Soul Powa: How Tune-Yards Play With Vocals

With the release of I can feel you creep into my private life, Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus has come full-circle, her gift for game-changing vocal play reaching full-tilt automaton on an album that simultaneously nods to her analog beginnings and doffs its cap to an exciting electronic future.

“I started sampling my vocals with an MPC,” she says of I can feel. “There was something that felt really right about my voice being trapped in a machine.” Long-time fans will know that Garbus recorded the majority of her debut LP, BiRd-BrAiNs, on a voice recorder, lending the record its distinctive—and now renowned—lo-fi sound. What it also did, however, was create a distance between Garbus’ towering vocal pipes and the listener, a trick she’s revisited on the latest album. “I wanted the vocals to sound robotic,” she says. “Maybe to counter the sincerity of the lyrics.”

Garbus is no stranger to vocal manipulation on a grand scale, basing entire albums around a particular hook or device (see the Pee-wee Herman-inspired playground chants across the entirety of Nikki Nack, or the sultry doo-wop harmonies and Haitian-inspired vocal layering that populate Whokill), while also reserving her most crescendoing, gratifying hollers, whoops, and yells for when they’ll make the most impact. Hers is an inimitable voice, one built on a foundation of varying regional African folk musics, the ‘80s pop of Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, and mid-century soul in the vein of James Brown and The Ronettes. And while Garbus’ influences ride valiantly along with her genre-hopping melodies, her gift for weaving together fragmented musical cues precludes any suggestion of imitation. You can hear her loop-pedal vocal layering techniques in the a-capella mastery of Manhattan Transfer and the meticulous gospel of the Soweto Gospel Choir, while her penchant for the peppy nasal belting of Afrobeat is rooted in the Congolese pop of Wenge Musica or Awilo Longomba.