Tune-Yards on “I can feel you creep into my private life”

Throwing Stones at Your Own House

Jun 18, 2018 Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett Photography by Eliot Lee Hazel Bookmark and Share


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When Merrill Garbus began work on Tune-Yards' I Can Feel You Creep Into My Personal Life in January 2016, she had a difficult decision to make. How should an artistespecially one who tries to use her life and work to contribute to dialogs surrounding difficult topics in her native Oakland, Californiareact to the era of Black Lives Matter and President Donald Trump? If she made an apolitical album, she would be ignoring the weight of the moment. But should she make an explicitly political album, she would have to wrestle with the reality that she was yet another white cisgender songwriter pontificating on oppression from a position of privilege. If she was going to make the most of her time and talent, perhaps she shouldn't make music at all and instead spend her time answering phones and fundraising.

"I think Nate [Brenner, Tune-Yards' bassist] a lot of the time would challenge me and say 'If you're a musician, then the majority of your work is music,'" she recalls. "But I felt really torn, like, 'But wouldn't it be more useful if I worked on my internalized racism today? Wouldn't it be more useful if I went to a march today? Where is my time actually most useful?' I think that I came up with an album of lyrics that are thought-provoking, hopefully, and powerful, hopefully, and will resonate with folks, hopefully. In the ideal world they will empower more people to be themselves and speak their truths. But is it worth it? Is it the most worthwhile use of my time? I don't know."

Those words"I don't know" turn up frequently when Garbus discusses these topics, and the story of Tune-Yards' fourth full-length is largely her attempt to find some answers. With Brenner, her partner, elevated to full member status, she would be both artist and activist. While she was learning to DJ at a local bar and taking classical voice lessons, she was also attending a six-month workshop on white privilege at Oakland's East Bay Meditation Center to better understand her participation in an oppressive society. As she was writing the record, instead of dividing the world along ideological lines and setting up easy targets, Garbus set her aim on herself.

As a white woman from Connecticut who has borrowed heavily from African and Caribbean music, Garbus knows the tension inherent in making a career out of throwing the styles of the oppressed into a blender. A resulting sense of white guilt hangs over the irresistible '80s dance-pop of "Look at Your Hands," a track that reduces the idea of conspicuous consumption to an examination of the material objects one is holding. "I use my white woman's voice to tell stories of travels with African men," she croons innocently on the junk-yard techno of "Colonizer," before ominously concluding "I smell the blood in my voice." Global warming ("ABC 123"), racism ("Honesty"), and liberal complacency ("Coast to Coast") each turn up, and Garbus is quick to indict herself as part of the problem. But even though the album offers a hearty dose of bitter pills to choke down, Garbus sweetens them with earworm pop hooks and celebratory dance beats that keep the album from becoming an exercise in academic browbeating.

"Someone said to me the other day, 'This [album] is so powerful that I want to listen to it again and again, but I need to take a break. At the same time I'm dancing, so I'm really confused,'" Garbus laughs. "But I think that's good. I can know the horrors of this day and age, but what the fuck do I know? So why not also dance?" she says. "Because what do I know?"

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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