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Tune-Yards: ‘The shared experience of music is sacred’

‘I tried to push myself to be uncomfortable’: Merrill Garbus, front, with Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards
‘I tried to push myself to be uncomfortable’: Merrill Garbus, front, with Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards. Photograph: Eliot Lee Hazel

Merrill Garbus was raised in Connecticut, and after working for a puppet theatre in Vermont, self-released her first album as Tune-Yards. Bird-Brains was picked up by the label 4AD in 2009. After moving to California, Garbus recorded 2011’s acclaimed Whokill and 2014’s Nikki Nack with bassist Nate Brenner. Garbus presents Claw, a radio show for Red Bull, playing work by “female-identifying producers”. Tune-Yards’s latest record, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, is out on 19 January.

I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is a great title. Where did that come from?
People assume it’s some kind of privacy, Google thing, but it actually came through a meditation course that I did related to race and white privilege, trying to sit with the deep feelings of what it means to grow up in racism. These aren’t things I can just sign petitions about or go to marches about – actually, there’s a place that it lives inside of me. There’s a concept of white fragility that’s very hard for white people to hear when they are being racist. It’s about trying to take that in without defensiveness.

It’s so easy to think “I’m not like that” or “it doesn’t apply to me”.
Exactly. And I recognise that most of the time [racism is] not personal, it’s pretty institutional. But the personal part is: how can I push back, when the tides are flowing in the direction of white supremacy?

The lyrics to Colonizer on the new album talk about cultural appropriation, about who gets to tell the stories. Was that something you were wrestling with?
Yeah, totally. We’re becoming very aware of the voices of history that we grow up with. I love my job, but I also have doubts about whose voices need to be heard right now. It’s not like I’m Madonna or Katy Perry, but I have some kind of reach. I go through both needing to sing, to open up my lungs and create sound, but also at times being disgusted by my own voice. But I tried to push myself to be uncomfortable, because that’s what this work of being a human is, and particularly what being an artist with a public voice is.

Watch the video for Tune-Yards’s ABC 123.

Your uncomfortable lyrics are often within fun, upbeat-sounding songs. Is that a deliberate contrast?
That’s always been what I love in the music I surround myself with: music that has you dancing before you realise what you’re listening to. Hip-hop does that, Fela Kuti did that, Congolese dance music does that…

You’ve been DJing more recently - has that influenced the desire to make something people can dance to?

Absolutely, it was leaning towards dance music, and understanding the value and the history of people getting together in clubs. Here in San Francisco, disco was really important in the gay rights movement, and that’s true also for the beginning of house and techno, for people who were marginalised. And especially in the UK: I didn’t really know about rave music, but people getting together and – whether or not it’s drug-related – there’s just that idealism and love. These days it’s hard to centre around love and not have it feel suspicious to people. Those movements of rave music explore that.

How did the radio show come about?
When we did Nikki Nack I asked the label and a few other people “are there any women out there producing records?” And there were a lot of blank stares. That really disturbed me, so I went on my own hunt and of course – of course – there are thousands upon thousands of women producing. My dream was to pair rappers with women producers, and as I was dreaming it up, Red Bull approached me to see if I had an idea for a show.

Your live shows always look like a lot of fun. How important is the performance side of Tune-Yards for you?
I come from a theatre background, and also I had parents who brought me up in various folk traditions, and many of those are about ritual and what we do together as humans to process life on this planet. So, for me, getting on stage is creating this ritual. I think the shared experience of music – experiencing rhythm together, experiencing movement together – is sacred.

Do you ever miss the days of recording alone with a Dictaphone and a laptop?
No, not really. I was really sad back then. Now I’m in a pretty wonderful partnership, and I get to travel the world and play in front of thousands of people. I am dumbstruck by what we have.

Tune-Yards tour the UK from 13 March

This article titled "Tune-Yards: ‘The shared experience of music is sacred’" was written by Holly Williams, for The Observer on Saturday 13 January 2018 06.00pm

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