Tracked down in Chicago, Illinois, Merrill Garbus doesn’t mind admitting that she’s being run off her feet these days, her life a disorienting blur of hotel rooms, long hauls in the tour van, endless interviews, and packed nightclubs. The woman known to her fans as tUnE-yArDs isn’t necessarily complaining about this. On the contrary, she’s amazed at all the interest that’s being shown in her second full-length, the critically raved-about w h o k i l l. Looking back, Garbus says she figured that no one was going to care about what she’d done on the follow-up to 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs.
“When we were working on the album, I probably thought that it was too weird,” she says. “It was a really challenging album to do. I’d come from this semi-successful first album where people were all like, ‘This is a very exciting prospect, now if only you’d stop singing into a Dictaphone.’ So there was an expectation.”
Garbus notes that there were plenty of fans who wanted a carbon copy of BiRd-BrAiNs, a proudly minimalist release built on trash-can beats, lo-fi ukulele, and plaintive vocals, all captured on a handheld recorder. And there were just as many people who were convinced that she was capable of something more expansive and ambitious.
“In other words, there were a lot of voices going on,” the singer says. “That made it challenging for me to pick out what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how much I wanted to keep and how much I wanted to leave behind from the first record. Finally, I just did my best to tune it all out and hear what I wanted to hear.”
The result would be one of the year’s best, and most fascinating, records, the songs on w h o k i l l dabbling in everything from coffeehouse folk to colour-splashed world beat to jagged DIY rock. Curve balls abound, with “Riotriot”, for example, starting out like a free-jazz march through the townships of South Africa and then stomping on the accelerator to end up a garage-punk rager. What stands out, though, is that, in the tradition of M.I.A.’s Kala, w h o k i l l sounds like a truly global pop record, one that is as influenced by undiluted Afrobeat and uncut dub as by anything soaked up on these shores.
Acknowledging and then elaborating on that, Garbus says: “I think I take for granted a lot of the travel that I’ve done. I got to go to South America when I was in high school in a choir that I was in, and my parents took us to Europe pretty early on. I had an aunt and an uncle who spent a year in Kenya in the medical profession, so I started studying the Swahili language in school. I’ve always wanted to travel a lot.”
That road hasn’t always been easy, however. As has been well documented, Garbus wasn’t in the best place a few years back. After working as a puppeteer, she decided it was time for a career move, launching tUnE-yArDs following a move to Montreal. Things didn’t exactly go smoothly; at one point, the Connecticut-raised artist ended up so poor that she resorted to binning for food. Today, despite the insanity that goes with having a successful project, she’s happy to report that life couldn’t be grander, as her shows are often packed with kids sporting the same neon-striped makeup seen in the tUnE-yArDs video for w h o k i l l’s enchantingly exotic-sounding “Bizness”.
“As weird as this record is, what makes it accessible, I’m realizing, is that it has a groove,” Garbus says. “It has a pulse, and that was what I was banking on. Despite all the odd sounds and crazy recording techniques, I remember hoping that people would work past that and realize that the songs are just catchy.”
tUnE-yArDs plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (November 18).
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