CHICAGO — In concert, Merrill Garbus slams out chords on a ukulele, hammers on a drum, turns her voice into a choir by recording it and then manipulating the sound with a foot pedal and sings like she’s busting a vow of silence. The one-woman band who records under the name of Tune-Yards has lately added a few collaborators — bassist Nate Mendel and a horn section — but there’s no denying the central personality at the core of one of the year’s best albums so far, Tune-Yards’ “Whokill” (4AD).
For Garbus, 32, the journey to the place where she is now — an intersection of ecstatic East African music, folk earthiness, avant-garde experimentation, and bigger-than-life vocals — brimmed with tangents and detours.
She grew up in a family of musicians on the East Coast, but gravitated toward theater. While in college she became fluent in Swahili and studied in Kenya, where she immersed herself in African music. Puppetry, of all things, came next; she picked up a ukulele and wrote a “creepy” puppet opera “about a mother selling her kids to a butcher.”
Then came “a crisis of faith,” she says, as she struggled to make a living out of her creativity. “I was living off food stamps, living out of my car, working at a coffee shop — I was lonely, depressed, poor. I spent all this time working at the arts, and my art had not supported me.”
In 2005 she landed a job teaching a summer arts camp for children in New Jersey, where she met Mendel and other like-minded artists and musicians. Her life was transformed by the support network she found, and soon she was writing songs and starting a band. Tune-Yards began as a side project — an outlet for personal songs that she recorded on a small digital tape recorder.
“I was a nanny for a summer, and after the kid went to sleep, I would go into a room and plug in the ukulele and quietly sing the songs,” she says. “I loved the sound of it — really eerie, compressed and close up.”
When she self-released those songs as Tune-Yards’ debut in 2009, “Bird Brains,” it drew interest from independent labels such as the highly respected 4AD, which signed her and re-released the album. By now, her one-woman-band concerts were attracting notice throughout the indie community.
“At first it was just the ukulele and my voice, and then I’d put the ukulele through a looping pedal to give it more depth,” she says. “I was used to doing things with my feet for the puppet theater, so I started adding the vocal loops, keeping every limb occupied and singing over the top. I like the idea of doing things that seem impossible on stage. I’d see people like Colin Stetson sing while playing saxophone or some of the things Bjork could do with her voice and I wanted to do something where the sum of the sound was greater than the parts you could see making it.”
For “Whokill,” 4AD supplied her with a bigger budget, and she made a more spacious recording with some outside musicians. In it, she amplifies the African influences that she embraced in college and then left behind.
“At first I was self-censoring about my love for African music, feeling that I had no right to create anything that took from that in any way,” she says. “I know musicians steal from one another all the time. My problem with taking from the cultures that I do is that those cultures are under-represented and under-served. Do I think I’m giving back? The answer is, ‘Not yet.’ I have a bunch to prove for how I can be of service to African culture, if I can reach out to African musicians and help broaden their exposure and bring attention to the economic disparity between our world and their world.
“At the same time, how can you be an American kid or any kid in the Western world and not have your mind blown by the “Ethiopiques” collections (a 27-volume series featuring Ethiopian and Eritrean singers), and these Indonesian rock bands whose music is being reissued? It would be impossible not to be excited by it. I never mean to discourage people about that. But no one in the music industry talks about how music connects to the rest of the world and life, and I want to keep making those connections without censoring or shaming myself the way I did after my trip to Africa, feeling I had no right to create anything. I just want to bring it into the conversation.”
She’s in a position to do that. The erstwhile starving artist is now in demand.
“From what I knew about record labels, I viewed getting signed with more suspicion than hope,” she says. “I was hopping in my car and calling other musicians to see where I could play in their town. I didn’t like thinking about my music as a product. I didn’t need someone else to validate it. But I realize now that being on a record label isn’t so bad (laughs). I’m amazed at the exposure this record is getting. I’m getting the idea that I can make a living doing this. Before, my version of making a living was eating crackers for dinner.”