Reggie Watts Talks Tune-Yards’ Nikki Nack

I'm not a huge lyrics person — I hear the music first. But sometimes tuning in to the words can clarify things. And when I checked out the lyric...

I’m not a huge lyrics person — I hear the music first.  But sometimes tuning in to the words can clarify things.  And when I checked out the lyric sheet for Tune-Yards’ new album Nikki Nack, it turns out it’s a collage of ideas revolving around existential crisis. Like in “Hey Life,” the band’s leader Merrill Garbus sings, “Hey life, why do you keep me around?” She’s putting out questions like: What am I from?  What am I searching for?  And the music reflects that — the pathways she takes, the musical adventurism, the sudden shifts and changes. It’s like she comes to realizations about herself right there in the process of the song.  It’s a searching.

There’s obviously been intensity in her life that’s caused her to think differently about her life and her music. I definitely understand that.  I’m sure she’s a unique individual and I’m sure she is constantly judged by people, whether it’s her appearance, how she chooses to express herself, whatever.  She’s just very much herself, and that can be a difficult thing to be.  I can sense that has a lot to do with this album.  It’s an inward conflict, but it’s expressed outwardly.  And there are no filters — she’s going for it on Nikki Nack.

So it’s an exorcism.  It reminds me of some ’80s movie (Out of Africa?) where a white woman goes to Africa and at first she’s not into it but then she experiences this trance-inducing ritual and suddenly she’s not just making connections to Africa, she’s making connections within her own life.  And it seems like this album goes between that and social observations, usually about America, like “I come from the land of slaves!/Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves.”

This was my first time listening to her music, really.  It’s got various inspirations from African and Haitian music, but there’s also a kind of an arty Laurie Anderson wordiness to it.  It’s ritualistic, definitely celebrational at times — it’s all super rhythmic, mainly just singing, percussion, some very forward bass, and some synths and samples here and there. With the emphasis on voice and beats and bass, it’s kind of like a hip-hop record. It’s really tight and intense — very impressive stuff. And then there are a couple of songs that are subdued, like “Look Around” and “Wait for a Minute.” It’s a crazy record.

It gets very compositional, though — you could almost hear it in a repertory environment, like an experimental new music series at Carnegie Hall. It’s definitely carefully composed and yet it’s not calculated.  It’s kind of like how I imagine brilliant sculptors to be — they can’t help but see this one thing  and they need to make it come out into the world.  That’s what I feel when I listen to this record— the intensity of different sections, the way things change into other things, you can just hear her saying to herself, “I don’t necessarily know why, but this needs to happen and it needs to be like this.”

There’s some straight-up West African folk songiness, especially “Rocking Chair.”  And her voice is matched for it — it really sounds like a black African woman singing an African folk song, but with lyrics that happen to be a little more Western.  Her voice is definitely hooked into that channel, whatever that is.  I thought they used that influence in balance much more on Whokill, so it sounded like a unique voice, instead of incorporating elements.

I should probably say something about cultural appropriation.  I think that anybody who’s using those sorts of influences in indie rock is probably genuinely inspired by it — once your mind is able to hear those polyrhythms and counterrhythms and syncopation, it’s pretty amazing.  Still, whenever I hear it, a certain kind of alarm bell goes off — I wonder if this is kind of a colonialist kind of appropriation, like, “I’ll just take this, this’ll be cool.”  But at the same time, it’s music, and music is for everybody.

“Time of Dark” is a really great song, I really enjoyed that.  “Left Behind” has a great ’90s-style hip-hop beat — the bass line is really nice, and the song sounds like people marching through the streets with drums, chanting this traditional song.

The main line of “Rocking Chair” is, “Weight of me broke the rocking chair,” and that could be about lots of things but it sounds like a question I have with myself — my weight is something I struggle with some.  So I totally understand: you’re out there, doing what you’re doing, and you’re so great at what you do because you really love what you do and you have a fanbase that loves you because you’re just being who you are.  But you’re still going to come up against those comments and perceptions, and you’ll be aware of those as well as all the praise.  I don’t know if it’s something she’s dealt with with all her life.  But that line sounds like she’s addressing herself directly.

But that’s a good example of the contrast between the pain in a lot of these lyrics and then the joy of music.  I think that’s the punchline of the album — lines like that are the set-up and the punchline is just blowing it out of the water with pure expression, kind of cleansing it, or erasing it.

You’re either the type of songwriter that creates a story, presenting an idea, or you’re the type of person who digs deep and just puts it all out there.  With Garbus it’s definitely the second type.  She allows her creative child to run loose, with chocolate stains all over its face and playing in the trees and discovering whatever it wants to discover. It’s awesome and it’s intense.  It’s terribly intense.  Nikki Nack is not an entertainment album.  I won’t put it on for a little drive — it’s not casual listening, it demands to be listened to.

It reminds me a little bit of a Frank Zappa record from the Hot Rats period, because it just moves — the songs often end up in a completely different place.  Now, I’m going to sound like a total twit for saying this but I wonder what would happen if she just sang a very simple song, very soulfully.  She would destroy most singers out there instantaneously.  I’m sure that’s a little too simple for her and not what she’s interested in but if she just decided to do a straight-up r&b ballad, not some modern hyper-production bullshit, but something simple that featured her voice, she would destroy — there would hardly be anyone who could touch her. She sounds like a black soul singer from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

I know the previous Tune-Yards album got a lot of acclaim and it won the Village Voice year-end critics poll.  Stuff like that puts a lot of pressure on an artist.  If suddenly things start picking up, you want to continue that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people around her saying, “What if we changed your image…”  That kind of pressure is out there.  So you have to fiercely protect your link to creativity, whatever it is, and Garbus strikes me as someone who knows how to do that. You have to tune in extra hard to your creativity.  It is who you are.  It’s not something external, it is who you are — and sometimes that can be challenged.  Sometimes you think maybe you don’t actually have a connection, maybe it was all an accident, and you doubt yourself.  But obviously with this record Garbus stayed true to that connection, and you can really feel that.  So that’s her response to the pressure: she did exactly what she wanted to do.


Reggie Watts is an internationally renowned vocalist/beatboxer/musician/
comedian/improviser. A wildly popular live performer, Reggie will headline New York’s Town Hall on June 18.  He returns as one-man bandleader/musical cohort on season 3 of IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! premiering May 8, and his popular Reggie Makes Music series has paired him with Aziz Ansari, Andy Samberg and Elizabeth Banks for impromptu music videos. Reggie is a founder of  with Michael Cera, Sarah Silverman and Tim & Eric. Many of his videos have gone viral.