Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus On How Kendrick Lamar and A Workshop on Whiteness Inspired New Album

Tune Yards
Eliot Lee Hazel

Tune Yards

Writing her fourth album, I can feel you creep into my private life, out Jan. 19, Tune-Yards leader Merrill Garbus sought spiritual growth. “I feel very humbled by how little I know,” says the acclaimed indie artist after months of wide-ranging research. Joined on the album by longtime collaborator Nate Brenner, the 38-year-old shares what influenced Tune-Yards’ most confrontational work to date.

1. She DJ'd weekly at a bar in Oakland, Calif.

“[DJ’ing at The Hatch] opened the dance music door for me. My favorite story in [Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s 1999 book] Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was of early house DJs who would play until people got it. That’s what we do, we introduce audiences to new sounds and rhythms -- push the envelope. Even though we’ve got Skrillex and deadmau5 and very glossy dance music now, where it came from was really organic and DIY.”

2. She attended workshops on race

“I went to [a six-month workshop] at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland to learn about my experience as a white person in the realm of racial justice. I was asking, ‘What should I do as a white person?’ I don’t want to say, ‘Well, I took a workshop and now I’m super awake,’ but as I learned more about my own participation in racism and white supremacy, I was like, ‘This is our problem.’”

3. She explored hip-hop and R&B's top tier

“What I want from music is someone to speak to me with this knowledge of everything that’s going on. The last three Kendrick Lamar albums are so specific to his life and contain so many personal stories, but you know he’s living in the present tense and not in a vacuum. Same with Frank Ocean and Solange’s albums. There’s a way artists can talk about whatever they need to and have it resonate with what’s going on in the world.”

4. She wrote more than ever

“I have historically written a lot, but there is a practice in the [1992 Julia Cameron] book The Artist’s Way of, without exception, doing a daily morning writing that I got into for this album specifically. That meant I was writing [all the time], and I think that really helped me distill what I meant to say.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of Billboard.