Voice her weapon of choice

Merrill Garbus has come a long way since self- releasing her first Tune-Yards album, Bird-Brains, on recycled tape in 2009.

Recruiting bassist Nate Brenner for 2011 follow-up Who Kill, they topped the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll, which annually correlates the year's best-reviewed albums.

New album Nikki Nack is her chance to prove Who Kill was no fluke. Working for the first time with noted producers Malay (Frank Ocean) and John Hill (M.I.A.), Garbus and Brenner have created one of 2014's most engaging listens, a mishmash of world-beat, freak folk and R&B held together by one of the more unique voices in contemporary music.

"I think we succeeded in keeping the grit that is Tune- Yards," Garbus says. "We were open to it becoming better and what was important to me was better, not equal, shinier, glossier or more radio-ready."

Garbus is a producer whose weapon of choice is her voice. Across 13 tracks on Nikki Nack she conjures melodies from a gobsmacking array of layered vocals and uncanny phrasings.

"I'm concerned with playing with words and sounds," she says, offering the album's title as an example. "I took a bunch of voice lessons and I think there are new possibilities my voice has that were interesting to explore. I'm trying to use my voice as an instrument in a healthier way and a way that gives me more possibilities."

Garbus took inspiration from a visit to Haiti in making Nikki Nack.

"I'm loath to make this the 'Haitian album' because it is as much influenced by Haitian traditional music as American traditional music, R&B and hip-hop," she says.

"My ears aren't tuned to what's happening in Western music so much, (I'm) drawn to African- influenced music or the diaspora, as well as anything where I go: 'What? I don't understand where that sound is coming from.'

"The disintegration of the infrastructure of cities was often on my mind.

"It touches upon economic issues with developing countries like Haiti and developed countries like the US."

Garbus is proof that even the most critically acclaimed performers suffer self-doubt, and is pleased by the overwhelming response to Nikki Nack so far.

"I have to be reminded I don't need to see it as pressure in a negative way - pressure to keep succeeding," she says.

"As an anxious warrior I can often turn that into 'Oh my god, so many expectations'.

"There's a lot of positive reception so far and as much as I'd like to say it doesn't matter what people think, the truth is it absolutely matters and this is our livelihood."

'As much as I'd like to say it doesn't matter what people think, the truth is it absolutely matters.'


The West Australian

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