Tune-Yards’ New Album Embraces Joy But Keeps Tough Conversations Going

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On the new Tune-Yards album, Merrill Garbus unselfconscious embraces joy—and the uncomfortable growth process of interrogating privilege.  (Pooneh Ghana)

A couple weeks ago, Merrill Garbus was front and center on one of late night TV’s biggest stages, Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Her band, Tune-Yards, was performing their single “hypnotized” from their new album, sketchy. And although Garbus was flanked by two back-up singers, longtime drummer Hamir Atwal and her bassist and creative/life partner Nate Brenner, it was the puppet version of herself that we couldn’t take our eyes from.

As the music begins, the puppet slowly comes to life. She brushes back her blonde straw hair, gyrating, contorting and breaking into an interpretive dance before the chorus hits like an awakening.

“Look into my eyes! Oh I see you honey!” the Oakland artist begins. “Look into my eyes! I feel it honey!” Her voice ranges gorgeously as she belts, “Oh you’re hypnotized! Hypnotized! Hypnotized!” And the puppet’s blue eyes are entranced by her words, staring creepily into the camera lens filming its every move. Its deadpanned expression is eerily similar to the dummy from that famous episode of The Twilight Zone. And dammit if we haven’t sunk into the puppet’s eyes just as much as into the impeccable orbit of Garbus’ vocals.


Garbus’ latest work is a whimsical departure from her deeply self-reflective disposition on Tune-Yards’ last album, I can feel you creep into my private life—one of KQED’s Best Bay Area Albums of 2018. That year, I noted how Garbus “prods at the nuances of her existence in a world of white privilege” and how her “self-reflective lyrics navigate her role as a white Oakland resident with audacity and wit.”

The stark self-analysis of the last record has given way to spreading joy through music again. Just like the puppet had to awaken, sketchy. feels like Garbus’ wake-up call to start moving forward and giving people more of what has made Tune-Yards one of Oakland’s best creative forces for the past decade. But it wasn’t easy.

“How do you wake up when you don't even know what the trance is that you’re in?” Garbus says of “hypnotize” in a recent Zoom interview. “This time and the pandemic has given me a ‘fuck it’ attitude about what other people think and doing the self-criticism to the point of paralysis. I feel like when people are suffering and dying, there are a lot of things I feel I owe. And one of those things is to truly live my life and feel alive. So this [album] was really less a concept and more about pleasure.”

Garbus and Brenner recorded sketchy. in their Oakland rehearsal studio. They were between record deals with their label 4AD and relished the lack of pressure from a ticking clock. They wrote and recorded most of the album pre-pandemic, then took a mind-clearing vacation for Garbus’ birthday early last March, just before the coronavirus hit hard. They came back with the realization that if they were going to be hunkered down with no end in sight, they needed to enjoy the process to maintain their sanity.

“We really let ourselves sink into the creativity part of it,” she says. “We've seen how different producers work with stems and after spending months and months with this stuff, we came back at it with a totally fresh perspective, acting as if we were an outside producer coming in.”

The result definitely doesn’t take itself as seriously as I can feel you creeping into my private life, but the rallying cries from Garbus are everywhere. On the choral Afrobeat psychedelia of “silence pt 1 (when we say “we”), she closes with “There’s a secret that I keep, when you think that I am weeping, it’s the future that I shape, the changing and revealing,” paying homage to the behind-the-scenes activists and creatives of color that don’t make it to mainstream discourse. Poignantly, “silence pt 2 (who is “we”?) is just 60 seconds of silence.

Album opener “nowhere, man” sounds like a radio announcement to the masses. Drums pound and vocals loop in the background as the singer sheds the weight of what she says men, from Bob Dylan to Jesus, have told her what a woman is. “If you cannot hear a woman, then how can you write her song?” she asks herself. She says she credits the book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne with illuminating what was holding her back from writing music about her experience as a woman.

“I’ve taken my position in the industry for granted for a while now because I got sick of being on panels of women in music,” she says. “I feel like I have enough respect where I don’t need sound guys telling me how to use a looping pedal. So just like talking about the ways I’m enacting my white woman privilege, it’s the same with misogyny. Here are ways I do to myself what men are doing to me. Here are the ways I’m expecting a very specific woman [from] myself, especially as our culture reckons with our binary sense of gender.”

For an artist whose last record was almost entirely about her own white fragility, it’s hard to fathom that she hadn’t really written about her gender until now, on the fifth Tune-Yards album. But perhaps this delayed rousing of her identity is a product of how and where she grew up. Originally from the suburbs of Connecticut, she went to school in “very white Massachusetts,” then moved to Vermont. From there she lived in an admittedly “white, Anglo enclave” of Montreal before Brenner coaxed her into moving to Oakland with him in 2008.

It was the first time that she felt adjacent to a Black community. She says the contrast of how Oakland has all the tensions and benefits of living in a multicultural area shapes “everything” she makes with Tune-Yards.

If it feels like Garbus is making herself a lightning rod for discourse, it’s because she’s consciously done exactly that for the past three years—much like how she channeled her emotions through that puppet on the Jimmy Kimmel performance. And as an artist with a largely white fan base, her introspection in her music makes people look in the mirror at their own behavior. And it’s OK if that has to happen at her own expense, because the work of coming to terms with privilege and identity is constant and anything but straightforward.


“If it’s about the fact that you took a look at yourself, it doesn’t matter what people think of me,” she says. “It doesn't matter if people don’t like me or think I'm phony; if they're tired of me or if other white musicians are also rolling their eyes at me because they don’t also want to have this conversation. What matters is that it might open these little doors for people...I can let go of my personal attachment of my own ego and image in other people’s eyes.”