While tUnE-YaRdS may sound like a band comprised of more than one, it is just one woman: Merrill Garbus. During live shows she's accompanied by Nate Brenner — and currently they're both on tour with Dirty Projectors. They're in town all weekend (at Music Hall of Williamsburg and Bowery Ballroom) — and they're even adding on a free show at Permanent Records (7 p.m.) in Brooklyn tonight. So you have no excuse not to catch them. This week Garbus told us a bit about Jay-Z, her ultimate supergroup, and why she insists on aLtErNaTiNg caps with lowercase.
How has the tour with Dirty Projectors been going? AWESOME ROCK ROCK WHOOPEE
Do you have any good anecdotes from the road? Hmm. This dude fell on me in Athens, Georgia at a sort of warehousey show that friends put on. It was the last song of the set, and he literally just fell from the front row into my drum and knocked my ukulele and hurt my wrist and I was so surprised that I almost started weeping spontaneously like a wee baby.
That show wasn’t with the Dirty Projectors. The anecdotes from that tour include things like, “remember that time that the show was sold out and our minds were blown?” That anecdote happened just about every night.
Why all the capital letters mixed in with lower case?! I was looking for a way to not only stick out as a practical thing—that my stage name would stick out more if it looked weird—but I find that a lot of people think “female singer-songwriter” and put it in a certain category, and I didn’t feel like the music was like that, it was something different so I wanted to provide a little friction, or be a little bit of a pain in someone’s ass, when they were typing my name.
It's funny how some people are really rubbed the wrong way by it, like I’ve ruined their day by making them use that Shift key. But it sorta worked the way I wanted it to—people pay attention. I don’t wanna preach to people, but if there’s anything that I want from my audience, it’s a pause moment, and having people capitalize it that way perhaps gives them that moment to stop and think.
Do you find it easier to create music on your own, or would you like to collaborate in the future? I’m collaborating with Nate Brenner who’s playing bass with me these days, and yes, I love collaboration. Recording I like to do mostly alone because I like to, like writing in your journal when you’re a 13-year-old, or sitting and sketching sparrows in the middle of winter in a warm coat with a thermos to keep your hand from going numb. It’s just one of the most calming creative experiences ever.
The NY Times said your voice was somewhere in between Aretha Franklin and Yoko Ono? How do you feel about that — do you think it's accurate? I mean, only a complete egotistical psychotic would answer “yes” to the comparison with Aretha. And same with the comparison as artist to Yoko Ono. So it’s very flattering, thank you, New York Times, but I still have a ways to go to live up to those women.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes me feel that I’ve sung well, or performed well. It seems best when I feel that the entirety of my being is within my voice, and that I’m using all of me to access something way beyond my reality. So if that’s what Aretha and Yoko do, then I’ll join that club.
Are those women inspirations to you musically? Where have you found musical inspiration? Absolutely, they both are. I find inspiration in many musicians, and female musicians’ successes inspire me especially, I suppose. Miriam Makeba to Tracy Chapman to Beyonce to Cyndi Lauper to Odetta...on and on. Inspired by movement, and music that makes me move. Barrington Levy and Lee Perry make me move. West African drumming and dance. Speaking of Yoko Ono, the song Mind Train.
I suppose if it doesn’t physically move me I’m not that inspired by it. But “physically” can be my butt moving or something clenching in my chest, my fingertips wanting to shake, what have you.
If you could create your all-time live band supergroup, with musicians dead or alive, who would be in the band? Janis, Miriam Makeba, Fela, Ali Farka Toure, James Jamerson, and, of course, Michael. Jeez Louise.
What bands are you currently listening to? Prussia, Afuche, Li’l Mama, Karl Blau, Micachu, Happy Birthday, and clearly the Dirty Projectors.
Which New Yorker do you most admire? Right now, Jay-Z. Damn.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? Well, mostly don’t change, New York. But could you start recycling a little more? I find it totally self-centered to eject all your trash to other islands of trash without thought about the, uh, future. It makes you trashy in the other way, New York. But stay self-centered in other regards, it’s how we recognize you.
Best cheap eat in the city. Five dollars for pho in the Bowery.
Best venue to hear/play music in NYC. Both the Bowery rooms, Ballroom and the Music Hall. I understand that’s not reaching into the depths of this town, to underground places like Sycamore (intimate and magical) and seedy dirt-hole apartments where kids have house shows. But the sound staff are freaking primo at these places, and they’re run so gracefully I love performing at these rooms, my DIY roots be damned. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to gritty apartments soon enough.