June 22 2011 10:20 AM

tUnE-yArDs juxtaposes the playful with the confrontational

Merrill Garbs (left) found inspiration on the hard streets of Oakland.
Photo by Anna M. Campbell

To listen to the first two albums by tUnE-yArDs, an Oakland-based experimental indie-pop project, is to hear the work of essentially two different bands.

On 2009’s BiRd BrAiNs, tUnE-yArDs mastermind Merrill Garbus pieced together curiously addictive pop songs with little more than ukulele, found sound and random bits of percussion, bringing it all together with her commanding, versatile vocals. Garbus recorded the album in her bedroom with the help of a digital voice recorder, revealing that logistical limitations provide no impediment to creativity. But she took an entirely different approach for her second album, w h o k i l l, released in April.

Recorded in a professional studio with a full band, w h o k i l l features full band arrangements and more exclamatory statements. Working with a bassist and saxophone players, Garbus plumbs elements of funk, folk, Afrobeat, jazz and R&B to create one of the most unusual indie-pop albums of the year.

Arriving at the idea to make a bigger and bolder album took a little bit of trial and error.

“I began with some stripped-down demos, first of ‘Bizness,’” Garbus says in an email interview, referring to the album’s propulsive lead single. “And I was definitely disappointed by them. … The songs seemed to need more space to live in. … I wish the initial vision had been clearer, but the whole process of making the album was really going in small baby steps to see what the songs were calling for.”

Before recording w h o k i l l, Garbus relocated from Massachusetts to Oakland to be closer to bassist Nate Brenner, who co-wrote four of the album’s songs. While she views the move as positive, living in a city with one of the highest violent-crimes rate in the United States has also affected her art in a different way.

“It’s completely different to live in California; I’m healthier, I get outside more, my moods are better,” she says. “I think there’s this joyful, dancey quality to the music that might not have been there in such an overarching way if the sun hadn’t been in my eyes the whole time. But Oakland also has some tough realities, and the darkness of the lyrics was certainly influenced by that city.”

That lyrical darkness is often in stark contrast to the album’s more playful musical ideas. On “Riotriot,” Garbus confesses to having a sexual fantasy about a policeman who arrests her brother. The nursery-rhyme-like “Es-So” finds the singer wrestling with body-image issues. At a climactic moment on the album, Garbus imparts, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand!”

Sometimes her lyric-writing process takes a few detours— as it did on “Bizness,” originally written as a Christmas song (sample lyric: “What’s for Christmas, yeah?!”)—but each of her songs represents a personal reflection or observation, no matter how intimate or uncomfortable.

“Being a woman sometimes gets me down. A lot of the lyrics are about that,” she says. “Sometimes being a woman is awesome, and the lyrics are about that. None of the songs are 100-percent nonfiction from my life…. Personal reflection is much more an accurate way to describe them.

“I don’t really start with specific ideas…. I always just assume that what is going on for me internally will make its way to the surface,” Garbus continues. “Usually I start with nonsense words and sounds.... But when I’m writing lyrics, I try to be as intuitive as possible and not think too much about what I want the song to be ‘about,’ but instead let the words flow from some kind of instinctual place.”

The defining element of Garbus’ music is her voice—an ever-shifting instrument that can go from a soothing whisper to a big, soulful bellow and back to a playful, childlike chirp— sometimes even in a single track. But keeping her voice fresh is hard work.

“Mostly I try to rest it as much as possible,” she says. “I try not to talk in the club before a show, or to talk in noisy places very much at all. I don’t drink before shows, and not a lot in general…. I warm up at least a small bit before every show. And I breathe… a lot.”

Her extraordinary voice, thought-provoking lyrics and genre-hopping style all show how she likes to challenge and engage her listeners. But perhaps tUnE-yArDs’ most vexing element is the name itself—a shift-key nightmare requiring anyone writing about the band to decide whether to adopt her rules of capitalization. On that front, her efforts have been a great success.

“I don’t mind how people do or do not abide by my capitalization choices,” Garbus said. “But later I realized that I also enjoyed the friction that it brought to my relationship to anyone writing about tUnE-yArDs…. They had to immediately engage with me, whether they liked it or not.”

tUnE-yArDS’ June 26 show at Soda Bar has sold out.