Words by Amanda Nyren; Photo by Marilis Cardinal
While some label execs desperately troll the muck of MySpace for the next big thing, and traditional audiophiles refuse to embrace digital formats, others are adapting, and even thriving. Merrill Garbus, a former puppeteer who once swore she’d never become a musician, is probably the last person you’d expect to find among the thriving.
As the one-woman show better known as tUnE-YaRdS, Garbus recently released her debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, an eclectic patchwork quilt of vocals, ukulele, field recordings and beats created from kitchen utensils. The homespun labor of love was produced over two and a half years, between Martha’s Vineyard and Montreal, using only a Sony digital recorder and a laptop with free Audacity software. It was released in July 2008 and distributed on recycled cassette tapes along tUnE-YaRdS’ tour with Thao and as a pay-what-you-want download online. In early 2009, Marriage Records (Dirty Projectors, Thanksgiving, YACHT) picked it up and pressed it to vinyl, making Garbus a poster girl for nontraditional, free media music-making.
It’s a surprising feat, since for years Garbus refused to consider herself as a musician. Raised by folk musician parents in a preppy Connecticut town, Garbus spent her childhood in vocal lessons, listening to the family record collection and recording mixtapes from the radio. Nonetheless, she decided at an early age that she would never make music her trade. After studying theatre at Smith College, she went on to work as a puppeteer at Sandglass Theater and Bread & Puppet in Vermont. Ultimately, her time spent in puppetry forced her to recognize her true calling. “I was writing the ‘Fat Kid Opera’ [a puppet show] when I realized that what I really loved about puppetry was the songwriting aspect,” she says.
Merrill quit puppetry then and there. She devoted herself to writing music with a second-hand ukulele she received as a birthday present from her mother. “Becoming a musician was intimidating. But the ukulele made it less threatening. Unlike the guitar, which is this big overwhelming thing with six strings, the ukulele isn’t really taken seriously as an instrument,” she explains.
Making the transition into musicianship as unintimidating as possible was crucial for Garbus, who, when beginning the album in 2006, was deeply depressed. “The whole process of becoming a musician was terrifying,” she says. “I didn’t want to let that stop me. Too often, people don’t do things purely because of fear.”
With this in mind, Garbus committed herself to a modest DIY method of production. “My basic trick was to record a sample of a noise, upload it to the computer, listen to it over and over and pick out a sound that could be a rhythm,” she says. In this manner, a sound byte of the Martha’s Vineyard ferry was manipulated with an increase and decrease in volume to create a beat. The clank of a spoon on a bottle became a high-hat. “While finishing the album in Montreal, I became a total basket case. I’d set myself a deadline by organizing a release party and just wound up running around the kitchen banging on things to get it done. “
As a result of its unsophisticated production, BiRd-BrAiNs exudes an unbridled, childlike energy. Most of the field recordings were taken on Martha’s Vineyard while Garbus worked as a nanny – hence, the sounds of children’s voices. This, combined with lyrics like “tweedle deedle dee” and “eeny meeny miny” and the cheery ukulele strumming, conjures the image of a sunwashed island straight out of Pippi in the South Seas or Peter Pan, where Garbus regales a tribe of rambunctious kids with her singing. Indeed, without knowing anything about Garbus, one could very easily mistake her voice for that of a mystic island woman. On songs like “Hatari” (inspired by African pygmy yodeling) and “Jamaican” it oozes soul, birdsong and raw sugar over random, frantic, junkyard beats that just barely point to M.I.A.
Garbus will be the first to acknowledge that BiRd-BrAiNs’ unsophisticated production also makes it an easy target for critics. “A lot of people dismiss this kind of recording,” she says. The album’s compressed format and consequently distorted sound may turn off audiophiles, but what it says about the potential of digital production and distribution should excite anyone with a vested interest in the future of music.
While her experience performing with backup bands and as part of experimental a capella trio Sister Suvi has been deeply rewarding, she finds taking the stage alone with just her ukulele and a series of loops incredibly freeing. “It’s important to me that I can create everything by myself, as a sort of political statement,” she says.
The fact that a woman with minimal experience could put together a financially successful album from scratch, and embark on tour with merely loops behind her, quite clearly reflects a paradigm shift: the empowerment of the artist and the diminishing relevance of record label politics and policies in the digital age.
For Garbus, creating on her own was as much a matter of necessity as of principle. “I couldn’t afford to pay anyone and I didn’t have time to explain what I was trying to do,” she explains.