Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus on I can feel you creep into my private life

Merrill Garbus tells us about exploring her relationship with whiteness on Tune-Yards' ominously-titled fourth album, I can feel you creep into my private life, and officially re-branding as a duo

Feature by Nadia Younes | 10 Jan 2018
  • Tune-Yards

Whether it’s members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan sporting cornrows, Miley Cyrus twerking anywhere and everywhere she could for about a year straight, or Halloween revellers donning blackface, incidents of cultural appropriation can range from the seemingly minute to the extremely offensive. 

On Tune-Yards’ fourth album I can feel you creep into my private life, Merrill Garbus explores cultural appropriation through the lens of a white female artist and details the "white guilt" that permeates her life, as a musician and human being. “I think it's interesting when you start to unpack whiteness and what's not seen. There are a lot of us who feel unseen and there are parts of us that are erased by white supremacy; by this idea of whiteness, this idea of skin colour and this idea of race and how many assumptions are made,” says Garbus.

On the album’s centrepiece Colonizer, Garbus is at her most conflicted with her privilege and her whiteness. 'I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men,' she sings, her vocals distorted through auto-tune but the words still ringing loud and clear. “Part of what I was looking at was what is white? And what is a white voice? And how little that word actually means when it comes down to it,” she says. “It felt true to me those lyrics – all the lines about a white woman's voice are very specific, but it’s something that might strike people in different ways.”

Dabbling with elements of electronica, Eastern-influenced psychedelia and tribal sounds, the track is as sonically interesting as it is lyrically, but still leaves room for the words to remain its guiding factor. It ends with Garbus’ eerie muffled voice reciting the album’s title, a phrase which is later repeated in the same tonation on Private Life towards the end of the album. The lyric itself, however, is one that Garbus recycled from another song that failed to end up on the album but its resonance stuck with her.

“There was something about the way that the melody interacted with the words that felt really disturbing and I think a lot of what I was exploring while we made this album was disturbing,” she says. “It feels like maybe it's going to be about surveillance, but I think for me it was really understanding the systems that we grow up in, how now as a 38-year-old I see how embedded those things are in me and how disturbing that felt to me.”

During college, Garbus spent some time in Africa, where she taught music at a primary school in Kenya, but also travelled to other countries while she was there. She took time to study the various different musical genres of the places she visited and her experience there has undoubtedly had an impact on Tune-Yards’ sound. But Garbus notes that her whiteness, and the privileges awarded to her as a result of this, played a large part in influencing her experience of Africa.

“There's this tendency to use my time travelling in Africa as a point of legitimacy, like I've seen the real thing, but I saw everything from the perspective of being a white American college student travelling in, most of the time, a very sheltered way and of course through the lens of my own experience thus far,” she says. “Yes, I had the experience of seeing Tarab music live, being performed for tourists, and I spent time on the island of Lamu, where I saw traditional music being performed there, which we paid for as part of a dinner.

“So, that's what the challenge is and that's what I was trying to understand through this album. It's always going to be through my own lens and it's always going to be through the lens of me traversing the world with white skin and that, of course, can have all these different variations and it doesn't take into account so many things about me, but that's the framework for which I go through the world.”

However, although the influence of African and world music is evident, Tune-Yards’ sound is just as rooted in Garbus’ background in folk and classical piano. Garbus’ dad played old-time folk music and her mother was a piano teacher, the influence from both of which can be heard across all of Tune-Yards’ music and again on I can feel you creep into my private life. Opening track Heart Attack is a prime example of the kind of sonic exploration that takes place on a Tune-Yards song, beginning with a subtle, solo piano before hitting you with handclaps, saturated drums, pulsing synths and even a brief string section.

The new album is Tune-Yards’ first as an official duo, with Garbus’ longtime musical collaborator and now husband Nate Brenner credited as a co-producer. Although Brenner has been involved in Tune-Yards for the majority of their existence, his role has increased over the years and, despite Garbus still being behind all the album’s lyrics, it was much more of a collaborative effort than their previous releases in terms of its sound.

“The other records have officially been my production because understandably, I've wanted to really own my music, in that I think with a lot of woman, people say 'who's the guy behind her sound?' And I wanted to make it crystal clear that these are my sounds,” she says. “But I thought now it's starting to feel a little dishonest to say this is all me, that the way Tune-Yards gets portrayed is all me, and I felt like Nate's role was getting erased, that his role was becoming invisible instead of it being really clear.”

In addition to her work with Tune-Yards, Garbus also presents a monthly radio show on Red Bull Radio called C.L.A.W. – the Collaborative Legions of Artful Womxn. Airing on the second Monday of every month, Garbus cherry-picks new music by female-identifying producers, instrumentalists and vocalists and also pairs up two different performers each month to collaborate on a track, which is then aired exclusively on the show.

“I had this idea of just wanting women producers to work with other women artists because I know that there are women producers out there, but what I was seeing was that there weren't a lot of women producing records, they were just producing their own stuff,” she says. “I just [thought] wouldn't it be really fascinating to have more of those voices highlighted and more of those voices supported by other female-identifying producers and creators.”

No matter how great the heights Tune-Yards reach, however, there's no need to worry about Garbus ever getting caught up in the rock'n'roll lifestyle. “I think that rock musicians can be assholes so I prefer not to become that,” she says, and it's difficult to imagine she ever will.

C.L.A.W. Recommends

Blending the vintage soul sounds of Madlib and J Dilla, LA-based producer Linafornia's debut album Yung is a record that every hip-hop head needs in their collection, like right now. Garbus is such a big fan that she's even brought her on the road with Tune-Yards for their US tour, and hopefully for the rest of us, she'll be joining them on their UK tour in March too. linafornia.bandcamp.com

Xenia Rubinos
Brooklyn-based musician Xenia Rubinos channels her Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage into her music, which fuses afrobeat, hip-hop, jazz and soul. Her 2016 album Black Terry Cat is an absolute gem, in which Rubinos explores her heritage and contemplates what it means to be a person of colour in the world today. xeniarubinos.bandcamp.com

New York-based Gisela Fulla-Silvestre – aka NOIA – moved to the states from Barcelona, Spain to study Film Scoring & Sound Design at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where she began to pursue her music more seriously. Playing with lo-fi, house and R'n'B sounds, NOIA's brand of synth-pop has a dreamlike quality to it that will take you to higher places, so prepare to be whisked away. noiamusic.bandcamp.com

I can feel you creep into my private life is released on 19 Jan via 4AD
Tune-Yards play The Liquid Room, Edinburgh, 14 Mar