Merrill Garbus, the creative force behind tUnE-yArDs, is a musical warrior. The glistening ribbons of color that often gild the singer’s cheekbones like war paint are a testament to that. The guttural force of her primordial shouting is, too. And the astonishing manner in which she’s built a career by challenging the norms of Western pop music is sure as heck a testament to that.
The journey Garbus embarked on since tUnE-yArDs’ lo-fi 2009 debut, “BiRd-BrAiNs,” is remarkable. Her trademark embrace of injecting offbeat, piercing harmonies into experimental Afrobeat/R&B has earned legitimate mainstream clout. Despite her success, up until recently Garbus, 35, wasn’t even sure what it was all for. She was grappling to find meaning in the very art that ruled her existence. But after much soul-searching, she found it. What resulted was an abandonment of her old sound and a bombastic, pop-focused third album, “Nikki Nack,” released in May.
Ahead of her sold-out show Thursday at First Avenue and an appearance at the Pitchfork Music Fest on Saturday in Chicago, Vita.mn spoke with Garbus by phone about finding a new groove and the search for meaning within her own art.
Q: You admitted to being at a sort of creative stalemate. At what point did you realize that you wanted/needed to approach “Nikki Nack” in a different way?
A: I think right away. It was very clear that I had to adjust and that something — whatever it was — whatever I was doing wasn’t working anymore. I let myself have around two months where I didn’t think about it at all and I didn’t worry about it. And then it became kind of a guessing game. I came to the conclusion that part of it was that I wanted to become a student again. That was first.
Q: That calls to mind something you said in your reflections about a recent trip to Haiti where you became a both a drum and dance student. You said: “The rule is: Don’t try to get it right. Try to be in the middle of it.” How did you embody that notion in writing “Nikki Nack”?
A: I guess a major thing was not at all knowing the end before I even began and letting the songs kind of evolve on their own. It was not being afraid to start writing a song and get into the songwriting process without a plan, or thinking: “Well, this is definitely going to be a song and this tempo and about this topic and it’s gonna be in this key.” I was trying to be less controlling about it and it was scary the whole time. It’s funny because now I’ve done enough interviews where it feels weird to say I didn’t know what I was doing and it was scary and I didn’t know if there was going to be any kind of positive reception to any of this music. And now that it has been generally positively received, it’s easier to kind of be like, “See, it works.” I had to jump away from the crutches that I had, which were mainly the looping pedal and the ukulele. I didn’t use either of those to write the songs. I guess that’s what it was.
Q: It seems like you learned a lot. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself as a musician since tUnE-yArDs really started gaining momentum?
A: I guess that I have value as a musician. I didn’t believe that for a very long time. I’m not a trained musician, I didn’t go to school for it and I didn’t feel legitimate. It took me a while, but I do now. I don’t know if that is also a result of feeling like I have gotten better, because I really do. I feel like I really have gotten to be a better musician and that I’ve had the opportunity to grow. There’s certainly lots that I’ve learned about myself through all of this, but first and foremost is that I have value as a musician and that I have just as much a right to be here as anyone else.