VIDEO: Merrill Garbus does The Fat Kid Opera
A few years ago, before Merrill Garbus was touring the world as Tune-Yards (she spells it tUnE-yArDs — but we're going to pretend we didn't know that), she was deep into puppets. Following her studies at Smith, the Connecticut native relocated to Putney, Vermont, to join the Sandglass Theater company. Although her goal was to complete The Fat Kid Opera — her transformation of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" into a disturbing puppet show involving a hand-cranked meat grinder — she was picking up some valuable lessons on how to make an effective pop album. And she wasn't even planning one yet.
"I learned so much about the role of creating a world up there," she tells me from a van careering across Kansas. "Their theory was that instead of just manipulating a puppet, you create an entire world around the puppet — then it really seems alive. More than I knew, this influenced BiRd-BrAiNs"
Don't get concerned: BiRd-BrAiNs — the scrappy cassette's worth of songs that has evolved into her proper debut for 4AD — doesn't sport any cameos from Lamb Chop or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Garbus's epiphany about the world one can create around a puppet translated into her idea of the world one creates around a song. Soon after she left Sandglass, and in between stints in Montreal, she took a summer job on Martha's Vineyard as a nanny — armed with a tiny digital recorder, a new ukulele, and a copy of Audacity, a free audio-editing program.
"I recorded a lot, but I didn't have the luxury of time. I had two or three paying jobs, and all this other stuff going on, so I didn't sit for eight hours trying to get the perfect vocal take. I just got the take."
Garbus's effort to capture her songs as immediately and as honestly as possible extended over close to three years and multiple locations, as she amassed a drive full of sonic tidbits — from candid snippets of toddlers describing blueberries to clips of her soulful vocal runs, which sound as if they could have been tracked in the shower. The result is a captivating blend of hi-fi sorcery and lo-fi sensibility — call it faux fi — that falls somewhere in among the domestic assemblages of Micachu and the Shapes, the sculptural audio collage of the Books, and the tender pop scratch of old Sentridoh tapes.
"I'm more interested in having a close conversation with someone through these songs than coming off like some big shot in the studio. I really like the idea of people seeing or hearing the process, even if it's really ugly sometimes."
This foregrounding of process defines her live show as well, as Garbus and Nate Brennen hop among instruments, loop drums, mix in uke and bass parts with various vocal doodads, and build the songs from the ground up right in front of you. The tunes can often seem to recede, leaving Garbus to fill the space with the might of her soulful holler — which soars into skyward runs as readily as it rolls into yodels. Live as on record, the songs feel less like static hits that we know and love and more like stirring reminders of a present tense we're always only just getting to know.
"When recording was first possible," Garbus points out, "it was used as a way to preserve things, literally 'for the record.' But now it's more about erasing flaws and creating an image. I'm trying to find a balance between having flexibility in the medium and honesty in the recording."
TUNE-YARDS + DIRTY PROJECTORS | Paradise, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | November 17 at 8 pm | OFFICIALLY SOLD OUT | 18+ | www.thedise.com