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Handmade Portraits: tUnE-yArDs

Sep 20, 2011

by objecked

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The first time I saw Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs perform was at the Chelsea Pier River Rock concert you see in the video above. I had listened to her record w h o k i l l, and I had come to know her DIY aesthetic, but I was not the least bit prepared for what I witnessed at her show. For starters, I was probably one of the only people in the press pit who wasn’t wearing face paint!

Merrill has a power that you don’t often see on the stage these days: totally primal, yet her songs and sounds are refined like a science. She admits to relying on an excellent internal rhythm, but that similar to the looping pedals she uses, she’s imperfect and prone to mistakes.

I wanted to see how she did it. Like any good performer, she made it seem effortless in the San Francisco studio Sound Arts where we shot a short interview and performance. With nothing but her and her tools, me and my camera, she put on yet another totally flawless show. She could even explain what she was doing in real time without breaking the song. Total fluidity.

On paper, there’s really nothing to it. Yet, her songs would be beyond even the most experienced performer to  multi-task on their own, let alone compose. Merrill uses two relatively primitive stomp boxes to capture her loops, but with them manages to “produce” entire songs in a live context with a subtle agility that would likely astound the likes of Quincy Jones.

With her pedals she records loops of live drums, vocals, and ukulele, all while performing side by side with the sounds she captures — building as she goes. She builds harmonies, rhythm sections, verses, choruses, bridges, makes siren sounds and pretty much entire songs without ever missing a beat.

If you ever have the chance to see tUnE-yArDs perform in person, I promise you will not be disappointed. And in fact, to kick off her fall tour, we’re going to give you just that chance — a spot on the guest list to one of her U.S. shows! At 12 p.m. ET Tuesday September 27th, 2011 we will pick at random one commenter to win. (We apologize in advance that this sweepstakes is only open to U.S. folks over 18. Void where prohibited. Download a PDF of the full Rules and Regulations.)

Special thanks to Merrill’s label 4AD, and Beggars Group for making this possible.


  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 10 years ago

    Great post! Thanks!

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations said 10 years ago

    Very cool! The sound loops she creates are amazing. Thanks for turning me on to yet another great artist.

  • VintageEye

    VintageEye said 10 years ago

    Layers of creative spirit to listen to. Amazing!

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 10 years ago

    Nice! Glad you shared this :)

  • mylenefoster

    mylenefoster said 10 years ago

    Great! Is it time to bring in music to the etsy fold? How about literature like poetry and short stories sold on etsy in electronic format?

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 10 years ago

    Amazing I love the layered sound, certainly get the tribal elements. I always think that music is really primal and taps into our baser instincts as humans when we used to beat the drum round the campfire.

  • kathyjohnson3

    kathyjohnson3 said 10 years ago

    I've seen this done before it is amazing! It would be great to see literature sold on Etsy as mylenefoster stated above, e-books anyone?

  • AliKan

    AliKan said 10 years ago

    Nice music, thanks.

  • HookableDesigns

    HookableDesigns said 10 years ago

    The way she expresses herself is unique and very interesting. I liked the part where she explains what she does, how she does it and why she does it. Plus the tone of her voice is unique and I think fits nicely into her music.

  • Earleyimages

    Earleyimages said 10 years ago

    Always love all types of music Ray

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas said 10 years ago

    I want to be in San Fransisco!

  • EverMindVintage

    EverMindVintage said 10 years ago


  • raemalis

    raemalis said 10 years ago

    LOVE her originality. The lady is pure talent.

  • Beesnetta

    Beesnetta said 10 years ago


  • katrinaalana

    katrinaalana said 10 years ago

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

  • konstantine333

    konstantine333 said 10 years ago

    Wow either I am getting older and am out of some loop or I am doing the wrong type of mind altering chemical or music & entertainment is left to the feeble interpretations of people who responded to Raffy when they were toddlers. Yelling into a crowd and manipulating electronica to build a basic drum beat does not constitute music. Neither does mindlessly following a performer who has no concept of complex musical structure. This generation sux I am so glad I will be dead when such hipster pseudo intellectual get back to primal scream drivel replaces the classic awesome complexity of Rock

  • everythingok

    everythingok said 10 years ago

    LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE. She's got such an incredibly beautiful, vibrant spirit. Did I mention LOVE? Yep. LOVE.

  • StudioZen

    StudioZen said 10 years ago

    Amazing post! I'm always on the lookout for new and original music to listen to while I paint. Merrill you are the coolest and I can't wait to hear your music blasting in my studio!

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey said 10 years ago

    Very nice. Thanks for sharing.

  • SmallEarthVintage

    SmallEarthVintage said 10 years ago

    Ooo, this made my morning! I love Tune-Yards (though I have to admit, I first thought the group was called "Choonyards" because that's how the British deejays on BBC6 say it). Thanks for sharing this--I'd love to see Tune-Yards live. (And for the record, you need not be a "young hipster" to enjoy this--I'm 42 and love "Gangsta"!)

  • prunellasoap

    prunellasoap said 10 years ago

    wonderful video! thank you for sharing your talent with us.

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 10 years ago


  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns said 10 years ago

    Great post and cool music!

  • GracefulNonchalance

    GracefulNonchalance said 10 years ago

    Great story! I had already fallen slightly in love with TuneYards, and now I'm even more so! Very cool to see the behind the scenes side of the music making, all the how and why. The idea that there is something you were meant to be doing, without which one is unfulfilled, resonates deeply for me. Thanks!

  • mvirzi

    mvirzi said 10 years ago

    I would LOVE to see tUnE-yArDs perform, Merrill is amazing!

  • suuzlnerm

    suuzlnerm said 10 years ago

    All right, I'll admit it. I've got a huge crush on Merrill. She's so great! It would be so cool to get to see a tUnE-yArDs show!

  • wildnotions

    wildnotions said 10 years ago

    Tremendous! I love tUnE-yArDs!

  • TheLotusRoot

    TheLotusRoot said 10 years ago

    very cool! love the story, the music & the tote bags :)

  • katiearms

    katiearms said 10 years ago

    Ah, I love her so much!. Amazing work, Eric!!

  • SgtPeppr

    SgtPeppr said 10 years ago

    Love, love, love w h o k i l l. Best album of the year (maybe more!)

  • funkomavintage

    funkomavintage said 10 years ago

    I do hope I can see her Live someday....I watch the videos on the youtube...and I am astounded !

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry said 10 years ago

    Wonderful article thanks

  • BenitaLily

    BenitaLily said 10 years ago

    ah I love her music! can't wait to see her in STL :)

  • seasidecloth

    seasidecloth said 10 years ago

    Ukelele - tiptoe through the tulips - Tiny Tim circa 1960's.


    KNITDOWNsvp said 10 years ago

    this gal is simply a dynamo saw her perform in toronto and dag, it was a sock-your-knocks-off experience

  • coolguy2000

    coolguy2000 said 10 years ago

    Hot Pot of Coffee! That's some mighty fine music!

  • genabelle

    genabelle said 10 years ago

    wow, i had no idea tUnE-yArDs was one person, that's phenomenal!

  • WonderfuLife

    WonderfuLife said 10 years ago

    4:42 minutes of Wonderful Music.

  • tarikyousef

    tarikyousef said 10 years ago

    I love her comment about how she keeps her music 'sincere to myself' I find that so true in any art or craft

  • jamiespinello

    jamiespinello said 10 years ago

    Yay! I love the Tune-Yards! "Policeman shot my baby as he walked up through the doorstep" one of my favorite songs don't remember the real title Reminds me of when I lived in Oakland

  • ElisabethSpace

    ElisabethSpace said 10 years ago

    Love her notion of becoming an active participant in life and how it's connected to having a focus for her energy and creativity.

  • LyonHarts

    LyonHarts said 10 years ago

    I met Merrill several years ago in Brooklyn. I had seen her play with another band she was in, Sister Suvi, and I remember the first time I saw her playing as tuneyards. She still sticks out as one of the most genuine, talented people I've met and I think it's amazing that she's become successful with her music.

  • purposedesign

    purposedesign said 10 years ago

    Cool. I'm going to try and catch her show at Pop Montreal.

  • lucyhoney

    lucyhoney said 10 years ago

    She seems to be popping up everywhere recently. Thanks for the post!

  • ando22

    ando22 said 10 years ago

    i like her. and this was a nicely produced little peep into her world. I would LOVE to get to see her live... thanks for the introduction etsy/Eric...

  • meganowens

    meganowens said 10 years ago

    i so adore this!! i have recently become a die hard fan and haven't had one regret! i was stoked to see them in cleveland this coming week, but due to a death in the family will have to miss it :( oh well, i'll catch them again i hope!

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 10 years ago

    Loved your article! Thanks for sharing!

  • saturdaychic

    saturdaychic said 10 years ago

    God bless DIY music. We'll save Rock N Roll yet.


    TONGUEWAG said 10 years ago


  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 10 years ago

    some people are born to be in the spotlight.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 10 years ago


  • PthaloAzul

    PthaloAzul said 10 years ago

    probably one of my favorite handmade portraits so far--I love her music!

  • rarebeasts

    rarebeasts said 10 years ago

    Awesome inspiring sounds, so organic and real!

  • kcange

    kcange said 10 years ago

    Love that woman and her music!

  • loveislove1

    loveislove1 said 10 years ago

    absolutely brilliant, so real and motivating and aggressive. stark, dirty, beautiful, honest. love it!

  • thadsand

    thadsand said 10 years ago

    See ya in Cleveland.

  • ConvolutedNotions

    ConvolutedNotions said 10 years ago

    I had never heard or Merrill or tUnE-yArDs before this post. THANK YOU so much for sharing! I've just spent the most wonderful afternoon listening to this incredible music. I want to sing it and dance it and drum it and just SWIM in it. This music is so truthful and pure and beautiful beyond words!

  • theoneredhead

    theoneredhead said 10 years ago

    Tune-yards! is amazing ... I want to see her in ATL!

  • seacucumbermama

    seacucumbermama said 10 years ago

    Very, very cool.

  • strangebirddesigns

    strangebirddesigns said 10 years ago

    I am so excited to see tUnE-yArDs featured on Etsy ;) She is playing in Atlanta on Oct. 4th! I can't wait...

  • eamespottery

    eamespottery said 10 years ago

    Crazy...I just picked up this CD at my local record store a few weeks ago and can't stop listening to it. She is one amazing and talented musician. So inspiring.

  • soyoungshin

    soyoungshin said 10 years ago

    I love hearing her on the radio! Colorful indeed

  • LavenderField

    LavenderField said 10 years ago

    Amazing art. Had never heard her or of her before :0O

  • fungshey

    fungshey said 10 years ago


  • TheBerryPress

    TheBerryPress said 10 years ago

    Wow, that was pretty cool!

  • BSD09

    BSD09 said 10 years ago

    AWESOME! I love her originality and creativity! Thanks for sharing :)

  • esea

    esea said 10 years ago

    I do love the character of her voice. It's really amazing to see her work!

  • rt657889

    rt657889 said 9 years ago

    love tUnE-yArDs! thanks for the wonderful film!

  • uncommon

    uncommon said 9 years ago

    love it! such a great, inspiring interview. i heard her interviewed on the radio a while back and was awed by her creativity and talent.

  • StudioZen

    StudioZen said 9 years ago

    Ok, I've had tUne-yArDs playlist on youtube going pretty much non-stop since I discovered them like 2 days ago. Yeah. A bit obsessed. I just bought my tickets to see them in Seattle! Keep doing your thing Merrill!

  • Chesterella

    Chesterella said 9 years ago

    Does anyone know what the song is called that she opens this video up with? the one where everyone is singing the one note....?

  • esmithphotog

    esmithphotog said 9 years ago

    can't enter the contest since I'm actually seeing her on the 27th, but I just have to say how excited I am! especially after seeing this video. I really had no idea what to expect from her Live so I'm glad I have some idea now because I'm looking forward to it even more than before!

  • jeremologyy

    jeremologyy said 9 years ago

    I love Tune-Yards! so glad to see such a great video! :D

  • studiobeerhorst

    studiobeerhorst said 9 years ago

    Listening and watching makes me want to go try something diffrent witth

  • studiobeerhorst

    studiobeerhorst said 9 years ago

    my music. She is pushing the boundaries for sure.

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