the contextual life

thoughts without borders

what to listen to :: tUnE-yArDs

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I became aware of tUnE-yArDs through a live taping of Studio 360 at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space. Before the night began I’d noticed a young woman wearing neon feathers capped around the shoulders of her sleeveless dress with a streak of blue paint across her face. In New York City this doesn’t mean much and I assumed she was an audience member. It wasn’t until she was onstage that I realized she was Merrill Garbus, the lead member of the band. She took her place behind a floor tom, snare drum, and microphone. Not so visible was a loop pedal on the floor, a key component to band’s music. Behind her, also with a tom and snare, was Nate Brenner saddled with a bass guitar and off to the side were two saxophonists.

The anticipation! What could this unconventional ensemble produce?

What came next was unexpected: layered drumbeats, vocal loops of bleeps and siren sounds, and experimental horns. Later in her interview with host Kurt Andersen, Garbus spoke of her time abroad in Kenya and Tanzania where she was exposed to traditional African music (yet didn’t come to use it until 10 years later). She also told of straining her voice and thinking her singing career was over only to be introduced to a particular tribe’s vocal style, which has since become central to her own. Nowhere on the group’s latest album, w h o k i l l, are these influences more prominent than the single “Buziness” with its melodic chanting and tribal drumbeats.

It’s hard to distill tUnE-yArDs into one genre, which speaks to Garbus’s nomadic history and the indirect path she took to land her where she is now. Even she couldn’t explain the exact trajectory, a sentiment familiar to fellow cultural explorers who wind up in unplanned places. She grew up in suburban Connecticut, was raised by music-loving parents, studied Theater at Smith College in Massachusetts, had a brief stint in Vermont as a puppeteer—yes, a puppeteer—and then moved to Montreal, Canada where she joined the band Sister Suvi. Merrill now lives in Oakland, California.

It’s in this troubled city that you can imagine tUnE-yArDs thriving. Garbus’s lyrics have an undertone of social awareness. But if you don’t feel like you’re being preached to, it’s no mistake. This aspect of their music is intentional. In an interview with Pitchfork she spoke about the politics in her music and how she didn’t want to be so confrontational that she lost her audience but she also didn’t want to write music for Urban Outfitters. “I’m always walking this fine line,” she said.

The night began with “Gangsta,” a song that came about after observing a group of Oakland boys posturing, unconvincingly like thugs, on the street. “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta?” she asks. Then, self-reflectively, “what’s a girl to do if she’ll never be a rasta?,” also a chord that will resonate with worldly travelers who at one point in their lives found themselves chasing an unattainable identity.

During each of the three songs the band performed, I kept thinking that this was a band to see live. Garbus’s raw vocals and awe-inspiring use of loops—is well worth a trip to a club and the ticket price that goes along with it. Both her and her music felt like they were meant for an audience so it was interesting to read her conflicting thoughts regarding live shows: “There’s this new dimension of self-loathing where you’re on exhibition for thousands of people. I would say performance is something that calls to me despite my fear and I know that’s where my creative voice is. And when I have visions of what I want to do creatively, it’s mostly visions of what I want to do with an audience in front of me.”

Like tUnE-yArDs live, w h o k i l l is dynamic and innovative. The fourth track, “Powa,” is a mellow, indie lullaby, albeit with confused lyrics; and one of my favorite songs “You Yes You” is an upbeat folky tune that makes me wish I was headed to the beach with the car windows rolled down. Overall, whether in person or on your stereo, tUnE-yArDs is a truly enjoyable experience and deserves more than a few listens.

tUnE-yArDs perform “You Yes You” on Studio 360

Watch the rest on Studio 360‘s website and listen to Merrill’s interview with Kurt Andersen
Visit the tUnE-yArDs website
tUnE-yArDs live at SXSW (2011)
Read the Pitchfork interview
Read an interview on
Keep an eye on great stuff happening at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space

Written by Gabrielle

June 6, 2011 at 6:29 am

Posted in music

Tagged with , ,

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