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Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs on meditation and music: ‘Any perfectionists out there, you’re gonna need to get over that quick’

Merrill Garbus performs a #MicroShow at the Turf Club, 2018. (Josh Voelker for MPR)

Throughout the last few weeks, the spread of the coronavirus has disrupted many lives, and has caused anxiety in just about everyone. Morning Show host Jill Riley checked in with Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs over the phone. Garbus discussed how she’s been processing her emotions through staying on a routine, practicing meditation, and being present in each moment in order to cope with the uncertainty of the current public health crisis.

Jill Riley: Merrill, what is going on in Oakland? What are you observing about the community you live in and really those you know in the music community?

Merrill Garbus: Well, first shout out to the Twin Cities. It’s how strange to suddenly not be able to travel. We’ve taken breaks from travel in the past, but always with some assumption or understanding that we’d be back to play at The Current, to play Minneapolis, to see people and be ambassadors. When I think more positively about my career choice, I think we’re kind of ambassadors. We hear from people in their own communities, so thanks for inviting me into yours today. We’ve been biking back and forth from where we live in East Oakland to downtown and there’s just empty streets and hardly any traffic and a little ghost town vibe. I think not everybody is having the same experience of this. Based on how people interact with their communities I see people either isolating or not. It’s been really interesting to trace my own feelings and emotions about, frankly, how information is getting passed to people or not getting passed to people. So it’s an interesting time.

What have you been doing to stay busy? I saw on Instagram that it looked like you were doing some recording.

Yeah. Before virus town happened, I was getting up at 6:30 in the morning, meditating, writing another video project that I’ve been working on, and then a quick breakfast, bike to the studio and then putting hour in finishing our album, which is in its last stages of recording. That really helped the first week, to just be super disciplined, and I think as reality has set in and as anxieties came up it’s been really difficult to still devote ourselves to that practice. I keep fighting for it because any artist that I talk to – these practices are our sanity. I need my daily practices. I need my vocal practice. I need all these things. Yes, we are recording. Yes, we are still trying to figure out how to mix our album remotely, perhaps, or do it in a way that we can get music out to the people sooner rather than later.

You talked about having a meditation practice. Do you have any advice about meditation? How do you do it? How do you make it work?

Any perfectionists out there, you’re gonna need to get over that quick because there’s no way to do it perfectly. I think for years I just went I can’t meditate because I felt like I was doing it wrong. So what I started with was I’m gonna shout out to Tara Brach’s guided meditations. You can find them online and she’s just really good at talking you through. I’ve learned really remotely from her and then through East Bay Meditation Center here – sit and be – and ask myself what’s going on right now in my body, very physiologically. Where is there tingling? Where can I feel the weight of my butt on the seat that I’m sitting on? Really breaking it down into basics. And then a lot of it just has to do with slowing down. I think there’s too much information right now. There’s too much fear and theorizing.

Everybody has their opinion and there’s just so much confusion. It’s just been hard to give myself permission to sit back and to [recognize] what I know is happening. The only thing I know that’s happening is that I’m sitting here talking to you and I have a warm cup of tea in my hand and my hand’s kinda warm. That’s been really helpful. Now I’m committed to setting a timer or doing a guided meditation first thing in the morning after the trip to the bathroom, before the breakfast.

Have you had a chance to connect with your fans during this time?

Yes. Every Saturday morning I’ve been offering up a Saturday morning drone, just looping my vocals and trying to find interesting textures and then pairing that with some kind of natural soothing theme. I’m hoping to do that live at some point and have people join in. I suppose like a Saturday morning cartoon – Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Gumby, etc. For those who want something soothing on Saturday morning that’s not a hyperactive children’s show I thought about Saturday morning drones. I guess that’s a way to say I’m trying to balance also allowing people space and quiet and then trying to offer something that feels useful at this time.

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Saturday Morning Drones

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What song do you think is appropriate for right now?

We played this song when a lot of the California wildfires were left and right around us while we were on tour. There’s a line in the song – “California is burning down” – and I think it’s about being witness to these things that are a product of our treatment of the planet, the treatment of each other, and centuries of how we’ve lived on this planet. [There’s a] sense of wanting to be present for this and I think one way of being present is to be in our bodies and to  feel what’s going on in ourselves but I think that’s also dancing and moving; celebrating our lives and celebrating our bodies, so I love delivering kind of what’s in the collective conscious with a beat to dance to.

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