Artist Interviews

Q&A: Tune-Yards

By | Published on Thursday 2 June 2011


Since releasing their latest acclaimed album ‘w h o k i l l’, tUnE-yArDs have been touring across North America, taking their eclectic noise-pop with them.

The music project of Merrill Garbus, who hails from New England, there is no missing the distinctive sound of the tUnE-yArDs or Garbus’ incredible voice. With her collaborator Nate Brenner, Garbus has created a hybrid sound that takes in acoustic folk, R&B, Afro-rock and blues. Now heading off for a European tour, before returning to the UK for a number of dates including the End Of The Road Festival, we managed to catch up with Merrill to ask our Same Six Questions.

Q1 How did you start out making music?
The very beginning was probably listening to my mother practicing piano when I was in utero. In my childhood it was humming to myself until I drove people mad. But I began tUnE-yArDs in 2007 after I quit being a puppeteer. I had written a puppet opera that included a ukulele and had the realisation that I loved writing the songs more than I loved the puppet (she and I had a love-hate relationship.)

Q2 What inspired your latest album?
Lots of things… I began writing some of the songs when I began a new relationship, so there are certainly love songs in there. But I also made other big life changes during the making of the album: moving from Canada back to the US, and leaving a wonderful community behind me; becoming more exposed through the success of tUnE-yArDs in the past couple of years. There was lots of painful yet necessary change that went on. Also both of my remaining grandparents passed away. I think although the music is a celebration of life in many ways, there are some very dark lyrics about this kind of painful, inevitable change. Also, you’ll hear a lot of Oakland, California, in this album…a very inspiring place, and my new home.

Q3 What process do you go through in creating a track?
For ‘w h o k i l l’ we began by putting down the live version of a song to tape at New, Improved Recording in Oakland. Nate would do bass and some percussion, I would play each drum part all the way through the song, one at a time. Floor tom for four and a half minutes… snare drum part one for four and a half minutes… snare part two for four and a half minutes… and so on. My wrists were tired.

I also did ukulele, then vocals. Eli Crews (who engineered) did some wizardry on his analogue synths and other equipment. Nate said, “that needs marimba!” Then I took the tracks home and tried to mix them three different times; I did some overdubs at our rehearsal studio, some through the same voice recorder I used for the first tUnE-yArDs album, and took some samples from the places I found myself. I edited things, chopped them up, improvised back-up vocals, and altered beginnings and endings of the songs.

And then, after I’d finished mixing the whole album, I decided I didn’t like it, so we took the tracks back to Eli and remixed them, which proved to be the last magic ingredient the whole thing needed.

Q4 Which artists influence your work?
Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Sly And The Family Stone, Wu-Tang, Hukwe Zawose, Motown artists, Michael Jackson, Sheila E, Rokia Traore, MIA, Erykah Badu, The Roots…

Q5 What would you say to someone experiencing your music for the first time?
Are there tingles in your toes?

Q6 What are your ambitions for your latest album, and for the future?
I hope we’ll be able to connect with audiences in parts of the world we haven’t yet seen. And I’d love to begin more collaborations with musicians who don’t have access to the support we are so lucky to have.