By Daniel Kohn
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As the loopy mastermind behind the ferociously acclaimed band tUnE-yArDs, singer/percussionist/ukelele innovator Merrill Garbus is used to commanding the attention—if not the complete devotion—of thousands of people on any given night. In fact, she says, her relationship with her audience is one of the things she's most come to value since the home-recorded session she released as her first album, BiRd-BrAiNs, graduated from self-release to independent re-release to world-famous re-re-release on the legendary 4AD label. But before tUnE-yArDs became tUnE-yArDs, Garbus was busking in the Montreal subway and braving open-mic nights with nothing but her ukelele and her voice. That's back when an audience wasn't just something to appreciate—it was something to fight for.
"A theatre degree doesn't exactly prep you for the real world—at least in my case!" Garbus says. "But one thing it does do is make sure you're on stage a lot. And one thing I realized is you have to actually believe in what you're putting out. When I first started singing these songs, sure—it was me with a tiny little ukelele tapping on it to make the rhythm, but I had an absurd level of confidence that these were revolutionary ukelele songs that deserved to be heard. Perhaps that was absurd at the time, but it got me this far. And there is something to that. You're like, 'No no no—you're not looking into your beer and you're not chatting with your friend. What you want to be doing is paying attention to me—this is where it's at!'"
That arresting immediacy—what she refers to as an "all-or-nothing" attitude—is there on even the first notes of her most recent full-length on 4AD, w h o k i l l, a fearlessly idiosyncratic album that should be put alongside works by people such as Arthur Russell and Lora Logic, who made exhilarating future-retro records mostly by cracking open their own personalities and letting everything spill into the studio. The singles "Bizness" and "Gangsta" stack from quick little drum riffs into skyscrapers of voice and bass and even brass, sounding like a collision between about three different kinds of transglobal music—let's try... dub, post-punk and the amplified electric finger-piano of the Congo's Konono No. 1? Maybe work in some Brian Eno and some Talking Heads, too? Maybe even some New York no wave, like the Contortions songs that sound like theme songs to movies from other planets?
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Garbus' acrobatic sense of melody is what keeps it all from exploding—although she says the live loop patterns she makes every time she plays a show are so intricate, they can collapse if her heart is beating too fast or too slow on any given night: "Every single night is completely different," she says. "I love it. It's the nature of the beast. I'm fascinated with change and that's the real aliveness with music—the 'liveness' in live music."
While recording w h o k i l l's "Riotriot," Garbus and her band mates had a particularly representative moment that she loves and laughs about even now. It was when the studio's unpredictable modular synth—the kind of machine that decides if and how it will cooperate, instead of just accepting commands—came to life and burped out an unexpectedly perfect series of notes. tUne-yArDs' heartfelt response? "'Ohhhhhhhhh shit!'" she laughs. "We'd all curse in wonderment again and again over that thing. It's incredible. It's beautiful and you can't really control it. It's chaos in a box. That's what a performance is, too."
And while that's not exactly how she plots the trajectory for the future of tUnE-yArDs, it's something she's come to appreciate. She's learned to brazen an audience into human connection, and she's also learned how sometimes the chaos just needs to be chaotic. There will be more touring and more new songs for tUnE-yArDs soon, but she's happiest about not knowing what's coming next.
"I've made peace with not knowing," she says. "It had been scaring me, but I decided I don't need to know what's going to happen. I always look for what's not in the world yet that I want to hear. So my sad answer to what's coming next is, 'I do not know—as yet!'"
This article appeared in print as "The Unbearable Lightness of Chaos: Merrill Garbus' tUnE-yArDs create delightful songs from chaos."