TUNE-YARDS' "BIZNESS" is the most fiery, move-your-body, ripping soul single of the year. The first single from w h o k i l l doesn't merely exist—it insists. In some cockeyed way it recalls Michael Jackson at his best and brightest—if only Jackson were hip to the politics of class war. In lieu of Quincy Jones and big studio, major label production armies, "Bizness" was crafted by one woman, Merrill Garbus, along with the help of bassist and boyfriend Nate Brenner.
Together they are tUnE-yArDs, and with only a looping pedal, ukulele, bass, and scattered percussion, they stitch together booming, intricate, organic, and danceable jams for Garbus' thunderous voice, one of the most gripping, dexterous and expressive instruments in modern music. From song to song—and even verse to chorus—tUnE-yArDs bounce across disparate styles from old school rap and avant garage to soul, while incorporating horns, African rhythms, and found sounds. They're taking outsider-art in.
The eccentric but immediately sweet concoction has ushered Garbus and tUnE-yArDs into rare air—acclaimed by critics and artists alike. Since the release of w h o k i l l earlier this year, this praise has now reached a fever pitch. She counts the Dirty Projectors as mentors and last fall, along with Lady Gaga, tUnE-yArDs was invited to play a benefit starring and curated by Yoko Ono. At times, riding through the wild hemispheres of high art, the humble, warm, and lightly self-effacing Garbus has to pinch herself—this is not what she had in mind.
"I never anticipated being a musician at all," she says by phone from her home in Oakland. While she sang in choirs, played the fiddle, and was surrounded by music growing up, Garbus' first love was puppeteering.
After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, she moved to Vermont to pursue the art full time. From 2001 to 2005, puppeteering was her main creative outlet. Garbus' style was modeled on bunraku, a traditional Japanese form based in life-like re-creations. "They're the size of a large doll and meant to really look like a human," she says. "The movements are meant to really fool you."
As the years passed Garbus found herself becoming disillusioned with theater culture. "In general, theater audiences are just slimmer," she says. "I didn't feel like I had access to audiences at all. I got really frustrated." Her final piece, a puppet opera based on Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal—where Irish children are sold and eaten to ease a famine—planted the seeds for tUnE-yArDs. In writing the opera, Garbus bought her first ukulele.
A friend, Patrick Gregoire of the band Islands, heard songs from the puppet opera, and pushed Garbus to pursue music more seriously and soon after she relocated to Montreal to collaborate with him. Together they became Sister Suvi, but all the while she worked on tUnE-yArDs in parallel. At first, Garbus did not have the confidence her voice seemed to project.
"Though people remark about its power now, at that point I was really finding it, so it was awkward," she says. "It was like an adolescence. "
After self-releasing BiRd-BrAiNs on cassette and digital download in 2008, tUnE-yArDs took off. Garbus pulled back from Sister Suvi, and after a few years as an uneasy ex-pat, eventually relocated to Oakland. BiRd-BrAiNs, which would later be released on vinyl by local imprint Marriage Records, was leading to all kinds opportunities for Garbus. By 2010 she was touring almost nonstop. tUnE-yArDs was offered a spot opening for the Dirty Projectors in Europe and Garbus invited Brenner along on bass, a musical dynamic she'd always wanted but found impossible to add to her various plate-spinning duties. "By the end of the tour, Dave [Longstreth] from Dirty Projectors was like, 'Come on a tour of the US with us and Nate has to come,'" Garbus recalls. "It was no longer an option." Since that time, Brenner has become a co-writer.
But the time with Dirty Projectors, themselves very much a sonic touchstone for tUnE-yArDs' eccentric, effervescent, mash-up style, meant more to Garbus than simply adding the low end.
"They're really introducing very odd or different sounds into pop music," Garbus says of Dirty Projectors. "I think that gave us a lot of freedom, knowing that people can really get into a lot of stuff, whether it's parts of a song that have different time signatures, or these strange harmonies or strange rhythms." Still, there are moments when her newness to music is met with doubt.
"It almost feels a little bit outside of myself," Garbus says. "It's not entirely my doing or my creation. There's a reason why it's called tUnE-yArDs. It's because tUnE-yArDs is the place where you could pluck songs from, and that's totally how it feels to me."
And though the transition from theater to rock clubs was a bit confusing, she has found confidence. "There's a part of me that's like, 'You know what, I do belong here,'" Garbus says. More than anything though, she's thankful to have found that hungry audience: "I'm feeling like a real lucky son-of-a-bitch."