You can't accuse Merrill Garbus of shying away from the big topics. Three years after her self-initiated education into white privilege led to Tune-Yards' fourth album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, she's back with Sketchy.
Obscured behind its presentation of a brightly coloured patchwork of sounds and left-of-centre loops, the album contemplates how systems such as capitalism and patriarchy entwine with climate change.
“What I’m learning is how all of these things are connected,” says Garbus, speaking via Zoom from her rehearsal room in Portland, California, with her recording gear repurposed for transatlantic video calling. “We can’t talk about climate change without talking about migrant justice. We can’t talk about white supremacy without talking about the ways that climate is creating pressure systems in which racism is fostered. They’re not as disconnected as we like to categorise them.
“So a song like Under Your Lip began from being tired and afraid of what people tell me about myself on the internet. But it intersects with gender, and claiming who I am as a woman, not what someone says I ought to be as a woman. That’s in Nowhere, Man too. These themes run through.”
Heavy as it might sound, Garbus doesn't come across like she's carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Those who have caught her performing as Tune-Yards – that's Garbus and her personal and professional partner Nate Brenner – over the band's 13 years will know her relaxed, down-to-earth demeanour levels out these lofty ideas.
It was entirely in character that days before we speak, she delivered a lyrically impactful performance of Hold Yourself on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in yellow striped dungarees, bouncing around on giant bean bags with a set design straight from a 1970s children's TV show.
The album’s themes suggest that while Garbus is grounded in California for the album’s promotional trail, she’s grappling with how to tour sustainably once gigs return.
Already, the band sell merch that specifically helps them offset their carbon footprint, and ask for riders that take sustainability into account. But in the next phase, Tune-Yards are looking for more impactful solutions.
“I think it’s just a matter of small changes and being really vocal about it over time, as opposed to stopping touring,” says Garbus. “Maybe I’m wrong, though, and maybe the answer is saying we’re going to be a band that stops touring, because we need to ring an alarm about climate change.”
That would be all the more a sacrifice as gigging is how the band initially made their name, even before their debut album, Bird-Brains, was released on 4AD in 2009. With unconventional live shows (Garbus uses loops and an ever-rotating range of instruments on stage), their slots at major festivals such as Coachella, Glastonbury and Fuji Rocks, and support tours for the likes of Arcade Fire, The National and Death Cab For Cutie, remain their defining moments. Garbus recounts that their first show at Whelan’s, supporting Dirty Projectors, was the very start of their wild ride.
“It takes a lot for a show to stick out in my memory, but Whelan’s in the fall of 2009 I remember,” she says, smiling. “It was when we felt like Tune-Yards would actually be a thing that people liked. It’s rare to play a song that no one has ever heard in the audience but the reaction is like it’s their favourite song. So I felt like I had them, I had the audience. Ever since then, Ireland’s been one of our favourite places to play.”
“But it’s been interesting to have the pandemic show us what happens when we slow down and stop flying around the world,” Garbus continues. “It made me realise that it feels bad to fly, and it should feel bad.”
“I remember standing in an airport, and reading this journalist writing about the latest climate report. He was saying, essentially, it is so much worse than we thought – that enough people have to say we need to stop, and we have to potentially sacrifice our income, our businesses and our sense of urgency – which is a white supremacist notion where we eat each other to stay on top. That led me to ask, how do I as a musician who feels scarcity – because it seems there’s only so many bands that can have success at one time – shift the culture?
“My conclusion it’s not about making the right choice or the wrong choice. It’s going to be an evolution of choice.
“Early on, when I started Tune-Yards, people would get called out online for selling their music to ads, because that was selling out. I remember always having these moral quandaries about making the right decision,” she continues, perhaps referring to Water Fountain, which was used in a Google ad. “Now I see that those binaries are also part of these systems. If we’re always obsessed with making the right decision, then we’re paralysed and we don’t do anything. Then rich, powerful people can just do what they want to do.”
She lets out a laugh, lest the conversation get too serious.
The 11 tracks of Sketchy are largely in keeping with their musical palette. Which doesn’t say much, as their trademark sound, drawing from playful indie, jazz, Afrobeat and pop, is liable to go anywhere at any time. A highlight is Silence, a two-parter in which the languid first half acknowledges the solutions to society’s problems are “not in my lifetime”, as Garbus delivers with her full-bodied vocals. The second part is a minute’s silence, designed to insert a breather into a dense album and also to allow a period of reflection. Though most of the album was written in 2019, before the pandemic, that element was inserted after the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
“My personal experience has been that it takes practice to sit with horrific truths,” she says. “Maybe putting it in the album felt like a practice. The music’s making us move and dance, and then we sit with discomfort or whatever we’re feeling, and then we’ll move again.”
Elsewhere, lead track Hold Yourself is her most personal song yet. “I have these dreams where my friends and family are really angry at me for writing this song,” she says. “It brings up so much for me. There’s so much grief in it, and so much shame in it.”
The song, a look at today’s crises from a generational point of view, lays bare her feelings on motherhood: “Child, I won’t have you / I cannot have you / Child I won’t have you and I’m telling you why.”
“Songs are ways for me to see something through to a logical conclusion that isn’t necessarily an aspect of myself, so part of me wonders if I do have a child some day, will people say I’m a complete hypocrite,” she says of the sentiment. “But as a woman who doesn’t have children, I wasn’t hearing enough women who didn’t have children say that it was a choice. You hear women say they had fertility problems, or they didn’t get married in time, or they chose their career instead. But you don’t hear women say ‘I have listened to what the facts are, and in good conscious, I can’t bring another life into this world’. And that’s me.”
Over lockdown, she and Brenner adopted a dog who’s a real attention hound, Garbus says. “I can tell she’s pissed at me when I’m playing music or reading on the couch. So thinking about how I break down my day is also a huge part of my concern of having a child.”
It’s something between refreshing and agonising to see the emphasis Garbus puts on her own role in society’s ills. But the fact that her interest is more than lip-service has not gone unnoticed; it must have helped when auteur Boots Riley invited her in to score his 2018 surrealist movie Sorry to Bother You, a dark comedy about race in capitalist America.
“It was an honour to see someone drive really hard and be uncompromising about their vision,” she says of Riley. “And it let us experiment so that we didn’t need to be Tune-Yards, we could be whatever Boots wanted us to be. There was a real freedom in exploring some of the production and classical techniques that we wanted to experiment with.”
Looking ahead, are there any ambitions yet to achieve?
“My challenge is to not think of this like a ladder,” she says. “In a career that’s based on individual achievement, ego, and personality, how might we be a model of a band where our definition of success is more our relevance to community and to movement than how high we’ve climbed.” Garbus pauses momentarily. “Although I wish I could say something easy like, ‘We want to play Saturday Night Live’,” she says, laughing. “Let’s go with that instead.”
She doesn’t mean it, of course. That would be shying away from the big topics, and quite clearly, that’s not her style.
Sketchy is released on March 26th on 4AD