Image-unconcious: tUnE-yArDs moves past the body

In 2011, tUnE-yArDs received the album of the year award for w h o k i l l  in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll, which compiles the votes of about 700 music writers. Primary figure Merrill Garbus combined folk, Afrobeat, hip-hop, soul, and rock into something strange and assertive.

After her lo-fi debut BiRd-BrAiNs, she moved to Oakland (a city “ripe for artistic fodder” according to Garbus), added a bassist, and got into a studio. While tackling political concerns, body image issues, and systemic cultural problems, she managed to take all this commotion to the stage, drawing on her background in theater and puppetry, with the intersection of songwriting and performance as an important part of her art.

In a recent telephone interview, Garbus explains that performing live, including the improvisational elements, influenced the recording of w h o k i l l. She's invested in the idea that “a show is specific only to one moment,” as she puts it.

“It's been important to keep that in-the-moment-ness when recording," she says. "Those are the recordings that are the most long-lasting, the ones where you feel like you're really capturing one moment in time, and being in the raw reality of things.”

That raw reality frequently deals with sex, violence, and dysphoria, and Garbus has to deliver that challenging content to her audience in an intimate setting. In “Powa” she sings about “your power inside” before using more suggestive descriptions and tying sex to  the violence of bombs and personal degradation. In bringing such material to the stage, Garbus says, “I have this mask of the performer. It's not my heart bared; it's my performance art. It's not my diary. I am a professional in that way– like I'm a dentist, except I happen to be on stage.”

For someone who's dealt with eating disorders, there's a challenge to present not only her feelings, but her body to a crowd looking at her. Garbus has gained some comfort.

“I realized I'm way more uncomfortable in my body in my normal life than I am on stage,” she says. “If I think too much about what a woman performer is supposed to be in our culture, I can go on a large head-trip about the whole thing. More and more I've just gotten so much love and support from my family and friends, and also the world, that there's nothing wrong with me.”

She also realizes that she can't let these issues keep her from her vision.

“I have work to do in the world,” Garbus explains, “and obsessing about what's imperfect about me is time taken away from work I can be doing in the world.”

This work of translating these heady, intense ideas into her art poses a challenge, and while Garbus seems like a natural performer at this point, that wasn't always the case. Doing theater and puppeteering provided her with a place to develop the skills she would need for her current mission.

“From high school, when I started being in plays, from that moment onwards, I changed from a very shy person who could hardly speak in public without turning bright red and feeling a lot of shame to someone who talks about her body-image issues with a stranger on the phone,” she says. “A huge part of my life has been transformed by being comfortable with being in front of people.”

With tUnE-yArDs, Garbus continues to discuss power structures and explore all her musical influences, from Africa to Oakland. It's a matter of converting both the personal and the political into a sound that's surprising and exciting, even if, as Garbus says, “There are no puppets in our show– yet.”
tUnE-yArDs performs Tuesday, June 5 at the Jefferson Theater. Doors open at 8pm with the show opening at 9pm with Mariachi El Bronx as the opener. Tickets are $17.

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