Merrill Garbus is always a little distrustful of pretty sounds.
“I’m suspicious when things sound too good,” says Garbus, who fronts the band tUnE-yArDs. “Truth is really hard to hear.”
Garbus references these suspicions on “Look Around,” from her 2014 album Nikki Nack: “On the one hand there’s what sounds good, on the other hand there’s what’s true/Beware the empty promise.”
Which is not to say that Garbus believes that there’s nothing true about beauty. She has a love for great pop music and was reared on Michael Jackson’s music.
“I feel like there’s a deal we make with a pop song,” Garbus says. “This song is taking me to a paradise. I know this isn’t true, but we need it to get through the day. And that’s okay.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to making music, Garbus has always preferred a jarring dissonance. “The ugliness, the rawness of my voice, the imperfections of my voice, that’s more interesting to me than smoothing it out,” she says. And yet there are gloriously sweet sounds that shine through. Case in point: “Look Around,” where Garbus builds the melody around her voice—it seems to resonate perfectly with the ukulele and synthesizer, even as she begins to distort her vocals as the song progresses.
Despite her love of the rough edges and unconventional structures, Garbus has made an effort recently to embrace the beauty of pop. Before writing the songs on Nikki Nack, she checked Molly-Ann Leikin’s book How to Write a Hit Song out of the library. One of the biggest lessons she learned had to do with sweat and tears. “Put your butt in the seat and do the work,” she says. “You can’t just dream of writing a song. You have to put the hours in. The more hours you put in, the more you get out.”
tUnE-yArDs released its first album, BiRd-BrAiNs, in 2009. The band’s 2011 sophomore effort, w h o k i l l, was a critic’s favorite, topping the prestigious Village Voice Pazz and Jop music poll that year.
In live shows, Garbus makes on-the-spot loops of drum beats, which she and bandmate Nate Brenner then accent with ukulele, keyboards, and bass. Thematically, tUnE-yArDs often tackles political and social issues. Just as her music is a stew of influences, her lyrics reflect a messy urbanism, a clash of cultures trying to find an equilibrium. “Bizness,” from w h o k i l l, evokes a mugging, with the chorus, “Don’t take my life away.” Both mugger and mark are presented a victims. On the album, the song is followed by “Doorstep,” about a police shooting: “Don’t tell me the cops are right in a wrong like this.” But there are also moments of connection and transcendence.
“Social justice and actual equality and digging into the truth of this country and other countries, and how we treat other people on the planet—those are always the big questions for me,” Garbus says. “Just the fact that I get to engage in those topics, I feel better. I feel better talking out loud rather than withering away, isolated in my bedroom.”
Unlike a lot of bands playing Big Ears, Garbus’ music leans toward the more accessible side of the spectrum. But even if you label it “pop music,” it’s a pop that is complex and experimental.
“We’re going to be at Big Ears with artists far more impervious than tUnE-yArDs is, whose aim has never been to be a pop star,” Garbus says. “I come from an understanding of avant-garde and jazz music, that’s all in my history and consciousness. tUnE-yArDs will always draw from aspects of that. I presume someone heard that in our music and that’s why we’re there.”
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