Eliot Lee Hazel
Merrill Garbus thinks too much. The primary architect behind Tune-Yards can barely even discuss nabbing the top spot in the 2011 Village Voice Pazz And Jop critics’ poll with “w h o k i l l” — an accolade that one might expect to recall with some degree of ego gratification — without quickly pivoting to the insistence that her short-lived celebration should’ve been even shorter-lived, if only she’d had the proper perspective.
“In retrospect, I feel like it should have freaked me out a lot more,” Garbus says with a laugh. “At the time, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s [expletive] right. We made a [expletive] dope album.’ I was super confident. Also super insecure, and I think by the end of that tour, I was like, I can never write another song ever in my entire life.”
Two albums later, permanent writer’s block never came, but Garbus’s eager questioning of what she does — and why, and whether she even should — remains. She’s self-examining to a degree that should result in creative paralysis, but the music of Tune-Yards, who play Royale on Thursday, is wildly exuberant: rubbery, playful, and rhythmic, built onstage with short vocal and instrumental loops generated on the spot and stacked like giddy bricks.
It’s much the same with the words on the new “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life,” despite largely being thoughtful and considered ruminations on how Garbus grapples with her own place in the current racially charged cultural moment. Even the lyric sheet mimics in print the live Tune-Yards experience, with handwritten lines folding back on one another to indicate repetition, instead of being duplicated linearly.
But still, Garbus’s brain continues to churn. Press copies of “Private Life” were accompanied by a letter to critics delineating the experiences and thought processes that informed the record. “I think what I worried about was causing harm,” says Garbus about her reasoning for providing an explainer.
“Because of the press release we put out [for 2014’s ‘Nikki Nack’], it was like, ‘Oh, Merrill Garbus went to Haiti and this is a Haitian album,’” she says. “And the glimpse that I think people got into it felt very appropriative and not the actual truth of how the album was created. So I think that was what I was attempting to avoid, and especially because this is an album that’s largely about whiteness and privilege. I think there’s a danger in touting my own work on these things when activists of color and organizers of color have been working for so many decades in ways that white people have not.”
Even so, Garbus isn’t intimidated by the prospect of making mistakes in talking about, and composing songs from, such thorny topics. “The right thing to do is to do it wrong, but to do it anyway. I think a large part of white privilege is being silent in an effort to be correct and in an effort to stay on the right side of things, whatever that is,” she says. “A lot of other people in this world are putting themselves on the line for a greater good, and I think it’s probably time to do that.”
To an extent, Garbus credits her time doing improv comedy at Smith College with giving her the tools and confidence to keep learning and trying without getting bogged down by the fear of stumbling on the way to getting it right. “Improv teaches you how to be in this world, as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “The principles of it, of saying ‘yes,’ of constantly being asked to look for solutions and working collectively toward a funny-ass sketch, there’s just so much about it that taught me how to deal with, for instance, work situations where I’d have no idea what I was doing but kind of learned how to fake-it-till-you-make-it.”
Engineer Beau Sorenson (Superchunk, Death Cab for Cutie) shared that approach, which helped make him a good fit to record “Private Life” with Garbus and her Tune-Yards partner, bassist Nate Brenner. “We’re both willing and excited to explore new sounds,” Sorenson says. “When I’m in the studio, I don’t like to say no. I like to say yes until I have to say no. And so if someone wants to do something, I’m ready to explore it or try to chase it.”
And so Merrill Garbus thinks too much, except when it’s time to act. And she does, and she observes what happens, and the cycle begins anew, as she continues to ask questions like, “Is this the industry that I really want to engage in?” and “How do I want to engage with it?” After all, questions like those led her to the epiphany that led to Tune-Yards in the first place, when the then-puppeteer was writing a puppet opera for a Vermont theater and realized that she preferred working on the music, an idea she had been fighting for some time.
“Both my parents are musicians, which made me not want to do that for my whole life: Well, I’ll do anything but be a musician, because that’s what my parents are,” says Garbus. “But when it came down to it, I realized that that was [what I wanted]. It’s as if I became an accountant or something after school and then was like, ‘I’m really unhappy and all I want to do is play the ukulele,’ but my accounting job was puppeteering.”
At Royale, Boston, March 8 at 9 p.m. Tickets $28-$31, www.axs.com
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