tUnE-yArDs - Merrill Garbus on the Art of Songwriting and No Longer Faking It | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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tUnE-yArDs - Merrill Garbus on the Art of Songwriting and No Longer Faking It

Music School

Aug 18, 2014 Tune-Yards Bookmark and Share

“I tried to tell him all the reasons I had to never sing again/and he replied, ‘You better find a new way.’” That line, taken from the first song on tUnE-yArDs’ third full-length release, Nikki Nack, isn’t just a playfully visual way of opening an albumit’s a statement of intent. This is not going to be w h o k i l l, vol. 2, though no one could blame vocalist and songwriter Merrill Garbus if she wanted to explore further the dizzyingly idiosyncratic patchwork of textures and references that earned her the coveted #1 spot of The Village Voice‘s 2011 “Pazz & Jop” poll of writers. Most artists would have taken a victory lap; Garbus ran the other way.

“I realized it was that or the death of tUnE-yArDs, because I was bored with what that was,” she says at 9:00 a.m. on a Wednesday, cramming in an interview before she heads to her day jobrehearsing with her band in preparation for their upcoming tour. “I’m not saying I’ll never go back to writing that way, but writing on a looping pedal is pretty constricting. And this band was built on this premise of a one-woman show and ‘She can do it all herself.’ I really wanted that for a long time and I think it grew to a point of being absurd. I don’t need to do it all myself. For me that involved changing the songwriting process so we could allow for more people and more of that dynamic.”

Though many musicians resist formally studying the art of songwriting out of fear that simply brushing up against the rules of the craft will stifle their creativity, Garbus found freedom in structure. She studied Haitian drumming, she took voice lessons, she read Molly-Ann Leikin’s How to Write a Hit Songanything that would help her reinvent her creative process. (It all shows up on Nikki Nack, too. Its rhythms are even more frenzied and diverse, its vocals are more elaborately layered, and its melodies hit harder and with more precision.) If this was going to be her job, she needed to start treating it like one, accepting that she is a songwriter.

“I think in the past, maybe I had a bit more embarrassment of being a fraud,” she admits. “I had a lot of insecurities of being an untrained musician and not really being able to play an instrument and kind of faking my way through singing. I felt like…I was putting one over on people. But nowthis is of course absurdit would be really hard to fake what I do. I’m doing what I’m doing and it might not be what a classical musician would do, but I certainly have studied these things at this point. I’ve put a lot of time into them. And I think before I had a lot more fear and, therefore, weird pride about what I was good at or what I felt like. I never thought I could play drums, but I’m playing drums right now. It’s really, really satisfying. I can’t believe that I, who quit piano lessons at 13 because I couldn’t bear to practice…” she says, trailing off with a laugh. “I’m really so thrilled that I have been able to find the patience and the humility to try to get better at this stuff.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s June/July print issue (Issue 50).]


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