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Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs has managed to quiet the destructive voices in her head.

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Merrill Garbus is a singer and songwriter known for her musical project Tune-Yards (styled tUnE-yArDs), which incorporates a range of musical influences in a low-fi indie pop style.

Born in 1979, Garbus was raised in New York and New Canaan, CT, in a family of folk musicians. She attended Smith College and worked as a puppeteer in Vermont before founding Tune-Yards in 2006.

Garbus’s music draws from folk, African rhythms, and hip hop, among other influences, and utilizes tape loops, ukulele, and various effects pedals. Her debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, was recorded on recycled cassette tapes using only a handheld voice recorder. Tune-Yards’ acclaimed second album, Whokill (2011), was named on annual best-of lists by Rolling Stone, New York Times, Pitchfork, and other publications. The single “Gangsta,” co-written with her bassist and husband Nate Brenner, featured in several hit TV shows. Nikki Nack (2014) reached number 27 in the Billboard album charts. A single, “Water Fountain” was featured in a commercial for Google Pixel.


There was once a 22 year-old struggling puppeteer named Merrill Garbus who was certain about her future.

Merrill Garbus: Growing up with two parents as musicians I thought, “Well I know what I’m not going to do. “I’m not going to be a musician.”

(“Gangsta,” 2011)

What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta

But she was wrong.

Anger in his heart, but he’ll never be a gangsta

If you move into his neighborhood

he’ll never make a sound

In 2006 she started Tune-Yards, the indie pop project that would gain a cult following for its eclectic blend of sonic elements.

What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a rasta

Garbus spent time in Kenya absorbing Congolese pop music and in Haiti studying percussion, influences that can be clearly heard in her songs but so too can the sounds of her childhood.

Garbus: You know my parents met playing folk music, American folk music, so there is not just the music itself, you know, I learned old-timey fiddle and grew up in music parties that my parents had with their friends but also just that sense of music. That in order to be a musician you didn’t have to do what I’m doing now. Everybody was playing music and that was a communal activity and I think that has really informed my sense of what being a musician is. So there’s a lot of Tune-Yards that comes from that folk sensibility. And then on the other hand I was growing up near New York City in the eighties and there was like this radical hip hop and hip hop influenced music coming out of New York at that time. And that’s stuff that, you know, the drum machines and the synthesizers are not necessarily where my parents come from.

AJC: You can really hear that in your music.

Despite that great adage that there’s nothing new on Earth, in recent years there’s been much debate about who can rightly claim certain ideas and traditions. And with this growing mainstream sensitivity to cultural appropriation, Tune-Yards songs started to land differently. Suddenly the influences Garbus had been celebrated for began to mark her out as an artistic thief. But she never shied away from the accusations.

Garbus: I don’t like the word accuse around cultural appropriation because cultural appropriation is happening. It just is. When someone’s accusing me of something it’s as if I’m supposed to be defensive about it. And as a person who sees her privilege I would rather be in the position of embracing this conversation of cultural appropriation and being bold in naming what I’m appropriating and then inviting other musicians to do the same and hopefully so that we can get somewhere. So that we can get to a place of okay well then, what’s owed? And that’s my question: What is owed? Is there money owed? Is there credit owed? Where do we go?

Garbus went within and began the long process of examining her own unconscious prejudices. Her 2018 album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, was the result of grappling with some deeply uncomfortable truths.

Garbus: Internalized racism is part of my, my very private life, when I really get honest with myself. And that’s, again, some of this really deep painful truth that feels like it could be a way forward when it’s worked through and moved through instead of shutting down with guilt.

(“Colonizer,” 2018)

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

Merrill Garbus has always put what’s on her mind into her music and for many years what was on her mind most of the time was everything she hated about her own physical appearance.

(“Powa,” 2011)

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Can you see my face at all

AJC: Give me some advice on reconciling the body you were given versus the one you thought you were supposed to have.

Garbus: I mean, man, I’m working through it every day. I actually have had to set a rule for myself mentally that, “Merrill, you’re not allowed to talk to yourself “that way anymore.” If I’m constantly in, “I’m not good enough, I’m not thin enough, “I’m not small enough” I don’t ever­­— I’m just here. I go through my day in shame. And self-hatred. If my imagination— if I allow myself, if I just cut that voice off, and I’m just like, “No, that’s actually a fiction, “that’s a not true thing”, and if I don’t buy into it a lot of time is freed up. Just mental energy, you know? Now I think there’s— this is like a life’s work for me.

AJC: Do you have an appreciation for the now?

Garbus: Yes.

AJC: Because, I mean, this is true in almost every aspect of your life, one’s life. These are the good old days.

Garbus: Mm hmm, you’re so right. Which is another, that’s the other— the body image thing is like, “Get over it, it’s not getting better” Like this is good, this is strong, this is good. I’m healthy, you know, I’m alive. What more do I want?

(“Powa,” 2011)

 Your power


It rocks me like a lullaby

Your power

In my mine

It gives me thrills I can’t describe

Your face in mine

Oh baby, I just don’t know why

Your power


AJC: How helpful is it, or does it matter at all, that you get to stand on the stage for an hour and a half or two hours every night in a room where people really, really love you?

Garbus: Hmm, I mean it’s not always pleasurable to serve up all these observation and personal critique and disgust. It can be a real mental roller coaster ride. But I’d say that what’s really working for me lately is being able to appreciate my body, my voice, just to kind of have the sensory pleasure of performing music. And the sensory pleasure of singing, of breathing so much on stage. These two guys that I get to play with, Nate Brenner, my husband and collaborator. Hamir Atwal is playing drums with us and we have this real trio a real deep, deep musical trio. We’re listening to each other really deeply and it’s a very pleasurable joyful experience most nights. So that in and of itself is very therapeutic I’m sure.