Aidin Vaziri |Like most of us, Merrill Garbus had a lot of questions about the state of the nation following the 2016 presidential election. But in the months since then, as things took more surreal turns almost daily, the driving force behind the eclectic indie-pop act Tune-Yards started to look inward.
As she started work on the group’s fourth and most recent album, “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life,” the Oakland musician and her longtime collaborator Nate Brenne thought of ways to elevate their own work. Garbus, 38, booked a weekly gig as a DJ in a bar near her house, taught herself how to program a drum machine and, critically, participated in a six-month workshop on race at the East Bay Meditation Center with the explicit mission of exploring her own white privilege.
When Tune-Yards performs at the Noise Pop Festival on Friday, Feb. 23, Garbus will bring her genre-bending songs, like “Colonizer” and “ABC 123,” that not only bluntly explore self-identity but do it with an irresistible groove.
The Chronicle spoke to her during a tour break at a Los Angeles laundromat.
Q: Have you been rabidly reading everything people write about the album or trying to avoid it all?
A: I have not read anything. I read a headline that felt really wrong — that was like a week ago. I thought, “OK, it’s going to be a lot of stuff that feels OK, and a lot of stuff that feels really hard to know how to process.” I usually make the decision not to read any press and figure that people tell me if there’s something I need to address.
Q: The concepts around this album seem more complicated than ever. It’s probably for the best that you avert your eyes.
A: At a certain point, the music is what the music is. This stuff is so subtle and very new for me to talk about. I often don’t know if I would be able to articulate myself. I know there’s a way things are framed like, “White musician listens to Kendrick album, takes a workshop and writes this album on whiteness.” That kind of oversimplification is par for the course. I’m to blame as much as anyone else because I’m trying to sell art. I also think that part of this is knowing it’s going to be really wrong and flawed in a lot of ways.
Q: Your best response in the interviews I have read so far is, “I don’t know.”
A: Oh yeah. Totally. With a lot of the teachers I’ve had in my life and the teachers I’ve had recently around whiteness, that is such a brilliant takeaway: I don’t know. I’m not supposed to know. The whole idea is, there’s no language for this. That’s intentional. It’s just the way it is. It’s ingenious the way that it’s set up — and sickening. People look to musicians and public figures to have it all figured out. That’s so dangerous. It’s kind of why we’re in the political situation we’re in now. People want one person to have all the answers instead of being like, “I have no clue!” It’s pretty complicated.
Q: Do you feel like there’s a risk that with all the serious messages in the verses that people might miss the humor and sense of fun in the music?
A: There’s that Emma Goldman quote: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” It’s the sense of, “What are we doing this for?” What we’re working toward is to feel this joy of freedom. It’s difficult to express that. In fact, I didn’t know how to express that. Like the song “Colonizer,” we went back and forth on that whole production. There’s an inappropriate amount of celebration and joy in a song about rape and injustice. Yet, where are the moments where we can find that? I think there are lots of examples of that. I often cite Fela Kuti for music where the topics are greed and political and intense: yet there’s so much joy in the music and a propulsion toward dance.
Q: Your sound is so unconventional. Do you ever consider how it will be received by the public?
A: No, not anymore. I’m older now. People have been telling me for years and years and years that you have to honor your own vision; you can’t do what other people want you to do. I’m finding it to be more true. There’s a lot of trust, blind faith in the fact. The thing that’s really weird about the album coming out now is that this felt — and god, I may have dug my own grave with the title — this is my private life. And we kept it really private. Nate and I worked on music really privately. Maybe we had a couple people involved along the way, but we really dug into trying to bring ourselves up to another level to work as musicians. I took a lot of voice lessons. We learned new software, new drum machines and synthesizers. We just brought our skill level up. For the longest time, that was all we were doing all the time. I think we did a really good job of protecting that creative process. It is very shocking to bring it out, to have people listen to it. This past week has been an unreal amount of attention. I guess what I mean is that a little bit to a fault, I forgot that people are listening.
Q: What happens when you get in front of people to play live?
A: That’s where I know that I’m telling the most truth. It’s not about the words. It’s not about how I perceive myself or present myself to you or anybody else. I trust that when I’m onstage I’m accessing a deeper truth in myself and I’m inviting others to access that in themselves. It’s really moving.