I like interviewing musicians because they have no talking points and they tend to be …
Live in Portland February 25, 2018 | Wonder Ballroom
The search for identity is a theme that can be applied, today specifically, across a spectrum: from the ultra-personal exploration to the identity crisis that has our country engaged in social and political brinkmanship on a near daily basis. Musicians have unique means of exploring this theme, able to engage in both the physical element of music creation and the tool of metaphor (or sometimes literalness) in lyricism. Whether we agree to it or not, as an audience we are invited on this exploration, and when done well, we extract meaning from an artist’s personal questions to be applied to our own lives and worlds.
Identity is the muse of tUnE-yArDs’ most recent release, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, which maps out an utterly personal track for Merrill Garbus, the lyricist and frontwoman for the duo. In the time between the last release, 2014’s Nikki Nack, and the new record, Garbus sought out myriad methods of ripping herself from comfort zones and confronting questions about her identity and place in the world. To kick-start that process, she picked up a DJ-ing gig without knowing how to DJ, took classical voice lessons, dove headlong into new beat making techniques and sounds and decided to try to better understand whiteness in today’s world.
Garbus’s quest to “understand whiteness” permeates many surfaces throughout the album. The lyrics are nearly always pointed (“I ask myself, ‘what should I do?’ But all I know is white centrality.”) and are matched by jagged dance beats and aggressive vocal mixes. “Colonizer” opens with a particularly mechanical beat–chirps, blips and crunches–before segueing into a heavy, bass-driven instrumental to counter the opening lyrics, “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men/I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially, generally for me” that are sung with an intentional lightness. The track may sound like an outward-facing shaming of others, but, as Garbus noted in an interview with NPR: “I heard my voice speaking to a friend about this experience that I had in Kenya. A lot of people think that I’m making fun of another white woman in ‘Colonizer.’ No. This is me.”
Exactly halfway through the album, the song is a poignant encapsulation of the project’s thesis statement: “How can I realistically understand my place in a world that has essentially been systematically built for me at the expense of others?”
Musically, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life finds tUnE-yArDs as daring as they’ve ever been, ripping open rhythms and harmonics to look for unexpected mixtures of sounds and tones. It can make you feel as though you’re watching a tennis match–whipping your head back and forth between the incisive lyrics and equally compelling instrumentals, unsure of when and where the action will stop.
We sat down with Garbus to tear through her thoughts on the motivations of the record, the importance of the collaboration between her and bandmate Nate Brenner and the delicate nature of diving into the race conversation as a white person today.
ELEVEN: You decided to take DJ lessons and classical vocal training lessons when you started. Why were those two things that you thought needed to go together?
Merrill Garbus: They don’t, they don’t. It seems like they should go together, or do they? Well, I had been taking voice lessons already. I had an understanding that I was really abusing my voice a lot towards the end of Whokill and as we started recording the Nikki Nack stuff. So, Nate [Brenner] very lovingly nudged me to take lessons with his classical voice teacher. It’s been a few years now that I’ve been doing that, so I continued that and just deepened that practice, and it’s been a practice mostly to care for my voice and learn how to use my voice better.
But, you know, I ended up singing classical Italian repertoire, and so that part just was kind of ongoing at the same time that I got my first DJ gig. I think I got the gig before I really knew how to DJ, and, yeah, I had a few friends to kind of guide me along the way in learning how to DJ and then, you know, starting to do a radio show that got me listening to a lot of different new music that I hadn’t heard before. It was, as anytime between albums, it was like, “Okay, how do I grow as a musician in this time, as we make a new album?”
11: When you say “DJ,” were you actually spinning vinyl or were you kind of mixing songs and then going in and playing them via computer?
MG: You know, I haven’t gotten into the computer stuff as much. What I learned first and foremost, my friend James told me, “You gotta know your records,” and now I know what he means. Like, you just gotta know your records. So, it could be vinyl. I did a lot of CDJ-ing because I have a lot of CDs from, you know, growing up in the ‘90s mostly and early 2000s, and the thing with CDJ-ing is that you can actually loop on that. You can choose a start point and then an endpoint and loop something, so that felt very familiar to me.
And I would do cuts where I would mix in, I would do either all vinyl or mix in vinyl with CDJ. I started mixing in drum machines, which is how “Look at Your Hands” and some other songs got written. I was trying to create drum beats on a drum machine that could hold their own in a DJ set, and I’d sometimes sing over them to test out new material.
11: Were you like, “I’m going to go get a DJ gig and then I’m going learn how to DJ,” or was it something that you kind of were already looking toward based on new music that you had been interested in?
MG: The gig came first, and then I realized that it was something that I was interested in doing. I think, you know, I think the past two years, up until starting to DJ, my music intake was limited, actually. Like, the music that I was interested in listening to was very limited, and I was more focused on my personal music practice. I got into learning Haitian drums, and that music filled my time a lot, just spending time with that music.
So, it wasn’t like recorded music was making its way into my life. But DJ-ing is great. It was a great reminder of what it used to be like to listen to music as a younger person. Now I have this list of records that I just love and want to hear over and over again, and, you know, now I get asked to make playlists quite a bit–that’s different. I feel like that also takes a lot of just knowing your records, knowing what you love, knowing what’s out there.
11: With the record that you made it seems like you were doing a lot of like musical exploration, but it sounds like there was also a lot of like identity exploration. When you were working on it, did it start out as more of a musically oriented project and then the identity exploration came as a result of that?
MG: It’s hard to kind of go back and remember which came first. I feel like I’ve done so much learning honestly over the past year-and-a-half or so. I did a lot of reading that led me to a lot of the self-exploration. I did a lot of that. I met a friend who does whiteness training, and she pointed me to a lot of literature on stuff like white fragility which was a new concept for me. I delved into a lot of blogs and Black Twitter and really trained to listen more to what people of color were saying about race and about culture. And at the same time I was kind of digging more into my own meditation practice and committing to that more.
And that was–all of this was while I was doing my daily commute to my studio and walking to work every day, which I am lucky enough to do. And you know, like hearing the news and reading the news and following the election and not following the election–these things were very day-to-day for me, a daily practice of sorts. It all was–as a record tends to be in my life–it was a record of my life. And I wanted my life to actually be composed of something instead of writing about music.
Like, instead of writing about the nature of the rose or whatever, I just… Especially in the context that we ended the Nikki Nack tour at the end of 2015, it was a very loud volume which the Black Lives Matter and other very skilled organizers were screaming about police brutality and police killing. There was stuff that I thought I couldn’t ignore, particularly in art, you know, as an artist.
11: At one point you said that the album was an opportunity to “explore your place in the world.” Right now there is a pretty large percentage of the demographic that’s being forced to reconsider their place in the world. White males in particular whose privilege has always been so institutionalized and systemic that having light shined upon it has led to actual outrage instead of a willingness or a desire to understand why that privilege even exists to begin with. What did you find in some of the reading that you have done and conversations that you’ve had, why the response is so filled with anger from people that have historically been the most privileged?
MG: Right, and that’s interesting. Interesting without being insulting. Well, I would say a short answer is white fragility. I think the concept that white people… I’m presuming you’re white, am I presuming correctly?
MG: That white folks are not used to speaking about race and being confronted about race, because of the way that whiteness has worked in our culture for generations, and that our first responses are defensiveness, anger, weepy apologetic, overly-apologetic, that basically, we break down. And I hadn’t had it put to me in that specific way, that this is actually like study-able, like this is something that people have done studies on. In particular I read the work of Robin DiAngelo, and to have someone to actually have just broken it down into science, and just say like, “Yeah, there’s a reason why you’re feeling so sensitive. “There’s a reason why your reaction might be this.”
And it kind of happens across the board with white people. That somehow takes it away from being such a personal attack which again, I think is another thing, we take it very personally. I think that I had no idea that you could actually scientifically name that phenomenon of white people getting angry when faced with, you know, critique of their handling of social situations around race.
11: You went to the workshop, a workshop on whiteness at the East Bay Meditation Center. What was the evolution of the conversation like?
MG: Well, I can only speak for myself. I mean, it was thankfully a long amount of time–we had a long six months. And this is work that I’m still doing, so, you know, I’m still doing reading, I’m still grappling with this stuff. And I should be. This is work. It really feels like work and it feels like good work, really important work. But you know I think a lot of it, for me, is slowing it down, like understanding… If I’m not in panic fight-or-flight mode around these things, I have a better chance of kind of slowing it down and internalizing it in a real and skillful way.
For instance, a lot of the work we did was very uncomfortable: “Here are the things that we might do in a workplace that are culturally insensitive.” Part of the workshop was looking at white supremacy culture, like what is it specifically in the workplace, where things are geared to be in favor of white people. And I think we all had a lot of discomfort around looking at those things. A lot of the stuff we don’t want to hear as white people. Like, I don’t want to hear where I’m at fault. I don’t want to hear where I’ve been unintentionally doing harm to people that I loved for years.
And, so, what’s allowed and what’s encouraged in Buddhist meditation is allowing for whatever comes up to be there. If what comes up is defensiveness or anger, just sit with that ourselves and have patience with it. And then hopefully, it arises and then also passes; that’s the idea. It’s like these things arise and then we observe them as they also pass. You remain ever in the present moment. And this is from my very limited knowledge of Buddhist literature.
11: When you talk to other musicians or when you talk to your friends about the work that you are doing, what is the most actionable thing that you share with them?
MG: We need the answer. You know, I think what I learned is, it’s kind of like there’s no wrong way to start this work as a white person, like just any, a book. I mean, I should take that back. I think one thing not to do is put the burden on people of color to educate us, right? So, like the idea being that there are resources for white people out there that we can find on our own. And there are books, there are podcasts, and just this idea of, you know, intention to do less harm as white folks in the world. To me that’s a very powerful thing.
I think what’s been important for me also is to know what am I doing–like what am I doing talking to you, and I’ll be honest, mostly white journalists, about this music? You know? I don’t know if this is useful. I don’t know if the music itself is useful. And I presume that there’ll be, and ought to be, critique of what I do. But what I have heard from my friends who do this work is that discomfort and feeling like we made a mistake and are doing it wrong all the time is part of this. It’s not supposed to feel good. It’s not supposed to feel heroic. In fact, that’s probably a problem if it does. This is daily and incremental work, and I do think that there is value in keeping it that small.
There is this great book called Emergent Strategy which I am really into these days. One of the things brought up in that book is this idea of fractals and the idea the power of one small piece. The butterfly effect, like this rippling effect. It might feel impossible and, as I have heard other people say who do anti-racist work: this realization that racism and white supremacy most likely will not end in my lifetime, and just acknowledging the tragedy and the hugeness of that, and then also acknowledging that it’s necessary to do this work anyway. That’s not an end goal. I’m not here for the end goal, I’m here in the effort of an end goal perhaps way beyond me by, even by a generation.
11: I also wanted to ask you about how you said that you were writing and rewriting lyrics well into the mixing stage of recording this album. Were you doing that because of things that you had been thinking about and different messages that you wanted to convey? Or, was the way that the music was evolving kind of making you rethink some of the lyrics that you had already written?
MG: I think it was both. There were ways that the music was interacting with the lyrics that didn’t always feel right. I think it’s important that in “Colonizer” that it sounds creepy, like that there is the troubling aspect, that the music feels and sounds troubling. And when the music wasn’t doing what it needed to in its interaction with the words, I would definitely tweak either the words or the music in those instances.
And then also, just like with “ABC 123,” that song just kind of unfolded for months and months and months and, there was a lot of like, “Can I really say this? Can I really say ‘white centrality’ in the song? You know, can I really say ‘vote’ in the song?” So, a song like that really just… it reveals itself. “Private Life” didn’t, and it was not on the album for a really long time. “Who Are You” nearly didn’t make it to the album. So, constantly wondering, “What is this world of music and lyrics that we’re creating and what fits here and what doesn’t fit here?”
11: You explored a bunch of different sounds and ways of making new sounds. When you go back and listen to the music again, what stands out to you as the thing that you are the most pleased with the way that it turned out?
MG: That’s the hardest question of all: “Think about what you did.” That’s a really good question. I’m proud of the whole thing, I have to say. Probably the whole thing because I feel like it fits together, you know? It fits, there’s somehow a story and a not-story. It’s enough–it’s not a narrative but there’s enough of a through-line. I really personally love the song “Home” a lot. I feel like we worked really hard on that one and that’s one where, we haven’t talked a lot about it in the interview, but Nate and I have really gotten the collaboration stuff down more and more over these years, and that really feels like one where we worked so much together to build that song. He changed it in ways that I never would have changed it. I pushed him and he pushed me.
I think if there’s something I’m most proud of, it’s the way that both of our skill sets have grown, that then also how we really encourage each other to grow. It’s really not lost on me how rare and special that is.
11: When you say, “He changed it in ways that you wouldn’t have thought of,” and the ways that you pushed each other, do you have any moments or anecdotes that really leap to mind?
MG: If you talk about the hundreds and probably thousands upon thousands of hours that we spent making this album, much of that time was just me and Nate together or was me and Nate in some kind of video setting. We had an engineer in Oakland before then, where we recorded a lot of the tracks. We did a lot of recording just the two of us in our Oakland studio, and then we mixed together with Blue, an engineer in New York.
I do a lot of the interviews because I write the lyrics and there’s a lot of me out there, but just to be clear about the actual time that’s put in, so much of that time is the two of us together, ironing out the musical details and production of the album. One anecdote is that a lot of the time, Nate and I share music inverse to one another. So we played this game often when we were writing and one would go, “You were at the computer for a half hour,” or “You were at the drum machine for a half hour,” and then you switch and the other person takes over for a half hour and then switch again.
It’s kind of like almost making those drawings, where you’re only drawing the head and then you, you know, you get to unfold the next part of the body and then… It’s kind of like that song-writing process, and a lot of the time we would be writing in that way and thinking that the down-beat was in a different place. Or, where it’s the same harmonically, I would say, “Here’s this chord,” and give him a vocal part and he would re-harmonize it essentially by adding a bass line that was not at all in the same key that I was envisioning the song.
We’ve turned stuff upside-down for each other, and I think there’s something really interesting about the way that that works. It’s kind of like instead of me making a song that feels right, we make a song that feels wrong and then try to make sense out of it. So, it’s really interesting and really challenging. I think we’ve both got really frustrated with each other and with ourselves at times, but so far it’s been working out.