As the daughter of a piano teacher, Merrill Garbus hated practicing music when she was a kid. But now, she’s 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 Oakland-based art-pop project Tune-Yards, an innovative merger of world music rhythms, indie song craft and socially engaged lyricism. In advance of Tune-Yards’ show with Sudan Archives at Cargo, Garbus talked with the News & Review about how she brought together the melange of influences on her new studio album, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.
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 Tune-Yards. “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 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 album with longtime collaborator Nate Brenner. Thanks to a newfound discipline cultivated through meditation, she went into the rehearsal studio daily 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.
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’s recent experiences fed into the themes of the new album, and her relentless songwriting ritual brought it to life. Such a structured 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.”