Merrill Garbus is a rock star—as much of a rock star as someone who makes tribalist art-funk can be, at least. The three worldly, off-center albums she’s released as Tune-Yards—including this year’s Nikki Nack—have been praised by Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and she’s performed on national television and way up festival lineups. In 2008, though, the New England native was just a former puppeteer and ukulele player, shopping an album she recorded directly into a handheld recording device. But even in its rawest form, her brilliance was obvious, and few places were as smitten with her early on as Portland. Local label Marriage Records released her debut, Bird-Brains, which was later reissued by indie heavyweight 4AD. We spoke to four of Garbus’ early supporters—Marriage founder Curtis Knapp and the label’s former vice president, Jordan Dykstra; Tender Loving Empire’s Jared Mees; and Shy Girls saxophonist Noah Bernstein, who toured with Tune-Yards and played on 2011 breakthrough Whokill—about discovering one of this generation’s most visionary artists.
CURTIS KNAPP: Two or three people sent me a link to “Hatari” from Bird-Brains within the same few days. Dave Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors] was one of them, and he told me to go to the show at the Artistery which was happening a few days from then. I listened to that track maybe a hundred times and went to the show. When I saw her perform there, that was electric, of course. She sounded like Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone.
JARED MEES: There are very few performers on a level with Merrill. It’s like Bobby McFerrin style: freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of all the fetters that hold the rest of us mortals down.
KNAPP: We walked around on the roof of Yale Union together. I fell in love with the quality of the handheld digital recording that was the album. There were, of course, other labels wanting to release it. I had never really worked with someone who I didn’t already know before, so we had to become friends quickly.
NOAH BERNSTEIN: The thing that struck me the most was her drive and focus. Coming from a jazz background, I was used to the music generally staying pretty loose. When we rehearsed for our first gig, she was like, “Cool, OK, I like what you’re doing. Now let’s do it 15 more times.” We had a similar two-day throw-down prepping for the Whokill tour. She was renting this practice space at the time that was literally just a shipping container. It was the four of us in there in a parking compound on an Oakland summer weekend just like, “Word, let’s run it again.”
MEES: It’s just evidence that you’re dealing with someone who isn’t playing by the same rules. She didn’t seem like she was trying to be cool or make “relevant” music. She was just trying to make interesting sounds and have interesting songs that say interesting things, and meet interesting people. And I think that’s what everybody latched onto, 4AD and Marriage and us and however many fans she has now.
KNAPP: She’s always been kind of famous I thought.
JORDAN DYKSTRA: It’s odd going home through Hillsboro and being like, “There’s Merrill on a billboard. Oh, she’s on Comedy Bang Bang this week. Oh, she’s playing Jimmy Fallon.” When I was in Iceland, people were like, “I love Tune-Yards.” It’s crazy. But she’s worked really, really hard. And her music is so fierce. She’s not a coward, y’know?
Tune-Yards plays at 6:25 pm Aug. 17. Info and tickets at musicfestnw.com.