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How Tune-Yards’ frontwoman uses their new album to critique her “white woman’s voice”

Says Merrill Garbus of interrogating her white privilege, “Shouldn’t I be the one doing this work?”

Tune-Yards’ Nate Brenner and Merrill Garbus
Eliot Lee Hazel
Bridgett Henwood is the co-executive producer and editorial director of Vox video.

Tune-Yards’ last album, nikki nack, was released in 2014 — a year that feels eons away from our perch in 2018. Since then, there’s been a new president; a national spotlight on police violence against black people; and, most recently, a reckoning against sexual harassers in media, Hollywood, and government, and more. And through all of this, Tune-Yards singer and songwriter Merrill Garbus has been watching.

Her new pop record, I can feel you creep into my private life, out January 19, doesn’t dance around these cultural reckonings. On the album’s most striking song, “Colonizer,” Garbus sings with vitriol about her “white woman’s voice.” The record follows a similar theme: the world through the eyes of Garbus, a white woman from Connecticut who is painfully aware that her music draws from black and queer traditions.

The approach is simultaneously self-centered and self-aware, and Garbus says it’s the only viable route she sees to accurately representing her ingrained biases — and not misrepresenting anyone else. “As a white cisgendered woman in a heteronormative relationship, I’m pretty safe in this society,” she says. “Shouldn’t I be the one doing this work?”

Tune-Yards’s new album stretches their signature sound, both sonically and lyrically

Garbus’s music draws heavily from other influences: Haitian music, Afrobeat, Michael Jackson, ’80s pop, among others. Straddling the line between inspiration and cultural appropriation was a concern while making this record: “I’m a white woman taking music that comes from communities of color, queer communities, and I am — as so many musicians do — taking those influences and turning them into music that’s under my name.”

Garbus has transformed these influences into a sound that’s her own, though. Since the band’s inception, Tune-Yards’ sonic signature has been using playful pop/dance sounds as a backdrop for more serious topics. And on this album, they stretch themselves even further, both sonically and lyrically.

Private life is the band’s poppiest album, with more straightforward lyrics. Songs like “Heart Attack” and “Honesty” are designed for dancing; even slower songs like “Coast to Coast” have a more contemporary pop feel than previous records, which were filled with ukulele and metallic tings and pings. The songs are tight and intricate, still full of the mesmerizing sounds only Tune-Yards can create.

Garbus purposefully used more Autotune and voice manipulation here than on any previous album. She wanted to make her voice sound more mechanical, a “sonic metaphor for the human experience in our age,” she says. Manipulated or not, her voice — startling in its range, confident, loud — lends power to lyrics that weave their way through sensitive topics focused mostly on race and gender, but also touching on climate change and sexual harassment.

“ABC 123,” the record’s second single, features Garbus interrogating herself and her interactions with others: “I want so badly to be liked / I ask myself, ‘Why was I nice?’ / I ask myself, ‘What should I do?’ / But all I know is white centrality.” On the same song she ends a verse with a line about California’s deadly fires that simmers into an almost a cappella finish: “California’s burning down / Sitting in the middle of the sixth extinction / Silently suggesting the investment in a generator.”

“Now as Then” examines how a white woman can feel comfortable everywhere, except the select spaces she never visits (“Oh the relaxation I feel most everywhere / Except the places I don’t go”); “Honesty” is about institutionalized racism (“This river runs so deep … Ugly and blind, what will you find? / Hold the sickening silt in your heart and your mind”).

But the centerpiece of the record is “Colonizer,” whose title sets the tone for a track that plumbs the depths of Garbus’s white guilt:

I use my white woman’s voice to interpret my travels with African men / I turn on my white woman’s voice to contextualize acts of my white women friends / I cry my white woman tears carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant / I smell the blood in my voice

“Writing that song was disgusting,” Garbus says. “It was really hard for me to sing those lyrics and hear myself say them.”

Writing the rest of the record was “a tricky thing,” too, she says. “On a lot of these songs it is like, ‘Here, this is what felt like the thing to say.’ I am very conscious of my white woman’s voice. … Don’t forget that this is who I am; don’t forget that this is the perspective that you’re hearing this from.”

Garbus wants to examine the implications of her own whiteness in a racist society

Private life is a first-person record: You can hear Garbus exploring her innermost anxieties out loud, and most of them revolve around her status as a white woman living in a world in many ways defined by its institutionalized racism. “I think it’s really important to see how I’m implicated in racism, in cultural appropriation, and really look at it,” she says.

That self-examination began before the recording of private life, when Garbus learned to DJ, spinning super-poppy dance records at a local amateur night in Oakland, California. At the same time, she dug deep into the history of house and techno, and how the music was essential to “people of color, a lot of queer communities, gay communities, people who are finding solace in a musical community that felt safe when other places did not feel safe.”

She speaks about how, in “big DJ culture,” this history often gets erased, and the respect for the history is lost — as is the original DIY nature of vinyl looping available to DJs of the past.

Private life, as Garbus acknowledges, draws heavily from this DJ culture that’s different from her own — and pulls from her time spent learning Haitian drumming techniques and her own preferences for African music, among other influences.

“There’s a lot of feedback that I get which is like, ‘It’s okay because all musicians do this … but there’s a different power dynamic when a white woman from the United States who grew up in suburban Connecticut is taking these sounds,” she says. “They’re being filtered through my experience.”

Whether Garbus’s self-centered approach on this record is “okay” or not is hard to answer, but she believes it’s the only way to be true to herself and her intentions. When I asked her if she considered bringing perspectives from people of color or different viewpoints into the record, she told me about how she regretted doing this incorrectly in the past. (One can guess which songs she’s referencing: For example, “Jamaican,” from Tune-Yards’ first record Bird-Brains, tries to dig into similar themes with less success — “She’s all white, she’s not black, she doesn’t have any soul … She’s not Jamaican, she’s got total control,” the lyrics say.)

“I think in the past I maybe have been flawed in my attempt to try to speak for anybody else,” Garbus said. “That also felt like, ‘Oh, that is not my job.’ … This can’t be me reflecting on, like, ‘Oh, well I read these things that some brilliant women of color wrote, and here is my interpretation of what they’re saying,’” she argues. “It needs to be, ‘And this is how I take this in as a white person. This is where my white fragility kicks in and I get defensive, or this is where I get sucked into a shame spiral and I can’t get out.’”

Garbus says she doesn’t want this music to “be just for white listeners.” And it doesn’t have to be: Plumbing personal experience for album themes is as common as writing a straightforward love song. But something about examining your whiteness in such a public setting still feels taboo.

Garbus, aware of her social privilege, presents this album as both a confessional and a conversation piece: These are her sins as a white person in the world, and she’s working to be better. All the other white people out there can at least start by acknowledging their whiteness and talking about it, she thinks — and what better way to spark that conversation than through music?

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