Thrifting for the the perfect song with tUnE-yArDs

Pub date March 17, 2010

The deep piles of used goods can be a bit daunting at some of the best thrift stores, but when you find that shimmering prize, the fuzzy feeling is relative to winning a race or seeing your worst enemy trip into a puddle. For the sole member of tUnE-yArDs, musician Merrill Garbus— playing Sat/20 at Bottom of the Hill— her ultimate find was a white purse with row after row of luscious beads.

“I was in high school, living in Connecticut and we’d take trips into New York City to shop at thrift stores,” she recalls, talking to me over the phone while walking in her Oakland neighborhood. “I used to collect purses, even though I never used them.”
Recently she bought up a desk and an entire wardrobe of tour clothes, all without spending more than 20 bucks. Garbus says she uses thrift stores as a way to try on different personalities and I’m guessing she finds a little inspiration in there, too.

Plainly stated, Garbus’ music is lo-fi, indie-folk, but beneath the glorious yodeling and ukulele strumming are lyrical melodies, strong heart beats and interesting percussion made from banging and clanking on found objects. Her latest album, BiRd-BrAiNs (Marriage, 2009) was recorded through a hand-held voice recorder and mixed on her laptop— total DIY style.

Dig through her multitude of songs and you’ll find outside sounds, children talking about fruit and all sorts of one-of-a-kind clips that wear just like your favorite Goodwill-adopted sweatshirt. She’s a one-woman version of Yeasayer and you can hear Garbus’ love of African music, more specifically notes borrowed from her visit to Swahili.

As I talked to her, Garbus was getting ready for the launch of the tour— the car needed an oil change and she needed to get rid of a nasty cold.

“I’m struggling with being human right now— sick, tired and overworked,” she said with a cough. “But I think I’ll be fine and remarkably, my singing voice comes from a different place.”

Still thinking about thrifting and the old white purse, I wondered if Garbus had ever thought about who was the bag’s previous owner. I like to imagine who bought the item new and I always hope to channel some sort of energy through the garment– to see if I can stake out any secrets from its past life. I asked Garbus if she puts subliminal messages into her music for a similar effect.

“I don’t think so,” she laughs. “But maybe a really cheesy message of love? These songs take time and sort of fold and unfold, exposing miniature worlds inside each of them. They’re a labor of love and I guess that’s the message. Yes, love…. Sorry to cheese out.”

tUne-yArDs w/Xiu Xiu
Sat/20, 8:30pm, $12
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th Street, SF