This article originally appeared in NARC. Magazine.
Back in 2012, Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece for Grantland ‘explaining’ the concept behind Merrill Garbus’ critically acclaimed musical project tUnE-yArDs. In it, despite claiming to not understand the music or lyrics, he described Garbus as an “androgynous American woman” and that “asexuality is part of her hippie aesthetic”. It was a shame that Klosterman’s first assessment on Garbus was of her appearance and her sexual appeal. Instead of focusing on her percussion-heavy, off-kilter pop and its twisted narratives that cover everything from police violence to the apocalypse, he jumped on the appearance bandwagon.
It’s a fact that Garbus herself once picked up on, stating that, with the exceptions of Peaches and Ani Di Franco, there weren’t many strong women in music who weren’t completely judged by their appearance or persona. Now 35, she confided in me that it was scary to be getting older in the industry. “It’s very scary…especially when you’re a woman, you know. How many 35 year old women do you see in the music industry right now? I could probably count them on less than both hands.”
Despite being lauded as a pioneer in DIY pop, she’s still highly aware of her unfairly tenuous position. “You can see a lot of men over the age of thirty still in the mainstream and I think there’s a lot fewer women. To me, the scariest thing is women in every other aspect of the music industry being heard,” she explains. “I want to see more female engineers and stage managers and more producers, I’d love to see more female producers. That’s why I’m trying to get into producing more. And you know there are a lot of them in the industry, but I think that for women to really be respected there is a really long way to go.”
Where does Garbus think the problem lies then? “I don’t know,” she admits. “Women who make it to the point that Björk has, they take on this exotic persona. And a lot of the time it’s based around the cult of personality and about what the person looks like but that chick has fucking skills man, she knows music…She is producing music by Björk and she calls all the shots and I don’t think that gets enough credit.”
Her views on the subject extend to another female producer, MIA. Garbus shares common ground with Maya Arulpragasam, as both infuse their music with beats inspired by world music and underlying social messages, while also producing highly danceable music. Garbus also worked with MIA’s producer Malay on her last album Nikki Nack. “She works in a similar way,” Garbus muses. “She’s working with a lot of different collaborators but she’s the one saying ‘this is what MIA should sound like’, even when she’s working with other collaborators. I think that, culturally, the credit usually goes to the men behind the scenes. I find that in my songs as well.”
Nikki Nack was the first album where Garbus enlisted outside help for the production. Aside from Malay, she also brought in John Hill, known for his work on records by Rihanna, Shakira and Santigold. The overall process wasn’t as difficult as Garbus expected. “I think we were rightly a little bit sceptical and wary. But in the end it couldn’t have gone better,” she explains. “I would absolutely do it again and I have already done it again. What I think I was afraid of more than anything was stuff to do with my pride and as a woman I think it’s a very dangerous thing to start saying ‘oh yeah this is the one where I worked with producers,’ because then all the credit goes to the producers. You know, I still produced this album even though it was a collaboration.”
Despite her concerns, Garbus has a lot to be proud of: three critically acclaimed albums, a huge cult following and a wonderfully complex live show are all testament to her strength as a musician. “It’s great and it’s fulfilling, and I feel really optimistic.”