S.J Tucker is a musician whose latest album is Mischief. Phil Putnam writes of her, “Multi-instrumentalist, road warrior, front woman, songwriter and rallying point; yes, she is all of these things. More than most, though, more than anything, she is a storyteller. She is the voice of lore at the campfire and the sharp laughter of modern myth, a vanguard of the Mythpunk… movement with a gypsy Celtic folk rock sound that cannot be ignored. With one hand on her art and the other held out to you, she is songs and stories, community and wit.” Liz Baudler is the editor of Transcendent Journeys. This interview was conducted over email.
Liz Baudler: I heard you got into music because of the Beatles, and as a Beatles fan, I must ask: What was it about them that attracted you to them, and music? How did they help you grow as a musician?
S.J Tucker: Actually, my family started feeding me the Beatles at a very tender age. No lie: my grandfather brought home an LP of the US release of Magical Mystery Tour. I chalk up a lot of my quirks to the fact that I was listening to “I Am the Walrus” and “Blue Jay Way” on my little Fisher-Price record player at age three! That was the first record that I can remember knowing was mine, and I played it a LOT!
My mother is a lifelong Beatles fan as well- and she was around for Beatlemania in the first place, unlike myself. When I went through a stage in my teens when I wouldn’t listen to anything or anyone else, she was very understanding (read: tolerant).
My family has some very strong singers. I was raised by people who were very active in church choir, school band, and community theater. My father was a music teacher, and both of my parents made a point to surround me with classical music and jazz when I was very small. So I had a lot of early musical support from my family; the Beatles were just one ingredient. I do think, however, that listening to and studying the Beatles’ music made a difference in my determination to becoming a rockstar, as it were. It certainly helped me make up my mind to learn to play guitar, to keep playing piano, and to start writing songs! I also think that my understanding of how vocal harmonies work was affected by listening to the Beatles.
LB: How important is the sense of play and humor to your music and lyrics…and life?
ST: It’s huge. I have a never-ending crush on music. Part of the attraction is that music allows me to say whatever I want to say, often better than I could ever say it in everyday speech. Best not to take oneself too seriously in everyday speech, so I apply that same thought to music. I think that people will often care more about what you have to say if you can make them laugh, give them a memory that they will want to relive over and over. Oftentimes, my silliest songs, like “Cheshire Kitten” and “Ravens in the Library”, get just as much attention as do some of the more serious ones, like “Neptune” and “Crystal Cave”.
I also think it’s perfectly all right to blame the Beatles for this one as well. There’s no doubt that they had a wonderful time- their art was their playground. It’s one way to show some authenticity, if you can let on that you love what you’re doing. I overheard someone’s critique of my work in Nashville a few years ago- someone said “oh yes, I’ve heard of S. J. Tucker. If she doesn’t stop singing those songs about Wendy and Peter Pan and stuff, no one’s ever going take her seriously.” For one thing, I don’t think this person was aware that I’ve been making a living by singing those very songs for quite a respectable amount of time now. For another, if you can’t make the music that makes You happy, what’s the point? Joni Mitchell could write about a big blue frog; I can sing about ninjas and pirates and people who can fly! If I can’t do those things, then perhaps I’d rather not be taken seriously at all.
LB: When I listen to your work, I feel like it falls into two categories (both sublime)—hilarious fantasy and more serious invocation of ritual and tradition. How do you balance the two?
ST: I’m a Pisces who was raised by Peacocks. ((grin)) Duality is inherent in my life and musical attitudes. Over the course of my spiritual life, I’ve had many teachers who’ve taught me the value of laughter. So I suppose that’s where I’m most grounded- when I can exist in the goofy and the elegant all at once, or at least back to back. I feel most at home when I can play to a crowd that will follow me all the way across that spectrum.
LB: This is a question I ask every songwriter, and they never seem to know the answer—which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
ST: It changes from song to song for me, honestly. When I was younger, the lyrics almost always came first. Nowadays, it’s split pretty well down the middle. I’ve enjoyed the times when I get a strong tune before I have any idea what the words that go with it will be- that used to be very rare for me, and I’ve also written a fair number of instrumental songs that I like very much.
LB: Your stage banter and performance are among the best I’ve seen, and I know you’ve done tons of shows of varying size, audience and venue. How natural is performing to you?
ST: Thank you. 🙂
Performing is like breathing for me at the best of times, even when the stage fright hits. I want so much to give back to all of the people that I meet; performing is the best way I know to do just that. I’ve been on stage in some capacity since I was six years old, and I’ve never stopped loving it. Even on nights when I’m flat-out exhausted, I will still give everything I have to a show. It’s rare that I won’t want to be right in the middle of that kind of magic- I mean I have to be really wiped out to not want to perform! It’s been nine years since I started giving concerts full time. I know what that kind of crushing weariness feels like now; these days I’m learning the balance of taking care of myself so that I can still manage to give everything that I want to give when I play a show. It’s tricky. You have to learn as you go.
LB: What’s your favorite instrument to play?
ST: Guitar has always felt like home. I love singing, so much, and I also love hand drums. I don’t travel in a giant tour bus, but if I did, it would be filled with all of the instruments I own, so that I’d get to play them everywhere. As things are now, and since I’m doing independent tours in the age of hideously expensive gasoline, I only get to travel with one or two guitars and drums at a time.
LB: How often do you do workshops? How do you like to conduct them? What do you hope participants get out of this one?
ST: I go to a lot of festivals and conventions to perform. In addition to giving concerts at these events, I enjoy teaching the odd workshop on music or on poi spinning, and participating in jam sessions or drum circles. My Music and Magick workshop is something I’ve only recently had a chance to develop. I started teaching it a few years ago, once every few months, at the encouragement of friends in the metaphysical community. This year I’m pushing myself to offer this workshop more than ever before. I’m still getting used to thinking of myself as a teacher. I’m still unaccustomed to thinking of myself as someone with something to give and to share that doesn’t involve a stage, lots of singing, and the occasional horrible pun. I’m happy to say that the Music and Magick workshop has been very well received each time, regardless of attendance numbers, demographic, or where in the world I’m teaching that day. My goal with the workshop is to help people gain an understanding of just how powerful music can be: as a source of energy present in our daily lives, as a source of healing, as a source of communication, and as a source of change. I do that by encouraging discussion, improvisation, and play. Workshop participants go through a physical and vocal warm-up, learn basic energy work, and step gently into playing with music and sound to change the mood of the room. These are just a few simple ways with which to raise our awareness of what music can do, energetically.
It’s easy to forget, in our fast-paced digital world, how much power there is in the sounds that we ourselves can make, and also in the sounds all around us. How often do you stop and just listen to a song or a performance and allow it to affect you? Apply the same question to birdsong. Who has the time, most days, to just listen? And yet, we make time to sing to our children. We agonize over which song to use as a ring tone on our Smartphones. On a grander scale world leaders are famous for using music to inspire nations. In times of war, and especially in the case of the nation of Estonia, music has often been the only way that people have been able to hold onto their cultural identity. A few centuries ago, the Christian church was so aware of how music can affect us that many types of musical scales- even specific chords- were used only with care. In fact, some scales and modes of music were flat out banned by the church.
Years ago, people started asking me questions like “how do you do it ? How do you move such energy at your shows? How is it that you’re such a tiny woman and you can have a whole crowd in the palm of your hand?” Those questions made me want to help people understand that we can all call upon the power of music.
The workshop is open to everyone. No singing experience is necessary, but a willingness to make silly noises in a group setting is useful.
LB: Talk briefly about your collaboration with Cat Valente. How has it benefited you personally and professionally? And what is it about incorporating other genres into your work that you just can’t keep away from?
ST: First of all, Cat is brilliant. It’s pretty easy for me to be inspired by the worlds she creates in her stories and novels. I call her my Shakespeare. When you’re acting in a Shakespeare play, there are no stage directions printed. The stage directions are in the text, waiting there for you to find, like clues. It’s the same thing with Cat’s stories- the songs are waiting for me to find them in her words, sometimes none too patiently. Having Cat as a friend is amazing. We’ve had so many adventures together. The best part is that many of those adventures have benefited both of our careers, as well as colored our friendship- we both have loyal fanbases. She has certainly turned as many people as she can onto my work, and I hope that I have done as good of a job making people fall in love with hers. We have performed together in support of books and albums that we have both made, from coast to coast. She calls me a genius, I call her my Shakespeare, and we both get to be bards. It’s a dream come true! We get together to collaborate and to put on little road shows as often as we can, even though there have been times when nobody knew what to make of us. “What do you mean you want to do a reading and a concert at the same time?” asked one bookstore in Los Angeles. I’ve certainly gone places I might never have gone if Cat hadn’t been beside me- on a boat, on a train, and from L. A. to Maine, no lie!
As far as other genres are concerned, it’s one thing to do what you’re good at, and do it often and well. But I wouldn’t feed you the same thing for dinner every night! As a musician, I look at instruments, software, and ways to sing a song the same way some of my foodie friends look at their spice racks. If you have all sorts of ways to make something tasty, I believe you should try them. What have you got to lose?
LB: Currently, what music or poetry, or other writing or visual art do you look to for inspiration?
ST: At the moment, I’m eyeball-deep in writing a film score for an independent film called Ember Days, directed by one of my high school classmates. The score calls for a lot of tribal-sounding drums, but it’s also bordering on electronica in places. It’s taking a little bit of everything, in other words. That pretty much sums up what inspires me. The best and most inspiring folks in my world are people I’ve actually met- bandmates Alexander James Adams, Betsy Tinney, Ginger Doss, Bekah Kelso, Heather Dale, and Ben Deschamps.
Of the people I haven’t yet met, Jesca Hoop is my current favorite singer-songwriter. She isn’t afraid to tell a story with her music, nor is she afraid to wear a top hat on stage. We have a lot in common. When I need to unwind or just take some time alone, Tool’s Lateralus album is crucial.
Cat recently turned me on to poet Tim Seibles, who is brilliant. The first solo shows I did were for the poetry community I was part of as a teenager in Hot Springs, Arkansas- one of my mentors from that time, Bud Kenny, is another of my favorite poets. Last but not least are my sister-poet-friends C. S. E. Cooney, Amal El-Mohtar, and Elizabeth McClellan.
My latest big visual favorite comes in the form of a film. The animated movie, The Secret of Kells is so beautiful and compelling to me. It’s one of those that I can watch again and again, just for the eyecandy of it, and I also think that Bruno Coulais’ film score is wonderful.
Then there’s Chicago artist Sharon Bechtold, whom I met last year. Sharon brings amazing, compelling, fairy-friendly images out of unsuspecting sections of wood. Each time I’ve seen a piece of hers, I’ve just fallen into it.
LB: You wrote a song about how frustrating being a spiritual artist can be, “Rootless”. How do you deal with that frustration?
ST: ((laugh)) I self-treat by writing really long, evocative songs!
Seriously though, a lot of the reason that I can continue to do what I do is that I have such an amazing group of supportive fans and friends in my life who understand about the dark places I sometimes walk. One line in “Rootless” says “we ride rootless in dark places, unafraid that we might fall or die or drown.” Any time I am feeling out of sorts, under pressure, or just plain frustrated, I always have someone I can turn to. Always. So many people who love me are just a text message away; I’m very fortunate. I think that, if I didn’t have such a strong tribe, I would have fallen apart years ago. “Rootless” might never have gotten written in the first place. I wrote that song with the Pagan community in mind, and specifically people in that community who give so much to others, often forgetting to take care of themselves. Not just clergy and ministers, but also healers, parents, teachers, soldiers; anyone with a lot of truth and light to share. Having a lot of energy to give can be a burden, because one can get into the habit of giving and giving and not knowing when (or how) to stop. “We are working, we are tireless. We are seekers of the way. We ride rootless on heavy medicine, and we live to fight another day.”
LB: What’s a subject for a song that you feel unable to tackle for whatever reason?
ST: Racism is something that it’s very tough for me to think about. I’ve never written a song about it. I think about making an attempt to do so, and it hurts, like someone sticking a finger into a wound. Rape is another. I’ve stood on the outskirts of the former, and I’ve thankfully never been confronted personally with the latter.
LB: Finally, if you were suddenly confronted with a large, menacing salad or alligator, how would you handle the situation?
ST: I would tackle the problem the same way I would a lucid dream- with cunning and poise. Most likely I would offer said green beastie a part in my show! “The crowd is primed, darling! They’ve heard all about what you can do. It’s like they were MADE to love you!”