EditorialFor the love of music


For when you’re feeling social


Craig Clemens

April 29, 2014

It’s difficult to nail down her sound. It’s a sort of rebel yell that screams at the idea of what indie-pop stars should be, what they should sound like, and how they should hold themselves. Extroverted, thrilling, and sometimes absolutely terrifying the energy that Merrill Garbus brings to tUnE-yArDs is something that needs to be heard to believed.

When I was first introduced to her sound it was at the height of the phase that saw absolutely everybody (for good or not) using a loop pedal onstage. This fad, although arguably in the throws of it’s death knell, is still around – however, once Garbus found her way to Lee’s Palace in Toronto in 2011, and showed each and every “loop-pedal-artist” how it is done with taste and class. Since then I’ve noticed a lot less loop-pedals on stage. People in Toronto, once they witnessed the virtuosic efforts in person, realized that there is very little better they could do with it.

I equate this to my second year of college when I had the opportunity to see one of my idols, Brad Melhdau at Massy Hall. I was an aspiring Jazz piano player in my own right, but was really only just that – aspiring. When my roommate offered me a free ticket that night (because his girlfriend had bailed on him) I was practising hard on a transcription due the next day. I wasn’t about to pass up that opportunity so I went. When I returned I was so blown away by the way that this master of his craft plied his trade I couldn’t bring myself to put my fingers back on those keys. I needed to process exactly what I just witnessed before I could even hear another piano being played. I eventually dragged myself back to my keyboard and was up all night finishing the transcription – but that show has never left me. Who am I to attempt the same sound of this master? I feel that this is the exact same effect that has been sweeping North America as Merrill Garbus tours relentlessly across the continent.

She was still a relative unknown when I saw her in 2011. A similar situation happened to bless me with tickets to her Toronto show as it did with the Melhdau show – the tenants living above me at the time were sharing a back patio with my unit and told me about the show – who was I to protest? As we waited in front of Lee’s Palace I noticed Garbus walking, bottles of water in tow from the neighbouring convenience store to her tour bus parked out front. I looked around – nobody else seemed to notice who this was, and frankly unless you were well-versed she could’ve been anybody just working on the tour. I witnessed almost the exact same scene as she left the venue hours later although this time I was sitting across the street at the burrito place adjacent and those milling about with me knew exactly who she was, and as she walked to her bus she was nearly mobbed. Naturally, she met this scene with the same grin she emits from each stage she performs on – a knowing smile that says, “thank you for coming, I hope you enjoyed my efforts”. Little did she know.

So, how does this sound, this virtuosity, and this humble demeanour work in her favour from an artistic perspective? All one needs to do is listen to her most recent endeavour Nikki-Nack, which takes her sound to yet another level. The album itself is streaming on CBC (in Canada) and NPR (in the US) until next Thursday May 6, or naturally download it to your MUSICBox via our Online Music Catalog shortly after it’s release.

Running up to the release Garbus sat down with Pitchfork to discuss where the album came from and her influence when it comes to her own creativity, fears, and revelations.


Pitchfork: To me, this album sounds much catchier than w h o k i l l. How did that shift come about?

Merrill Garbus: I really went all the way back to square one: I walked into an open public library and checked out Molly-Ann Leikin’s [1987] book How to Write a Hit SongI learned that the chorus should hit in the first 30 seconds. That was a big one. And just a lot of really nuts-and-bolts stuff: “You need to respect your writing time, make a date with yourself and keep it.” And she has great exercises for brainstorming: “Picture a red schoolhouse. Now write everything you can describing that red schoolhouse. Is there a boy playing basketball outside?” I really needed to unlearn everything I had done so far.

Pitchfork: Why the reverse-engineering?

MG: I got kind of sick of myself. After hearing so much about yourself and your own music, you say, “I know it’s not all about me, so what is it all about?” I had to go and figure that out. And I took voice lessons last spring—just learning about belting and how to do it healthily. My voice sounds different to me on this record. There’s a new song called “Hey Life” that actually came out of one of the exercises I was doing.

I just felt so energetically depleted after the w h o k i l l tour. I’m still adjusting to the fact that this is my job. I don’t get to just goof around with my looping pedal and everything’s fun and rosy and then there’s applause. The applause stopped when we stopped touring, you know?

Pitchfork: How did you kickstart the recording process after that revelation?

MG: At the beginning of last year, I basically said, “Oh shit, I have nothing. I should pretend that I have an actual job.” Which, it turns out, I do. Starting the first week of January 2013, I went to the studio Monday through Friday, basically like a nine-to-five, and told myself every day: “Just do two musical ideas.”

That first month, I had a series of parameters. The first week was only drum machines: I learned a lot about analog drum machines and digital ones this time around. The second week was no drum machines, no electronics whatsoever. So I was using a little frame drum with some sticks, trying some of the Haitian drumming I’d been studying up to that point.

Pitchfork: Where were you recording?

MG: The studio in Oakland was literally a shipping container. It’s in this neighbourhood called Fruitvale—as in Fruitvale Station Fruitvale—and it’s pretty nitty-gritty. There’s always a lot of drug drama, shouting, cars driving by and blasting music. We’re in the middle of that, [tUnE-yArDs bassist] Nate [Brenner] in the practice studio and me in the little shipping container next to it, banging on drums. I literally baked in that shipping container all summer.

Pitchfork: Where did the name Nikki Nack come from?

MG: Sinko was the initial title, and then it was Find a New Way, which is the title of the opening track—that was my dad’s idea actually. Bless his heart. He was like, “You’re really finding a new way here, we should call it that!” But it seemed really cheesy.

So my friend and I were reading all of the lyrics to the album, and he picked out the phrase, “Nikki Nack.” There’s something about it that’s tUnE-yArDs-y in an onomatopoetic way, but there’s also a “nick nack paddy-whack give a dog a bone” thing. Nikki Nack also shows up as a character in one of the songs, and that felt appropriate. It feels like the album was named after somebody. It had its own personality.

Pitchfork: One of the earliest lines on “Find a New Way” finds you saying that you should never sing again. Did you actually consider that?

MG: All the time. It sounds absurd now, but most artists I know, no matter their medium, go through depressions, ups and downs, serious self-doubt. I definitely questioned my abilities. I don’t have a degree in composition that helps me start at A and get to B and then C. I don’t have training—that’s why I took voice and drum lessons. I went and took dance lessons, too. But you can only take so many lessons, you know?

And I feel older. I actually am older, but I also feel older, which is different from the last record. There’s a lot of addiction around me; heavy, heavy stuff within my community that really shook me in an adult way, where I said, “Wow, I’m almost 35.” That was an adult moment that I had this year.