by Kevin Vaughn
Dropping names like the one I´m about to do is admittedly subjective, slightly egocentric and I would assume produces more eye rolling than endearment to the musician receiving the comparison, but I’m compelled to say it anyway. “Riotriot” was the first track I heard from TuneYards, and as I listened to it a sense of relief washed over me as I thought to myself that Nina Simone had risen from the grave to dedicate herself to making me dance. There I said it! Whokill, the sophomore album from New England native Merrill Garbus, is a work of pure joy. It is built on a steady dose of horns, loops, bass and ukulele and punctuated by a voice that springs between ethereal choir riffs, surreal vocal acrobatics, guttural Southern soul and powerful tribal afro rhythms that compel you to jump to your feet and move.
For a musician whose debut was recorded on a handheld recorder and self-released on a recycled cassette tape just three years ago, Garbus is one of the most thrilling musicians to hit the scene in a while. I had a lot of questions. I had dreams of painting my face, putting on a feather head dress and dancing with Merrill (she seems like a first name basis kind of lady) through the Bosques de Palermo. Alas, I had to condense 20 questions to 8 and send them via email. At least we can dance with one another on Thursday.
This is your first time playing in Argentina, do you have any expectations of Buenos Aires?
I visited Buenos Aires in high school, when I came on a trip to sing with a choir. All I remember are the beautiful churches we sang in! I have no expectations except gorgeous people and places. And I hope that some people will come see our show...does anyone know about tUnE-yArDs in Argentina?
Do you follow any music from here or South America?
I admit that I mostly know Brazilian music (Tom Ze, Caetano Veloso, etc) and of course, tango. I don't know any current music from Argentina but that's why I love to travel playing music: I get to discover what is happening in music around the world.
You just got the chance to play at Coachella, what was that experience like?
Coachella was very surreal, first because the landscape around you are these enormous mountains sticking out of the desert, and palm trees, like paradise. And then it's incredibly hot, so it's like you're in a dream. The crowd was so committed, being out there in the intense heat, having the best times of their lives! There was a lot of joy there.
Could you share some bands you might have discovered there with our readers?
The bands at Coachella are mostly very popular already (way more popular than us!) Flying Lotus was a great show that I'd never seen before, and Azealia Banks was pretty mindblowing.
Your background is in the theater, which I think has carried over into the production of the music videos. Does that experience transfer directly into your song writing? When you´re writing do you think of songs with the performance in mind?
Yes, I always have the performance in mind, I think. Even when recording, I think of it as a kind of performance. Live performance has that sense of risk which I think is so important. If you're not taking risks, the music is lifeless, and meaningless, at least to me.
In terms of musical tradition, your songs pull a lot of influence from African music, the face painting and the choreography in Bizness does as well. What is it that pulls you towards that culture of sound?
For what it's worth, the facepaint did not come from African traditions, particularly--I think that's a stereotype that others throw onto African culture. What I do take are some aspects of African music. One might be a sense of connection with movement; making music that is meant to move people to dance. Another might be a conflict within a song between intense joy and utter sorrow. That kind of juxtaposition can be found in other music too, and it complicates a song in a way I find really compelling, and complicated.
I've had some experience with African and Afro-Caribbean dance; music that compels me to move is some of the most powerful music I know. I'd like for dance to continue to play a part in my music, in whatever form.
Is there any one musical tradition that you feel really identified with, and why?
I was brought up in American folk music, particularly music from Appalachia, so that's very deeply influential to me. And that includes vocal folk music, such as shape note singing.
Your music videos feature a lot of children, first, how much fun is it to work with a bunch of dancing children? And more seriously, could you explain that choice to have kids as the videos protagonists? What does it say about how you want people to experience your songs?
Dancing children have definitely pulled me out of some dark adult moods...I had some kids from the My Country video come out on stage with me, and to see them dance in front of more than 2000 people with such commitment brought me an immense amount of pure joy. Kids are hilarious, and they are uninhibited in so many ways, and as a result so much pure creativity comes out of them.
In making music videos, I wanted to get away from people looking to me to be a big pop star. I think it's a strange tradition to lip-synch to one's own songs...it's fake! You're clearly not singing. And I just haven't seen a lot of music videos that are compelling. Using kids to sing the songs has been a great way for me to bring out the sense of humor in the songs, as well as shining a light on the future, which kids have in them. A lot of my songs have to do with questioning what the future will bring, and I think having kids take on a role in the music has been a satisfying way to explore that.
Thanks again for your time! We are looking forward to the concert.
Me too! Thanks so much for the interview.
tUneYaRds will be playing at Niceto on Thursday the 3rd of May, more info here.