MERRILL GARBUS has performed as tUnE-yArDs since 2009, and that band name has always been synonymous with forward movement-whether because of her explosive performance style or the always-surprising way in which her songs unfold.
First gaining notice with the debut BiRd-BrAiNs, which The New York Times called "a confident do-it-yourselfer's opening salvo: a staticky, low-fi, abrasive attention-getter," Garbus forged a reputation as a formidable live presence through relentless touring. In 2011, tUnE-yArDs released its second album, w h o k i l l, a startling and sonically adventurous statement that led to a whirlwind period where Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner accrued accolades from critics (including the #1 spot on the Village Voice's 2011 Pazz and Jop poll), performed in front of increasing numbers of rapturous crowds around the world, and collaborated with the likes of Yoko Ono and Questlove. It was a thrilling ride, but it was one that needed a little bit of recovery afterward. During this period of rest, Garbus stayed busy, recording around 30 demos and experimenting with new techniques to grow as an artist. Those demos would eventually gel into Nikki Nack, the stunning third album by the Oakland-based band, released in 2014. A complex, textured statement that opens with a clarion call to "Find A New Way" and spends its 13 tracks getting there, it is a showcase of how Garbus's songwriting has blossomed, and a testament to how current technologies can combine with themes from the past-Saturday mornings spent watching Pee-Wee's Playhouse, puppet shows based on Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, hard days made less so by the refuge provided by top 40 radio-to create something utterly original.
Nikki Nack has uncertainty about both the past and the future, but that is in keeping with Garbus's overall aesthetic of constantly questioning and burrowing for a "new way," tempered by the joy that goes hand in hand with new discoveries. "We worked with other producers for the first time this time around, which required that I humble myself quite a bit. I had to let go of tUnE-yArDs being rigidly my production. I have a very specific vision for the sound of the band and I don't think women producers get enough credit for doing their own stuff, so I was resistant-but we grew, Nate and I both, and the songs grew. And it turns out that's what's most important: the songs, not my ego." "Every single composer, artist, writer-anyone that I respect, there is crazy shit that's happened in all these art forms," she says. "When the shit started changing, people were like, ‘Ugh, I don't want that, what is that?' And it's kind of painful sometimes being on the front line of whatever I'm doing-I'm pushing myself, so I am going to rub up against my audience's expectations, and there is going to be some friction and tension there. My job is to get comfortable with that andaccept it rather than kowtow to it."