Merrill Garbus is pretty sure she’ll fit in at the Southbank Centre’s WOW: Women of the World Festival next week, where her band Tune-Yards is the standout music offering in a week of talks, workshops, screenings and performances from the woman’s perspective.
“I’m not sure why they asked me, but the name itself is kind of appropriate,” she tells me. “Tune-Yards was begun by a woman, myself, pulling from an awareness of music from around the world, so it seems like it makes sense.”
The first thing people generally remark upon about her is her extraordinary, wild voice, which sounds as though it should be howling across a village square in Kenya or Haiti – both countries where she has studied music. That it comes out of a white 35-year-old from New England, a former experimental puppeteer who started out playing solo with a ukulele, is quite a surprise. Across three albums, the most recent of which, Nikki Nack, appeared to much acclaim last year, she has mixed complex tribal rhythms, bandmate Nate Brenner’s funky bass and that startling yelp to produce some of the most unique indie pop around.
The second thing that gets noticed, sometimes with less positivity, is her appearance. With a broad nose, messy hair and slashes of facepaint more often than make-up, she admits that she has struggled with the need to have a marketable visual image even in the cooler, less obviously sexualised indie world. An early publicity picture exposed some fine hair on her upper lip, to which the ever opinionated internet didn’t take kindly.
“From the beginning it was kind of like that: ‘Ooh, she has upper lip hair!’ To the people that know me, none of that is relevant. So I don’t read it. I take it very personally. I get very injured by that stuff.”
She hasn’t dressed up for our Skype call from Tokyo, where Tune-Yards have just completed their first Asian tour. In a grey jumper, peroxide bed hair in all directions, the tiled background behind her means I have to ask whether she’s sitting on the toilet (turns out it’s the kitchen of an Airbnb). She has embraced loud, extravagant dresses for her more recent live performances, but it didn’t come easy.
“At one of our first shows for the second album, I just wore a T-shirt and skinny black jeans. The record label was like, ‘Really? This is what you thought was appropriate?’ It wasn’t a large push, it was more of an eye roll. They were trying to say, ‘You have captivating music, you have a captivating personality, could the package look a little more vibrant?’ I was very anti-beautification of myself as a marketable item.”
That attitude stemmed from her education at Smith College in Massachusetts, a liberal arts college for women, which led to work with puppets at the experimental Sandglass Theater in Vermont. “It was a revolution not to have to dress up for boys, just to be comfortable in whatever I felt comfortable in. Learning feminism was about learning what I didn’t have to do. I didn’t have to market myself as a sexual being in order to be in the world. So finding a way into a very visual music industry has been very tricky for me. But once I went, ‘Costumes are fun! Costumes are cool!’ then I felt more comfortable.”
She cites Bjork, St Vincent and MIA as “shining examples of real creators, women who are in charge of their whole vision”. Her current touring band ought to be an inspiration to women starting out in music too: a quintet, with Brenner the only man, piling fierce, danceable layers of voices upon rhythms, with drumsticks for everyone and loop pedals enabling a glorious jenga tower of sound. “We hired Dani [Markham] partly because we were looking for a female voice with the right timbre, but more importantly she was a badass drummer. Little girls growing up should see some role models and think, ‘Oh yeah, I could be in a band.’ For me growing up, rock ‘n’ roll meant dudes with guitars.”
She’s thoughtful about her role in a business that still caters overwhelmingly to the male gaze, and is feeling positive about its future. “Change is on its way for women in the music industry, and I get to be a part of that.” The WOW Festival has definitely booked the right woman of the world.
Tune-Yards perform March 5 at the WOW: Women of the World Festival, March 1-8, Southbank Centre, SE1 (0844 875 0073, southbankcentre.co.uk)