SXSW Thursday Interview

Oakland's one-woman eye of violence

SXSW Thursday Interview


11pm, Central Presbyterian Church

Merrill Garbus is walking through her Oakland, Calif., neighborhood this Fat Tuesday morning, telling me how good she feels after having just returned from Europe the night before:

"I hear horror stories about jet lag, people getting in accidents. But there's certain tricks I can do with my body."

That's definitely true. As Tune-Yards, she's a one-woman generator, adept at looping her soulful voice to accompany ukulele or drums, veering from hand-stitched folk to African chant on self-recorded 2009 debut Bird-Brains. Sophomore album Whokill, out next month on 4AD, ups the ante, Garbus' layered sound more fully realized within beats and structure.

It's also a meditation on violence, something Garbus saw more frequently after moving from Montreal to Oakland in late 2009. On "Gangsta," she uses a looped chorus of her voice to mimic the sound of a siren. On "Riotriot," she belts out a line that gives goose bumps, especially as delivered by a woman: "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand, and like I've never felt before."

"I had my doubts about it," explains Garbus. "[Eli Crews and I] worked on the album for six to eight months, and people hear different things. I tend to look outside of myself, and I live in a community where violence is out in the open, whether Oscar Grant being shot or the threat of being robbed or mugged. The song 'Riotriot' is about the riots in Montreal. We live with that fear; it's happening everywhere. I wanted to dive into it instead of shying away."

I ask about "Es-So," which on the surface seems to be about body image.

"That song changed themes a lot – it was my state of mind in Oakland, walking around neighborhoods. It tends towards self flagellating – about food, relationships, what I said at dinner last night. 'Es-So' is that – about a feeling rather than a topic."

I ask about the shift from the DIY feel of Bird-Brains to the more collaborative clamor of Whokill. It marks a musical maturation, and as an artist she recognizes the need to keep her vision clear.

"I get threatened a lot, people asking to produce my next album," she laughs. "I understand people want a part of this music, but as a woman, I have to maintain ownership over it."

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Tuneyards, Merrill Garbus, Whokill

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