from the desk of Zach Manzi
I first fell in love with the band Tune-Yards, comprised of singer Merrill Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner, in 2016 while living here in Miami, but I never expected to be performing with them just a few years later. I found Tune-Yards’ sound, especially in their 2014 album Nikki Nack, to create this wild scene in my mind, most accurately represented by the album’s cover–a polka-dotted hand reaching for what appears to be a red fruit-roll-up. But it wasn’t until discovering their 2018 album, I can feel you creep into my private life, that I really dove past the sound and into their lyrics, as well as the inextricably sociopolitical nature of their music.
Last year, NPR’s All Songs Considered published an article about an interview with Tune-Yards around the release of the album entitled “Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus Pierces Her Own Privilege.” The article addresses an undeniable fact: “every kind of American music, from Top-40 pop to high mountain bluegrass, has some root in the work and creativity of people of color.” Garbus, a white woman whose music has been incredibly influenced by the African diaspora, feels she has “a lot to answer for when it comes to cultural appropriation.” After Nikki Nack in 2014, “she resolved to face not just her cultural debts, but the ways she'd tried to sweep them to the side, even within the multiculturally savvy sound Tune-Yards embraced.” I can feel you creep into my private life is Garbus’ uncomfortable journey into confronting the topic of her own whiteness, as she could “no longer wrap up the issue of white entitlement in a psychic Pendleton blanket.”
Listen to Garbus speak about the album here–it's about 8 minutes.
Definitely check out the whole album at some point, but I’ll recommend listening to five songs from across their discography to prep for their performance with us at New World Center on March 29 and 30. Full disclaimer, these are not necessarily the songs they will perform on the program:
• “Water Fountain” (from Nikki Nack): This feels like classic Tune-Yards–and was my entry point to getting to know their sound–heavy emphasis on lyrics and bass, with clear rhythmic influences from African music, all mixed with flashes of electronic sounds and shouts. The song eases you into their sound world and sets you up to absorb all of the color and imagery their music evokes. If you’d like to know more about the story behind the song, check out this episode of the podcast Song Exploder.
• “Bizness” (from Whokill): This is perhaps one of their biggest hits, and like “Water Fountain,” is a classic. The music video is also wild and colorful. After listening to these first two songs, you will have a good grasp on their aesthetic, both poetically and musically, with which Tune-Yards broke into the music world.
• “ABC 123” (from I can feel you creep into my private life): With an intentionally simplistic title, this song explores the idea of “touching down,” confronting issues that are right in front of us but we often refuse to see. Garbus admits that she’s guilty of this as well–she says that as a Pisces, she’d rather live in the “dream world.” This song, and perhaps the entire album, has a stronger focus on narrative than their previous work, and this is a great listening pivot point from the world of the polka-dotted glove and fruit-roll-up.
• “Now As Then" (from I can feel you creep into my private life): This takes a step further into the uncomfortable, with lyrics that start “I’m exceptional, I’m an exception, I’m the only exception. That’s for me. That’s also for me. I’m a contradiction; I’m fascinating.” Garbus says this song explores this idea of “I’m not like that–other people are!” in regard to racism, and that if we are not part of the solution then we are part of the problem. I interpreted this song to be about generally confronting our natural tendency toward ego-centricity, an issue that challenges our ability to really see ourselves for who we are.
• “Free” (from I can feel you creep into my private life): Garbus and Brenner end the album with a song that communicates the idea that white supremacy hurts the perpetrator as much as it does the victim, which is something that could be said about all varieties of discrimination and othering.