The Process

In Which an Artist Discusses Making a Particular Work

tUnE-yArDs, “Left Behind”

The music begins with a wild, sad cry. A drumbeat fades in, and over it Merrill Garbus sings—quickly, longingly, just below a shout: “My, this place has really changed its ways. / Luckily there’s only really rich folks living here. / Remember what he used to do to me. / Remember, oh, the way it used to be.” Nate Brenner’s smeary electric bass reinforces a chaotic drum pattern, and despite the bleakness of the lyrics, the layers of rhythm inspire a compulsion to dance. This song is “Left Behind,” released by the Garbus-led Oakland, California, outfit tUnE-yArDs on their latest album, Nikki Nack. Together with Brenner, her romantic partner, and a shifting group of collaborators, Garbus makes unbridled, beat-driven pop informed by international musical traditions, especially those of Africa and Haiti. When I met Garbus in a café in San Francisco to talk about “Left Behind,” she brought her iPad so we could listen to an early demo of the song.

—Ian S. Port

THE BELIEVER: The original demo you played me sounds much more like early tUnE-yArDs: you hear the layers building up one after another. Was the break from that intentional, or just a by-product of how you made the album?

MERRILL GARBUS: I think it was intentional, but, honestly, this is where Nate has been increasingly important in the songwriting process. What he was helping me to do was see what we had done before, and then do the opposite. I picked this song [to talk about] because this is the song that nearly broke me. I would play it for people at the record label, and they were like, “That’s the only one that I don’t understand.” And I’d be like, What are you talking about? This is the meaning of my songwriting; this is the pinnacle of what I’m trying to do.

BLVR: How did it nearly break you?

Ian S. Port is the music editor of San Francisco Weekly, and has written for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. In fall 2014, he is moving to New York to study creative nonfiction at Columbia University.