?”