For nearly a decade, Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus has been known for drumming, strumming and dancing wildly onstage as she coaxes sound from a handful different instruments and a trusty loop pedal. While the signature sound of Tune-Yards is distinct, Garbus isn't one to put labels on her music.
"It's always the hardest thing," she says. "I appreciate how I'm allowed to maybe not classify the music I play because as soon as you do, assumptions begin to be made and you start shutting out people."
In the four years since her last album, Nikki Nack, Garbus has shed a few things from Tune-Yards' presentation: The band's name is no longer a stylized jumble of upper- and lowercase letters, and the face paint is gone. In their place she's added new electronic sounds, some influences from Haitian music — and, most strikingly, a dedication to better understanding her position as a white woman in music.
Garbus joined NPR's Mary Louise Kelly to discuss how that awareness informed the creation of Tune-Yards' fourth album, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life.
The audio version of this conversation will air on All Things Considered on Friday, Jan. 19 and will be available online that evening.
On outgrowing face paint
I've been growing up publicly through my 30s. There are songs I would not have written as a 38-year-old that I did write before; there are things that I don't feel are appropriate now. Face paint to me was replacing ... you know, I took lipstick, and [instead] of wearing it on my lips, I wanted to wear it on my nose, or taking eye shadow and running it down my face. For me, it was almost a Picasso-ing of makeup. But now I think so much about cultural appropriation because so many of my influences are various forms of black music — music from Mali, music from South Africa, hip-hop. So, I think I have a lot to answer for when it comes to cultural appropriation, and why not just take the face paint out of it?
On Black Lives Matter and learning from her audience
I looked out at our audiences and saw mostly white people. Around the time of, I believe it was Eric Garner's death, we played a show and we played our song "Doorstep," which is specifically about police violence. I looked out and I saw one young black man with his hands up in the "hands up, don't shoot" position, and I didn't see any white people's hands up. I didn't see anyone around him in solidarity with him. That image is just burned in my mind, and I felt like, "Something's not right here. Something that we could be doing is not happening. How do I make this happen?" I think my first step was to examine myself and examine how these things live in me, and that's really where the title of the album came from, I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life. It feels like it's relevant to the surveillance paranoia era that we're in, the true fears about privacy, but it's also how these things are living in me — how can I not go call out other people and blame other people, but really look at this in me.
On whiteness as a "vacuum of culture"
So I don't know that I was appropriating something specifically, and certainly there are much more heinous acts of cultural appropriation that we see in pop culture. But I think what whiteness does is it's kind of a vacuum of culture ... because it isn't real. Cultures that are now described as white were put there for a very political reason, and for economic reasons. I'm just beginning to explore, as a white person, how disconnected I am from the cultures that I come from, and where this idea of whiteness comes from.
Web editor Sidney Madden and web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
At the start of the decade, the musical group known as tUnE-yArDs hit their big break. It was with an album called "Whokill." TUnE-yArDs combined percussion with odd beats and odd writing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIZNESS")
TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) Help, please at least answer me this. Answer me. Answer me. What's the business, yeah? Don't take my knife away. Don't take my life away. From a distance, yeah.
KELLY: That voice is Merrill Garbus. And she was known then for owning the stage, drumming and dancing, her face painted in bright neon colors. Garbus' latest project is different. They're still dancing, but no more face paint. And the songs make you think.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART ATTACK")
TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) It's giving me a heart attack. We jump so high, but fall right back. Giving me a heart attack. Don't let me lose my soul. Giving me a heart attack. We jump so high, but fall right back. Giving me a heart attack. Don't let me lose my soul.
KELLY: Political and social reflections run deep through the lyrics. The album is called "I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life." And Merrill Garbus joins us now. Welcome.
MERRILL GARBUS: Thank you so much for having me.
KELLY: We're so glad to have you on. Start by describing your music to us. I ask because the last time we had you on NPR we described it as experimental folk rock. But it occurs to me that doesn't really begin to describe it.
GARBUS: (Laughter) It's always the hardest thing. And I said the other day that I appreciate how, you know, I'm allowed to maybe not classify the type of music I play because as soon as you do, then assumptions begin to be made and you start shutting out people. So I think...
KELLY: Yeah. You isolate all the people who think they don't like experimental folk rock.
GARBUS: Exactly. And plenty of people do not like experimental folk rock - maybe me.
GARBUS: So it's difficult for me to describe. I would say tUnE-yArDs is the world filtered through my experience and now my partner Nate Brenner's musical experience. I write the lyrics and we write the music together. And we are children of the '80s who have this wealth of musical influences that all end up in our music.
KELLY: And tell me about, you know, just the road you took to this album. I mean, for starters you're not performing - no more face paint. Why not?
GARBUS: Face paint, to me, it was replacing - you know, I took lipstick - instead of wearing it on my lips I wanted to wear it on my nose or taking eyeshadow and running it down my face. So for me it was almost a Picasso-ing (ph) of makeup. But now I think so much about cultural appropriation because so many of my influences are various forms of black music - music from Mali, music from South Africa, hip-hop. So I have a lot to answer for when it comes to cultural appropriation, and why not just take the face paint out of it?
KELLY: Well, let me drill down on that because there is a lot in this album that is about race. And I was struck by one of the songs - there's a line in there where you talk about singing using your white woman voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLONIZER")
TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) I use my white woman's voice to tell stories of travels with African men. I use my white woman's voice to tell stories of travels with African men. I comb my white woman's hair with a comb made especially generally for me. I use my white woman's voice to tell stories, stories.
KELLY: What were you trying to get at with that?
GARBUS: I was trying to tell the truth. My idea of the anti-racist work that I wanted to do in the world had to do with understanding the black experience. And although I think that that is something that I value, I think it's really time for me to talk about my white experience. You know, I was having a conversation with a friend about time that I spent in Kenya, and I found myself telling a story about traveling with this Kenyan man. And then I went and wrote a song, and I just said that. I used my white woman's voice to tell stories of travels with African men.
KELLY: Why? And why now? And why with this album has this come to be something you feel the need to talk about through your music?
GARBUS: One of the things that propelled me into this investigation of whiteness in myself was after our last album, which was very influenced by Haitian music, I looked out at our audiences and saw mostly white people. And around the time of I believe it was Eric Garner's death we played a show. And we played our song "Doorstep"...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOORSTEP")
TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) Policemen shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep. Policemen shot my baby crossing right over my doorstep.
GARBUS: ...Which is specifically about police violence. And I looked out and I saw one young black man with his hands up in the hands-up-don't-shoot position. And I didn't see any white people's hands up. I didn't see anyone around him in solidarity with him. And that image is just burned in my mind. And I felt like something's not right here. Something that we could be doing is not happening. And how do I make this happen? And I think my first step was to go examine myself and examine how these things live in me.
And that's really where the title of the album came from, "I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life." You know, I think it feels like it's relevant to the surveillance paranoia and era that we're in. But it's also, for me, how these things are living in me. How can I not go, you know, call out other people and blame other people but really look at this in me?
KELLY: OK, so you've been on this big learning process, digging deep into yourself. I mean, I can hear that in your voice. Tell me how that comes through in the music. I mean, point me toward a place that you were struggling with so we can it.
GARBUS: One of the songs was "Now As Then."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOW AS THEN")
TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) No, don't trust me that I won't take all the money and run.
GARBUS: One of the lyrics is don't trust me. And, you know, that's something that I am really trying to come to grips with, is that I'm actually not to be trusted as a white woman by many people in this society. And that drives me to earn that trust through the work I'm going to do in this world. But this is a case where I felt it's almost like a warning. I will tend to forget that I'm white. I will tend to forget that I live in white supremacy. I'll tend to forget that I have all these privileges. And I need to turn the other direction and really face the reality of who I am in this society.
KELLY: Merrill Garbus, you're posing some really hard questions in this music. I mean, at the heart of this is what is the role of you as an artist in speaking out about race and about social justice? I can hear your struggle in there. I wonder, did you arrive at any answers through the process of writing and recording this album?
GARBUS: (Laughter) No.
GARBUS: No. And...
KELLY: Ongoing process, yeah.
GARBUS: Ongoing. And I think that even now, at the very least if there is an answer I think it's movement and knowing that I'm going to get this wrong. I'm going to say things that are unintentionally insensitive and racist on the radio. And that that is part of my process and that's part of doing this, is in the effort to open doors and to move that I will make mistakes.
KELLY: Merrill Garbus, thank you.
GARBUS: Thank you.
KELLY: That's Merrill Garbus talking about the new album from tUnE-yArDs. It is their fourth. It's titled "I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABC 123")
TUNE-YARDS: (Singing) I called you up because I thought you'd see it my way. I looked for freedom and I found it on the highway. No other option, so I'm peeling out the driveway. Sing those brand-new ABCs. A, B, C, one... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.