Merrill Garbus discusses Tune-Yards' politically urgent new LP
It’s tough to upstage the colorful art-pop tracks Merrill Garbus constructs as Tune-Yards — but on a rainy November evening in Brooklyn, current events seem to have done just that. As the openers warm the stage at the trendy Williamsburg nightclub Baby’s All Right, audience members are glued to glowing smartphone screens, where news of a progressive electoral wave across the country has started to roll in. It’s election night, and liberals and leftists have notched a series of historic wins, including massive symbolic victories by women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates.
“This is a really auspicious and great night to be here with you all,” a beaming Garbus tells the crowd a few songs into her headlining set. Sure, she’s got a new album on the way — her fourth, which is also her first in nearly four years — and the reception to the new material has been overwhelmingly positive. Yet the news arriving from outside of the club marks a welcome turn in the struggles for social, economic, and racial justice she’s tackled through her music for years.
The next day, Garbus remains radiant at her label’s office in Manhattan. “Some good news,” she says with a grin. “Seeing reaction. Seeing people act with their votes.” The album she’s promoting — I can feel you creep into my private life, which arrived last week — directly confronts the issues voters responded to at ballot boxes the prior night: Take “ABC 123,” a buoyant cut that touches on climate change, warrantless government surveillance, and white fragility in just three-and-a-half-minutes. Garbus has long written about fraught subjects — the anti-gentrification banger “Gangsta” from 2011’s breakout W H O K I L L, for instance — but this set’s a step forward, with her issuing more explicit calls to arms as opposing forces in the world ratchet up at a similar pace.
The making of the album coincided with a number of changes of Garbus. After finishing touring behind 2014’s nikki nack, the 38-year-old married her longtime Tune-Yards collaborator Nate Brenner on New Years Eve 2015. “As if there weren’t trust before,” she says with a laugh, “there’s a new level of legally bound trust.” (Tune-Yards is also a officially a duo and tour with a third member, the percussionist Hamir Atwal.) She pursued new musical projects in their adopted home of Oakland, California, including performing weekly DJ sets, curating a radio show, and teaming with avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson. During this time, Garbus immersed herself in electronic music, and it shows on the record: private life streamlines her knotty polyrhythms into compulsively danceable, four-on-the-floor grooves.
“We’d go to festivals,” she says, reminiscing about the last major Tune-Yards tour, which spanned 2014 and 2015, “and all we could hear was the throbbing sub of a four-on-the-floor dance groove from across miles. It was easy to get a little — I’m going to use the word ‘resentful’ — of drum-machine-based dance music. I don’t like carrying around resentments, so I thought, ‘Why not do a little exploring?'”
When a friend turned Garbus on to Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, the 2000 book about the history of electronic dance music history, it sent her down a genre rabbit hole that led to artists like Marshall Jefferson, William Onyeabor, and Manu Dibango. “I was already kind of steeped in an interest in music from different parts of Africa, listening to how dance music really bled into African music happening in the ’80s and ’90s,” she explains. “What was interesting, and what is always endlessly fascinating, is seeing how people are listening to each other across continents, across oceans.”
But the album’s biggest development isn’t Tune-Yards’ introduction of new sonic elements — it’s the set’s confrontational, unflinching lyrics. One private life track, “Colonizer,” nakedly addresses a common critique of Garbus’ music and that endless fascination with African music. “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men,” she sings over pulsating bass and glitchy digital sputters. Garbus elaborates: “I’ve been examining my own role as a white person, particularly being so influenced by black music, for a long time.”
private life‘s tunes are some of the most self-aware Garbus has penned — and show her growth since songs like 2011’s “Doorstep,” a fan favorite that discusses police brutality but from a black woman’s perspective. “Why did I feel more comfortable singing a song trying to get into the head of a person of color versus trying to talk about what it is to be white in this culture?” she reflects. “I think [older tracks like] ‘Jamaican’ and ‘Doorstep’ and maybe even ‘Stop That Man,’ those are songs that I’m going to have to really reconsider their place. I also know that people have been impacted by those songs, and I appreciate that people might understand that I was a different person when I wrote those songs.”
Garbus is careful to point out that her awakening was taking shape well before the 2016 presidential election, which took place in the middle of the album’s creation. “I was doing my own personal work on my participation in the institutions of racism and patriarchy and imperialism,” she says. “I was looking at my part in that stuff before the election and continued to do so after the election.” Still, election day added a wrinkle. Garbus observed that while activists of color largely regarded the outcome as an affirmation of existing ills, “white women particularly … were shocked and appalled and scared and panicked. I think a lot of the latter part of the album, after the election, was reflecting on why white women are freaking out.” And Garbus doesn’t exempt herself: “I am so focused on my own lack of progress,” she says soberly.
Garbus, of course, knows she’s not going to singlehandedly spur a racial reckoning among white women en masse or fix the litany of other ills she addresses with her lyrics. But her music offers a galvanizing soundtrack for those who share her dismay with the state of the world — and provides intellectual fodder for those looking to dive deeper. Throughout her Baby’s set, Garbus keeps her banter to a minimum, but one aside makes clear that, for all private life‘s lyrical weight, her project as Tune-Yards remains the same: “Get in touch with the physical sensations coursing through your body!”