[In each Six Degrees feature, we explore the sonic and spiritual connections to one record. — Ed.]
Merrill Garbus is a realist. She’s a liberal arts college-educated white woman who lives in the rapidly gentrifying city of Oakland, California, and she’s releasing a record she made after immersing herself in Haitian drum and dance lessons. She knows she’s not the only one who might find that complicated. “They say I’m the real thing/ I sound like the real thing/ Singing real loud like the real thing/ Makin’ ‘em proud like the real thing,” she sings on “Real Thing,” right before reminding us: “I come from the land of slaves, let’s go Red Skins, Let’s go Braves.” There’s a lot to unpack in the songs Garbus makes as tUnE-yArDs — contemplation about broad issues like freedom, power and racial tension, as well as more introspective musings about feminism, self-confidence and her appropriation of other cultures’ music traditions.
tUnE-yArDs’ excellent 2011 LP, w h o k i l l, tackled many of these same themes; its songs were written from the viewpoint of a woman whose baby was shot by the police, a kid who feels ashamed as her parents stand in line at the Salvation Army, a boy who will “never be a gangsta” because his neighborhood is being overtaken by the upper class. On her third album, Nikki Nack, she writes more from her own perspective, like in “Hey Life,” when she urgently sings about being pulled in too many directions (“I’d stop to smell the roses but I’m running, running all of the time”), and “Wait For a Minute,” where she seems to be grappling with her self-worth and needing to slow down to avoid hurting herself (“Today, I’m feeling like I live on a ledge/ At any moment I just know I’m gonna fall off the edge”). That, along with shinier but still-unconventional production, makes for a collection that’s powerful and direct, and one of the year’s most brilliant releases.
While all of Nikki Nack‘s moving parts are exhilarating, driven by an impressive spread of Afrobeat-influenced percussion and Nate Brenner’s funky bass foundation, Garbus’s voice is tUnE-yArDs’ most crucial instrument. You can practically feel her putting her entire body into shouting “Listen to the words I said/ Let it sink into your head/ A vertigo round and round and round,” in “Water Fountain,” or wailing “Oh my god, I use my lungs/ Soft and loud, any way feels good/ Oh my heat to beat my bones/ Perched atop my drumming throne” in “Real Thing.” It’s not often that she projects in a traditionally melodic tune — though in “Wait for a Minute” and “Look Around” she proves that she’s fully capable of doing so. Instead, it’s more like she’s singing in rhythms (the nearly-spiritual round in “Rocking Chair” or the syncopated reggae of “Sink-O”) or else she’s singing choruses featuring her own voice layered upon itself, or shouting “woo-ha!” or “la la la” or some other nonsensical, celebratory interjection.
Despite all the chaos, the lyrics are never obscured by the goings-on around them. Garbus digs deep into the complex reality of living in a city that’s sometimes dangerous (see “Stop That Man” and “Look Around”) but is rapidly changing (“This place has really changed its ways/ Ruined by the boats of rich folks coming here,” she sings in “Left Behind”), on top of dealing with internal struggles and figuring out where she fits in to the bigger picture. When Garbus gets to proclaiming, “I’ve got something to say” in album closer “Manchild,” it’s almost like an afterthought: By that point she’s said so, so much, but we’d have to be crazy to not still be listening.
The Early Inspiration
It might not be cool for her to admit it, but teenaged Merrill Garbus was a big Ani DiFranco fan. While her work as tUnE-yArDs sounds nothing like the acoustic guitar-slinging antifolk hero, Garbus and DiFranco both use their music to explore themes of gender politics, American politics and racial tension.
When Puddle Dive came out in 1993, DiFranco was in her early 20s and living in New York, singing about her changing city (in "Willing to Fight": "'Cause I know the biggest crime/ is just to throw up your hands/ say this has nothing to do with me/ I just want to live as comfortably as I can"); and misguided cops (in "God's Country," when she gets pulled over by the cops and says, "Move over, Mr. Holiness, and let the little people through"). Today, Garbus sings about how her home base of Oakland, California, is being ruined by "the boats of rich folks coming here." And Garbus's empowering lines like, "Ugly one, be you who you are" in "Real Thing" and "I look fine on the surface but I'm worried about what's underneath" in "Hey Life," share the feminist, show-your-true-colors sentiment found in DiFranco songs like "Egos Like Hairdos" and "Pick Yer Nose."
Garbus doesn't seem to consider herself so much of an activist — she'd rather set a scene and let the listener decide for herself — and she's said her DiFranco fandom faded as the singer got "too preachy". But while DiFranco certainly takes her politics seriously, she approaches it with a relatable playfulness in songs like "Pick Yer Nose": "I fight with love/ I laugh with rage/ You've gotta live light enough to see the humor/ and long enough to see some change."
The Revolutionary World-Beater
Merrill Garbus isn't the only internationally eclectic artist with "something to say": M.I.A. is known for her abrasiveness and I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude, both in and outside of her music. In "Bamboo Banga," the opening track of her breakthrough 2007 LP Kala, she says she's "coming back with power, power," soon after that she's talking about getting pregnant and "pop[ping] out some leaders" ("Bird Flu"), and her best known song has a chorus of kids singing about robbing people at gunpoint ("Paper Planes"). Not to mention she's flipped off millions of Super Bowl watchers and inspired a scathing New York Times profile. While Garbus hasn't proven herself to be as personally abrasive, she and M.I.A. share a taste for violent themes in their music as well as violent sonics: They both gravitate toward loud, percussive beats and synths, and their vocal expressions come in the form of melodic singing; rapping or chanting; sing-song choruses; or brash, abstract, primal shouts and sound effects.
They both also reach far beyond typical Western dance music. Much of tUnE-yArDs' inspiration comes from various styles of African music, while M.I.A.'s is more global: Kala was recorded in India, Trinidad and Jamaica, among other locales, and features a young aboriginal Australian rap group, a UK grime MC and a version of an old Bollywood film track. The English-Sri Lankan singer and artist combined international music with elements of dance, hip-hop and rock (on Kala she cribs lines from Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" and the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind") in a fluid way that hadn't previously been found in mainstream pop, carving out a space for more smart, challenging and revolutionary party music.
The Kindred Spirits
Garbus has long been influenced by Fela Kuti — you can hear elements of Afrobeat in all of her records, and she's also said she wishes for her listeners to lose their self-consciousness and get lost in her music the way she does in Kuti's. In 2013, she and dozens of other artists took part in this tribute to the late African singer, and the interpretation of "Lady," which Garbus led and produced, is particularly powerful. The song explores the effect of Western culture on African women and essentially says that African women shouldn't try to have as much power as men ("There are things Fela has in his music about women that were always the things I found hardest," Garbus said in a great mini-documentary about the recording process). So, accompanied by Questlove, Angelique Kidjo, Akua Naru and others, Garbus created a women-led "reclaiming" of the song, an example of how she shapes her influences to fit into her own artistic, feminist vision, here in the company of her Afrobeat-loving peers, to glorious results.
The Haiti Connection
Last year, Merrill Garbus started studying Haitian drumming and dancing, and then decided to "situate [herself] in a non-western musical tradition" via a two-week trip to Haiti, she wrote for the Talkhouse. She visited during Rara season, a weeks-long celebration/dance party leading up to Easter, and she brought some of that celebratory spirit back with her. The Haiti Direct compilation is a great introduction to those previously unfamiliar with Haitian music; released early this year by Strut, the collection covers music from the region between 1960-78. It doesn't actually sound like tUnE-yArDs — there are more horns and saxes, and more straightforward song structures — but there's a colorful, upbeat spirit that's similar to songs like "Water Fountain" and "Sink-O." There's also a similar palette of percussion instruments, as well as a shared penchant for collaborative shouted choruses in songs like Les Difficiles de Petion-Ville's "An Septieme" and Scorpio Universel's "Ti Lu Lupe."
The Next Generation
Merrill Garbus almost called her new album Sink-O, for syncopation, the offbeat, unexpected rhythms that drive most of her music (instead it ended up as a song title). It's a similar type of groove that propels Xenia Rubinos's songs, which tend to change shape as they go on. "Help," the opening track from the Cuban and Puerto Rican musician's 2013 album Magic Trix, features a cappella singing, brash synths and, at times, a minimal drums-and-bass combo; "Ultima" uses looped a cappella vocals, mixed time signatures and a syncopated bass line. Like much of tUnE-yArDs' first two records, many of Rubinos's songs are built on different synth parts and vocal effects looped on top of one another. Rubinos has said her voice is her primary instrument, and she uses its full range — not just in terms of the notes she sings, which in itself is impressive, but also for frantic shouting ("Pan y Cafe"), beatbox noises ("I Like Being Alone" and "Ultima"), and tUnE-yArDs-worthy "ahs" and "ohs" to dizzying effect (the appropriately named "Whirlwind," which has a great accompanying music video). Oh, and she sings in both English and Spanish, sometimes within the same song.