The story of a real indie triumph – from a ‘pay what you like’ release to a million future possibilities


The story of a real indie triumph – from a ‘pay what you like’ release to a million future possibilities

It’s not a sticky keyboard that continues to spell tUnE-yArDs thus, with alternating capital letters and a seemingly needless hyphen in the middle; it’s out of respect for Merrill Garbus – a musical artist with ideas so original and charmingly delivered that most music fans will hold down the shift key whenever it’s asked of them. It’s the least we can do considering tUnE-yArDs’ debut album ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’ – a patchwork quilt of an experimental record that weaves together hip hop rhythms, African vocals, show-tune theatrics and ukulele folk in super lo-fi but meticulously planned out fashion. As if she were Micachu’s more worldly, older sister, Merrill can (and does) turn household objects into percussive instruments. She records them on an average Sony Dictaphone and loops saucepan clanks and the like through free audio software on her laptop where she also stores found sounds and budget field recordings.

Things have changed for Merrill since she first self-released ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’, though. A LOT. Without the financial support of a label, the Oakland-based musician who’s always been environmentally aware (“I’m quite anti-pieces-of-unnecessary-plastic-in-the-world,” she says) would sell recycled tape cassettes of her first album at live shows and distribute a digital version via the Internet. The price was “whatever you like”, à la Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’. But Radiohead could afford that gamble a lot more than a brand new artist.

“It’s hard to remember why I did that because so much has happened in the past year,” says Merrill. “It was a side project to me so I didn’t expect anything of it. I think I felt a great freedom in how I could carve out the stakes for tUnE-yArDs, and the music industry in general.”

The album, sold this way, made around $1000. Hardly a small fortune, but certainly a success, and the beginning of a huge triumph for experimental, independent musicians everywhere. The oddly typed word was out and before long Portland’s Marriage Records (then home to Dirty Projectors and Lucky Dragons) offered to release ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’ on limited 12” vinyl. Merrill took tUnE-yArDs on the road with Dirty Projectors before musician’s label 4AD took note and offered to release the album for a third and fourth time, first on limited CD and then again including two bonus tracks.

Merrill, who once swore never to become a musician, is today no less enthusiastic about releasing her eccentric, clattering pop in creative ways than she is by the prospect of producing it, but you have to ask, with labels queuing up to invest in the next tUnE-yArDs album, are they going to be overly keen on the ‘pay what you like’ model?

“Yeah, that’s a really hard question,” admits Merrill. “I think in my search for whoever will release the next album that will be a big question for me – how are record labels dealing with the future? Because, yes, at the very least I would like to discuss [the donation model]. It’s a question of now the situation has really changed for me – how much control do I really have? But as a musician I’d like to be at the forefront of the way that music will be distributed in the future.”

Merrill could, of course, make the album unfunded again and simply wait for the labels to come knocking. They certainly would do.

“You’re asking questions that are plaguing me every day,” she laughs. “I think a lot of artists right now are saying to themselves, ‘what does a label do for me?’. I mean, 4AD is amazing in a lot of ways, including the fact that I’m talking to you right now – that would have been very hard for me to co-ordinate on my own – but I do think that many artists are just confused. New musicians are in the position of needing to get someone’s attention, but whose attention do we need to get now? Do we really need the big shot labels? Where would my album have gone if I’d kept it as donations? There are interesting experiments that I’d like to try one day, if only to inspire or inform other artists. It’s a real bundle of questions for me.”

Way before such tricky thoughts arose Merrill was a puppeteer (a neat analogy for a solo musician pondering how she can remain in complete control). She began to make music initially for her marionette shows, written and performed on a ukulele that her mother gave her – the same instrument that idyllically strums over a lot of ‘BiRd-BrAiN’’s layered chaos. “I had a sincere resentment towards puppets for a long time,” she says now of a time that saw her music become her main focus, the puppets first relegated to sitting on her feet while she played before being discarded altogether.

tUnE-yArDs – with no small amount of inspiration from Merrill’s puppeteering/theatre studying past – is a project that feeds on creativity and connection, from the fact that it started during her previous band’s quiet time (“I soon realised that I needed to be creating when the band weren’t playing,” she says) to how she hopes her fans relate to her work.

“I feel like with that donation model the audience feels some kind of ownership over their part in the process,” she reasons. “Everyone can get music for free – it’s impossible to stop that – but this connects the idea that an independent musician can be literally supported by fans. That comes across clearly when you ask for donations because when it’s a CD that’s been manufactured and sold by someone other than the artist there’s a distance between them and the audience.”

There’s a personable touch to ‘BiRd-BrAiNs’, though, that transcends the format you buy it in or which faceless Amazon staffer puts it in the post. The angelic ‘For You’ ends with Merrill talking to a toddler about blueberries. Whether she knows the small boy as his mother, aunty or an over-friendly stranger is unclear, but it definitely feels like a glimpse into her everyday world. The wiry honky-tonk rhythms and African wails of ‘Hatari’ are unmistakeably inspired by Merrill’s time spent in Kenya as a child (a personal and happy time, and one that she’s keen to share); and there’s a playful, lawlessness that naively tip-toes through the entire album, dancing the right side of twee and making the whole thing extremely lovable.

A quick sit-down with Merrill is just as enjoyable as dissecting the loops and old-skool hip-hop references she contorts into a fresh style of acoustic pop. She’s clearly quite overwhelmed by where she currently finds herself (Glastonbury calls in June, and her first tour with a full band that’ll make her live show even more of an unexpected carnival than it already is), perhaps because none of this was ever planned. And tUnE-yArDs probably couldn’t exist as it does if Merrill had been hoping to sign to 4AD and tour the world. It’s a solo project propelled by innocence and charm, and more than enough innovation that has us respecting Merrill’s wishes to type tUnE-yArDs over and over. We wouldn’t even waste our time with an explanation mark at the end of Hadouken.

By Stuart Stubbs


Originally published in issue 16 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2010

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