When Merrill Garbus first committed her tUnE-yArDs persona to tape, she used a simple dictaphone to capture every part and then lovingly pieced it all together on GarageBand. A laborious process partly enforced by tight finances, the resulting album “Bird-Brains” (2009) was a sheer joy. A record so unique, it immediately set hearts racing; The Guardian in their five-star review went as far as to call her “the find of the year.” At the same time, she enlisted Nate Brenner on bass to help her make tUnE-yArDs an unmissable live act. It worked. Word of mouth quickly spread, helping to fill every venue they played and to take the magic of Bird-Brains across the world. With a record deal also in the bag, she was able to now concentrate on being a musician full-time.
Shortly after, Merrill relocated from Montreal to Oakland, California, a new home that would have a huge influence on the themes for her next record, the call to arms that was “w h o k i l l” (2011). Recording in a studio for the first time, it showed Bird-Brains to be no fluke. Lyrically, Garbus explored constructs of femininity and sexuality, marrying it with the threat of violence that lurks on the streets where she lives, all the while maintaining the energy of their show and translating it perfectly to record. Cropping up in nearly all end of year lists, it was topped off with “w h o k i l l” named Album of the Year in the Village Voice’s highly prestigious Pazz & Jop poll, based on the votes of 700 of America’s most notable music critics.
After 18 months of near solid touring around the second album, Merrill gave herself some much-needed time off; “It was nice; I was trying to be healthy and have a good time,” she says. It was also the first time since embarking on life as tUnE-yArDs that she was without any new material in the works, allowing her to reflect on what’s gone before and where to next; “I thought, ‘OK, if I’m going to grow as an artist, I need to do this differently.’”
Where the second album saw her stepping in to a studio proper for the first time, her third album “Nikki Nack” sees her enlist producers to help her achieve new heights on some tracks; “To ask Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Big Boi) and John Hill (Rihanna, Shakira, M.I.A.) for input, I had to let go of tUnE-yArDs being rigidly my production. I have a very specific vision for the sound of the band and I don’t think women producers get enough credit for doing their own stuff, so I was resistant – but we grew, Nate and I both, and the songs grew. And it turns out that’s what’s most important: the songs, not my ego.”
A record that could only have been made by its creator, at heart it’s heavy yet still retains a sense of fun. This is explained in part by experiences in between records – like a life-affirming trip to Haiti (which she wrote extensively about for the online magazine written by the artists themselves, The Talkhouse) and her finally catching up with 80s kid’s TV programme Pee Wee’s Playhouse some 25 years since first broadcast – proving influential during the songwriting process. Her upbringing was also at the forefront of her mind in this period, shown by her subtle use of the traditional American music her parents raised her on to help colour her new creation (her dad’s old fiddle too makes an appearance).
Experimentation is still key for tUnE-yArDs. Where the loop pedal and the saxophone were main components of the first and second record respectively, it’s the drum that takes centre stage here, augmented by greater use of synth and Nate’s growing prowess as a bassist. She also decided to launch her third album with a homemade ‘MegaMix’ of the record, posting it to her fans online on her birthday; “I’ve put together a mash-up so you can get a tiny taste. We really can’t wait to play this music for you. Thanks for all your support and patience while we cooked this chicken!”.
With it’s its jump-rope-chant title, the brilliantly playful “Nikki Nack” continues the tUnE-yArDs story gloriously.