The success of tUnE-YarDs is a rare uplifting story in the often-bleak world of the music industry.
Two years ago, front-woman and sole member Merrill Garbus was a nomadic nanny selling her self-released and self-produced album BiRd-BrAiNs on her website using a “pay what you can” donation setup.
Now the ukulele-and-percussion-heavy experimental folk album has stronger distribution, to say the least – tUnE-YarDs is signed to British record label 4AD, home to such massive indie acts as TV On The Radio and Beirut.
Part of what makes the BiRd-BrAiNs album special is how lo-fi the recording process was. Garbus recorded the album entirely with free digital recording software, capturing her vocals with a hand-held recorder, and the resulting tracks are sometimes blown-out, sometimes clumsy, but always utterly compelling in their honesty.
“I guess what I was trying to do by doing the whole album on my own was to prove that it was possible for people to record their own music without needing to spend a lot of money and without sort of leaving it up to the quote-unquote professionals,” said Garbus of her adherence to the “Do It Yourself” or “DIY” punk-rock model of production.
“And for me, that also means exposing flaws. I’d rather that people look at themselves straight on in the mirror and look at everything good and bad and accept them, rather than work towards some glossy, picture-perfect kind of thing.”
But that doesn’t mean that Garbus didn’t put a lot of work into her debut. And she hoped that by pressing her album on cassette, listeners would be better positioned to hear the whole thing.
“You listen to the album,” she said. “I mean, you can fast-forward if you want but mostly you listen to it front-to-back, and it puts the pressure on to make your album a true album … In an ideal world, no one would want to skip one of (the songs). To me, it becomes an organism of sorts.”
Subterranean New England Blues
Garbus wrote the songs that would eventually become the BiRd-BrAiNs album while working as a nanny for several lonely months on Martha’s Vineyard.
“It was a long time of sort of not having a good outlet for my creative energy,” Garbus said. “And my mom ended up buying me this tenor ukulele at this Army Navy store, and that’s just how it started, just by fiddling around and playing on my own, and really enjoying the act of just writing songs.”
Garbus began capturing her song ideas on a hand-held voice recorder. She also recorded the toddler she worked with, eventually using some of his insights as interstitial material on the album, with his parent’s blessing.
“I hope that eventually it’ll be a good record for him of what he was like at that age,” she said. “For me, it was important to have a record of the time that I spent and where I was when I was making this album.”
“And also, there’s so much pressure in making music and being an artist, and I was really humbled by the experience of being around a kid so much, and I wanted to have that really innocent curiosity about the world to be a really strong through line through the whole thing.”
Loops And Ukes
For her upcoming tour, Garbus has a backing band, but for most of tUnE-YarDs’ existence, her performances have been a one-woman-show. She’s been able to do this with the trusty tool of lo-fi musicians everywhere – a looping pedal, which records and then repeats…
“Anything that I put through a microphone, so vocals, drums, different sounds that I can make in the space that I’m in,” explained Garbus.
Much of the hype surrounding tUnE-YarDs centers on Garbus’s gutsy live shows, influenced by her background in performance. Garbus dabbles in puppetering, and is no stranger to the stage.
“I grew up with music in my family, performing in my family, and then I went to school for theatre,” she said. “So I think so much of what I enjoy doing is actually being on stage, live, with an audience.”
And with the support of a heavyweight record label, and the fuel of critical acclaim, that artist’s intuition continues to guide Garbus on her own unique journey through music.
“More and more I’m realizing that (music) was very much ingrained in me,” she said. “So when I started to write songs, even though I didn’t have a real formal training in composition, I didn’t go to music school, but there was still a lot of knowledge there.”