There was a time when Merrill Garbus believed small actions could make a big difference in the world. Now, she’s not so sure.
Part of the indie duo Tune-Yards, the Oakland, California, musician is hesitant to say the songs she writes and performs are “helpful,” even though she often sings about racial and social injustice.
Growing up, Garbus saw her aunt and uncle use their careers in the medical profession to travel the world and volunteer. That included welcoming refugees into their home.
“In their own ways, [my family] encouraged me toward creativity and being of use in the world,” Garbus says. “First, you have to know what is outside of the world to care about it. You need to know enough of what is outside of your own little world to be curious and then to care enough to have that reflect your experience.”
Garbus recalls talking with a Sudanese man who was living with her aunt and uncle. His incredible story of trauma made a strong impression on her, because he grew up in conditions most people in the United States could not comprehend.
Her family’s generosity was not lost on Garbus. She witnessed firsthand how they used their privilege to pass good on to others. Those philanthropic efforts and the artistic influence of her musician parents eventually intersected in the music she creates.
Still, Garbus questions how beneficial her music actually is to society as a whole, especially when compared to the actions of her family.
Her search for answers is one of the prevailing themes on the latest Tune-Yards effort, I can feel you creep into my private life.
The record confronts the insecurities you might experience when listening to music that doesn’t reflect the life you’ve lived. These strong emotions led Garbus to a six-month meditation program that helped her slow down the intense feelings of shame and guilt she would often feel. She came out with more love and compassion for herself and others, which is evident throughout the album.
Garbus’ internal discomfort comes through in “Home,” one of the album’s slower, more lyrically direct tracks. The tune begins with her singing that the song’s subject is a fool, only to have an imaginary audience member reiterate the sentiment by stating they “came to get down, but you’re not telling my story.”
The album moves from Garbus’ inner struggle to a worldwide point of view with dance single “Look At Your Hands.” She asks lyrical questions about the material trappings of entitlement, like the smartphone (on which you might be reading this very article) that was almost certainly made under dubious working conditions.
“I never want to preach and I never want to say, ‘Look at what you all are doing,’” Garbus explains. “It is important to recognize the privileges that come along with [whiteness] and own them and understand them well enough to understand the power dynamics and the unconscious power and how that might be influencing the way we are in the world, what we do in the world, and the harm we may not know we are doing in the world.”
Tune-Yards are scheduled to perform at The Van Buren on Monday, February 19. Tickets are $23.50 and can be purchased at thevanburenphx.com.