Lo-Fi struggles lead to artists' success

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(Photo Courtesy of tUnE-yArDs)

It’s been a good year for Merrill Garbus, better known by her stage name, tUnE-yArDs. Since releasing her sophomore album w h o k i l l to critical and commercial success last April, Garbus’ music has been on critics’ top 10 lists, popular TV shows such as “Weeds” and even Billboard 200 album charts.

What’s so remarkable about w h o k i l l isn’t that it’s successful — it deserves the acclaim, it’s that a mere two years before the album’s release, Garbus had just finished recording her debut album, BiRd-BrAiNs, using nothing more than a cheap hand-held voice recorder and shareware mixing software.

“Money was just never there, so I got used to being and creating without it,” Garbus told the Guardian in April 2011. When she realized she couldn’t afford a bass guitar, she compensated by layering percussion parts, most notably seen in the gritty hi-hat, boomy bass drum and swooshing backwards snare of “Little Tiger.”

Soon enough, she had developed a unique, likable sound that helped her self-released debut sell more copies than she’d ever imagined it could. The unexpected influx of cash and media attention meant that tUnE-yArDs was able to mature into something more ambitious than a lo-fi side-project.

The story of Garbus’ success, stripped down to its bare narrative form, is what happens when an artist goes hi-fi and things go right, and it’s happening more and more often. Just last month, Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings released Attack On Memory, their most successful and by far highest-fidelity recording to date.

The Cloud Nothings’ success was all possible because of the hard-won label attention paid to band leader Dylan Baldi’s first lo-fi albums, written and produced in Baldi’s parents’ basement. Similar stories of neck-breaking changes in production quality could be told of The Antlers’ Pete Silberman, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and especially Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, who has somehow switched sides from classic-era Guided By Voices to Avalon-era Roxy Music.

What’s responsible for the ubiquity of this rags-to-swag tale of indie success? One answer might be that new methods of distribution have changed the game. Now that unknown bands can attract serious media attention just by posting their songs online (as was the case last year with bands Cults and Washed Out), albums like BiRd-BrAiNs, which was originally a choose-your-own-price download, can bring artists’ money based solely on the strength of their material.

But I think a better explanation can be given. Jack White, himself a former lo-fi rocker, has long insisted that struggle is the key to creativity. In the rock documentary “It Might Get Loud,” White summed up the point of lo-fi and do-it-yourself recordings: “If you don’t have a struggle already inside of you or around you, you have to make one up.”

It’s hard not to agree. While it’s true that Attack On Memory nobly takes on the unreflective nostalgia of hipster culture and w h o k i l l deals with heavy themes like sexual violence, this thematic ambition is mostly absent from the artists’ earlier work. This makes perfect sense when one considers that lo-fi gives artists something to struggle with before they have the creative maturity to tap into their own lives for inspiration.

Still, it might be that this thesis is too abstract to get at the concrete greatness of four-track masterpieces. After performing at last year’s Pitchfork Festival, Tobin Sprout, famous for his work with lo-fi legends Guided By Voices, shared his view on the matter with the bloggers at Lazy-i. “It’s all about the songs,” Sprout insisted. “There are people in every generation that seem to get that.”

Printed on Thursday, February 9, 2012 as: Resourcefulness results in Garbus'  rags to riches journey