Musical ritual

Songwriting is a disciplined practice for Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus

Merrill Garbus (foreground) and Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards.

Merrill Garbus (foreground) and Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards.

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

JMAX Productions presents Tune-Yards Saturday, Feb. 17, 7 p.m. at the Senator Theatre. Sudan Archives opens.
Cost: $25
Senator Theatre
517 Main St.

As the daughter of a piano teacher, Merrill Garbus hated practicing music when she was a kid. But looking back on that time is funny to her now, because she’s become devoted to songwriting the same way some are to yoga or meditation. It’s become a fundamental part of her life—a ritual, a daily practice.

“It’s taken a long time for me to respect practice in that way, understanding that it’s the only way to get better at anything,” she said. “It is like yoga because you’re forming these habits; you have this sort of pact to meet music head-on every day, and that feels really great.”

Garbus is the force behind the critically acclaimed Oakland-based art-pop project Tune-Yards, an innovative merger of world music rhythms, indie song craft and socially engaged lyricism. Speaking with the CN&R ahead of Tune-Yards’ show with Sudan Archives at the Senator Theatre on Feb. 17, Garbus described the melange of influences on her new studio album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, and how her musical practice brought them together.

Leading up to creating the new album, Garbus was making music for a TV pilot as well as The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast—projects unrelated to her band. “I just wanted to become a better writer,” she said. On the side, she was also DJing at a bar in Oakland, an experience that served as a lesson on how to make people move on the dance floor.

“Dance rhythms have always been a focus of mine,” she said, “but to come at it from a DJ perspective was different for me.”

Around the same time, she joined various activist groups, including Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national network organizing white people to act as part of a multiracial majority for equality. She also enrolled in a course at East Bay Meditation Center focused specifically on what it means to be white in America.

“So much of my experience with race is based around shame and guilt, which don’t feel particularly useful, most of the time,” she said. “Having a Buddhist framework, which helps people work through those types of feelings, felt like a very productive context for me to address whiteness.”

With the subject of white guilt in mind, Garbus set about creating a dance-forward Tune-Yards album with longtime collaborator Nate Brenner. Thanks to a newfound discipline cultivated through meditation, she went into the rehearsal studio on a daily basis and produced an enormous amount of material.

“We just made sure I showed up for work every day, which seems like an adult way to make music,” she said. “And that was despite all of my doubts about music, too—with everything going on in the world today, it was like, ‘What’s the point of this?’”

Garbus says she resolved that sense of futility by dedicating her music to what she cares about—social justice, spirituality and the environment. “Obviously, it’s been a trying time in this country,” she said. “My head was also in the state of our country and the state of the world, and all of those themes made their way into the music as well.”

For example, the album’s lead single, “Look at Your Hands,” is a statement on ownership and the injustice of, say, Nestlé profiting off bottling water from a creek in the San Bernardino National Forest. Garbus sings: “Ooh I wanna taste that, waste that/Sell me my own water off of my own land.”

Garbus’ recent experiences fed into the themes of I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, and her relentless ritual of writing songs brought the album to life. Such a working-class approach to making music hasn’t taken the magic out of it for her, though.

“It’s done the opposite,” she said. “It feels even more like a devotional practice.”