Songwriter Interviews

Filk Star S.J. Tucker

by Jeff Suwak

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Arkansas' S.J. Tucker sings pirate songs. She dances with fire. She dresses as a steampunk pixie to croon about everything from a "Manticore's Lullaby" to "Dreams of Mississippi." Her music and stage personae live in the realm of fantasy, yet she freely shares videos of herself living out of costume and being a generally earthbound, accessible person. She advocates Pagan festivals and Southern hospitality... Burning Man and the Delta Blues. In short, she is a unique woman that confounds any attempts to pigeonhole.

Having won the 2010 Pegasus Award for Best Performer, 2011 for Best Writer/Composer, and 2012 for Best Filk Song with "Cheshire Kitten," Tucker has become a notable figure in filk music. She plays and records under her solo moniker, but also gets "fairytale Celtic folk rock for naughty punk faeries" with Tricky Pixie and combines fire with music as a member of Fire & Strings.

Stepping into Tucker's artistic catalog is like stepping into another world. Her songs detail mythical realms, yet are sung with as much heartfelt sincerity as one is likely to find in any realist corner of the musicscape. The juxtaposition of fantasy with emotional authenticity creates an effect that seems largely representative of the artist herself. Tucker may be dressed as some far-out character on stage, but she is bearing her very real heart, soul, and personality while doing it. She doesn't dress up as a way to set herself above the audience, or even apart from it, but instead as a way to give herself the freedom to open up more to it. She thrives upon the energetic relationship that results.

In addition to Tucker's talents as a songwriter, she also has shown a proclivity for entrepreneurship. Beholden to no label other than her own, she has thrived as an independent musician since 2004, using creative online promotions and touring to live her dream her way. In doing so, she's become an example of what can be achieved with a grassroots business foundation built on a deeply personal connection to her audience. This arrangement allows her to be as weird and wild as she wants to be, keeping her art close to her heart - which is what her fan base has come to expect.

Tucker agreed to answer a few questions for Songfacts.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): You're from Arkansas, and I'm compelled to ask if you've been to Eureka Springs. I discovered the town last year and had a great time there. What a beautifully quirky little place.



S.J. Tucker: Eureka Springs is great. I've done many concerts there with colleagues and with small music festivals. I went to high school in Hot Springs, which is equally funky and fun. I recommend both! My favorite animal rescue sanctuary is right next door to Eureka Springs - Turpentine Creek Big Cat Refuge is an incredible place of care, healing, and sanctuary for all sorts of animals, and I recommend it, also.



Songfacts: You're frequently associated with the filk community. Most people have never heard the term. Even those that identify as filk fans fail to find a universally binding definition. What is filk to you, and what does it mean to you to be part of that culture?


S.J.: Filk could be defined as the musical foil of fanfiction, even though I understand that filk has been recognized as a sort of community for a bit longer than the world of fanfic has. Your best bet to experience filk is to check out concerts at sci-fi/fantasy conventions. Those conventions often have a music guest of honor or a featured performer, and those musicians most often play at least a percentage of filk music in their concerts. My own experience with the filk community has been very rewarding.

So-named filkers write music about the things that inspire them, whether that's Star Trek, Steven Universe, or Pride and Prejudice! There's a lot of heart-wrenching, brilliantly written music in the world of filk, and it goes across a million different musical genres and flavors. At the same time, a filk circle, like a bardic circle at a festival, is understood to be a safe place for anyone, regardless of their skill level, to share a song that they've learned or created. Often I see the filk community treated as outcasts by other facets of fandom in the world of conventions, and this really frustrates me, both as a professional and as a participant. Best-selling authors and world-class musicians are fine with calling themselves filkers, and even Led Zeppelin wrote tunes about the work of J. R. R. Tolkien ["Ramble On," "Misty Mountain Hop"].

The core of filk is writing and sharing songs inspired by the stories that have touched your heart or changed your life, and having a receptive audience of your peers who will always listen. This isn't something that deserves to be looked down upon, as I see it. I didn't learn about the filk community until sometime in 2009, after I'd been touring and singing professionally for over five years. When the filk community learned about me, their support was instant and entire.



Songfacts: Do you write down the songs you create, or do you compose primarily in your head and on the instrument?

S.J.: I write everything down. Somewhere in a notebook is the handwritten page of ideas that became the first song I ever finished, circa 1994. These days I still occasionally write my lyrics on paper as I compose, but usually I type them up on my laptop as I figure them out. I also record voice memos of little song ideas almost every day. Before the advent of smartphones and voice recorder apps, I had a handheld tape recorder in my guitar case that went everywhere with me. It's rare that I lose or forget an idea. I'm mildly paranoid about it, so I'm very careful.


Songfacts: How did you come to inhabit such a unique stage persona? How much of it is an artistic creation and how much of it is simply S.J. Tucker? Is there even a difference between those two concepts? 



S.J.: There's a certain level of self-preservation inherent in maintaining a stage persona. If you're wearing a mask, you're safer than you might be otherwise: safer from harsh criticism, safer from judgment. If you're inhabiting a character, you're the mastermind driving the action, both in the middle of it and at a distance.

That said, I leave myself pretty open when I'm performing. I've got very little to hide, even when I'm having a crappy day with managing stage fright, and I love connecting with people while I'm singing a song. The energetic give-and-take between singer and audience is very important to me - I have a great show when I can feel the audience getting into what I'm doing. That's not to say that the give-and-take is lessened for those who maintain a specific stage persona, just that I've found that being open and mostly just myself works best for me.

Onstage S.J. probably seems taller than offstage S.J., but I can't think of that many other differences. I have a theatre degree, but I get paid to be myself more often than I get paid to be someone else. Thankfully, my fans seem to like who I really am! If my career involved playing lots of shows in bars and restaurants, or in other environments where the music that's happening is rarely a crowd's first priority, I would definitely maintain a stage persona and have to work on being a bit emotionally detached. I'm grateful that I don't need to do those things in order to enjoy my own shows.

Songfacts: Your music incorporates an eclectic variety of styles and sounds. When you're writing a song, how do all those varied possibilities come together? Is that a conscious process, an instinctive one, or something in between?

S.J.: It's mostly instinctual, because I'm the only person I have to answer to most of the time. When I'm composing for film or video games, it's more of a half-instinct, half-assignment split, because my collaborators or clients will have some idea of what they want before I begin. Last year I had more opportunities to write songs in certain moods or genres consciously, and it turned out to be very cool.

I love the craft and the challenge of songwriting. Sometimes I'm starting with a very tiny idea that could end up going anywhere. I have to ask my husband and my friends to be careful about suggesting song or album ideas to me, because often a tiny suggestion will plunge me into creative overdrive right there and then! Last year I participated in a songwriting group that wrote new stuff from random prompts, and that gave me a chance to try out writing things with a more narrow focus, and doing so on a regular weekly timeline. It was great, and I got a lot of good new stuff out of it! At the same time, I was also writing other new songs about whatever independently occurred to me.



Songfacts: Out of those eclectic influences, how much has the music of Arkansas affected your musical sensibilities? In many ways, your very nontraditional persona, music, and political causes seem to contradict the traditional Southern personae (or at least the stereotypical conception of the South), yet some of that down home authenticity and simplicity also seems to infuse your music. How would you characterize the influence Arkansas has had on your music? 

S.J.: First off, defining the music of Arkansas is very tricky. It's every bit as eclectic as anything I've ever done. We have blues festivals in the southeast, bluegrass and folk festivals in the northeast, and an EDM and electronica festival in the northwest. I've also attended women's rock music festivals in Eureka Springs and Fayetteville. There is a thriving rap scene in Little Rock, and there are pockets of indie music and slam poetry scenes in the capitol city, Fayetteville, and Hot Springs.

As far as the stereotypes are concerned, if anyone wants to know if I sit on my porch and play banjo, the answer is not yet, but I hope to learn. All sorts of professional musicians and composers have come out of Arkansas, and still others got their start here. It was at a club in tiny Twist, Arkansas where B.B. King's guitar Lucille got her name. Luminaries like the brilliant Maya Angelou, Cosmo editor Helen Gurley-Brown, rock vocalist Amy Lee and Evanescence, the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Glen Campbell, bluesman Little Willie John, and the legendary Johnny Cash are only a fraction of the list of people with Arkansan roots who've gone on to do amazing things.

The South has its issues, but it's had no lack of creative souls or diverse forms of music, literature and art. Civil strife and racism have been a pressure cooker for the art and lives of many folks, and I acknowledge that fact in our collective history.

Personally, I give my family a lot of credit for my persona and authenticity, because they raised me by example to be friendly, entertaining, and kind. Because of the stigma and the stereotypes, I was hesitant for several years to actually tell people that I come from Arkansas, for fear of being immediately dismissed as untalented, ignorant, and hateful, or else made the butt of really tasteless jokes. I don't let that fear get the best of me anymore. Our entire country is still full of inequality and racial trouble, but I believe in our power to change it for the better.

I settled again in Arkansas after a decade away, because I found that it still has things to teach me and beautiful places to show me. It's much safer to be liberal and progressive at home than it once was, and I'm pleased to say that this fact offers one influence on my recent work that I'm happy to have. The political climate is often still uncertain, but the natural beauty and spirit of hospitality are thriving. 





Songfacts: What's the fastest time that S.J. Tucker can write a complete song, from scratch? Ever tested this?

S.J.: Deadlines help! From February 2015 to February 2016, I accepted a challenge to write one new song each week. I didn't miss a single deadline! I also wrote a fair amount of new material with my friend Heather Dale for her stage musical, Queens of Avalon. Some of those were new songs we wrote together, and some of it was incidental music to play in the background of various scenes. All of it came out in days, some of it came out in mere hours.



Songfacts: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? If so, can you still play it?

S.J.: "Follow Me Down", which is on my first record Haphazard, was the first song I ever finished. I wrote it in 1994, when I was 14, and recorded it for that first CD in 2004. I still love playing it.



Songfacts: In Solace and Sorrow, you've written songs to accompany Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice. You did the same thing with For the Girl in the Garden, which was made in celebration of Valente's The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden. Can you say a few things about how that collaborative process came about?

S.J.: This lets me remark on something we discussed earlier: Creating a concept album inspired by a book of fairy tales is one solid example of what many people consider filk. The term "book soundtrack" has also become lately recognized. All I know for certain is that when I met Catherynne in 2006, I loved her poetry collection, Apocrypha, so much that I was superstitious about reading it all the way to the last page. I had this bizarre fear that our friendship was literally too good to be true and that it would disappear back into dreams once I'd finished reading the book she'd given me. I wasn't afraid to tell her this, as strange as it was, because I knew she would understand. Her response was to send me her then unpublished manuscript of The Orphan's Tales to read. I fell in. It was one of those reading experiences that cause some people to miss meals because they don't want to stop reading.

I hid and read for days at a friend's house in Connecticut, and I remember crying the first time I read the story of Sigrid and the gryphons. A few weeks later, I visited Cat at her then home in Cleveland, and someone said "wouldn't it be cool if somebody created an album of music about The Orphan's Tales?" That afternoon, I wrote "Girl in the Garden" in Cat's basement, ran upstairs and played it for her, and then we all cried together. It was just magical. It felt like the start of something. I've been writing songs about her characters and stories ever since.

I recorded and produced For the Girl in the Garden very quickly, with the help of engineer friends Ginger Doss in Texas and Winterhawk in Colorado, interspersing story excerpts to match each song. Listening back to the CD recently, I found I was more proud of it that I expected to be. Cat and I held the first of several joint book-and-album release parties that October, performing stories and songs aloud side by side, in Cleveland and in New York.

Since then, we've done regular road shows together all over the country, performing book excerpts and related songs together. At first, it was difficult to get bookstores and conventions to understand that this wasn't just a standard author appearance or concert, and there were places that wouldn't host us because they just weren't able to be receptive to what we were doing.

The thing we pulled off together with the most glitz, I think, was our tour for her novel Palimpsest in 2009, which involved a group train ride from Chicago to New Orleans, and circus-level variety shows on both coasts, plus an art auction. And all of that was self-produced. People who were part of what we were doing at that time are still talking about it to this day. I love working with Cat remotely and on the road, and I hope that we'll continue to create interstitial presentations and complimentary sister-works together through the years.



Songfacts: Your songs are largely about magical places and imaginary worlds, yet you manage to evoke emotion very powerfully. "Manticore's Lullaby," for instance, is as beautifully sad and gut-wrenching as any song about more easily relatable, real world stories, despite the fact that its central interest is a mythological character that most Westerners have probably never even heard of. Is there an extra challenge to evoking that kind of emotion in songs that are touching upon alien worlds and unreal people? What is it that appeals to you about doing this, as opposed to more straight-forward and common songs of daily relationships?

S.J.: Ha! No, the extra challenge for me would be in not including that mythic element! Even when I release intentionally personal material, such as most of the songs on my Stolen Season record, I choose not to leave out a reference or two to mythology and fairy tales. It feels better, to me, to have that balance, that something extra and otherworldly and interesting. My friend Sandy O. of world-class folk duo emma's revolution called me out on this recently, in a joyful way. "We write about this world," she said, "while Sooj writes about all these other worlds!" I inspired her to take a break from her awesome political songwriting to write a song about a young superheroine, she tells me.

The thing is that stories inspire emotional responses that are every bit as real as those reactions we get from what happens in our daily lives. If we didn't tell stories, we wouldn't know our history. We would be a starkly different society, I believe, and probably pretty scary. I like monsters and mermaids and shape shifters and tricksters very much, and I like sharing things about them in songs. If we can find the beauty in a story, and see in it a reflection of ourselves, shouldn't that make us feel better and stronger about who we are? Love songs are what hit the charts, obviously, but there are plenty of people who get and enjoy what I write about, too.




Songfacts: S.J. Tucker has been called a pirate, a pixie, a folk artist, rock star, and a dozen other things. Your stage dress is as imaginative as anything David Bowie or Gwar ever donned. You play with fire artists. You post Youtube videos of yourself doing arts and crafts for your birthday. Nothing about you in easy to categorize, and nothing you do seems to be mainstream or "normal." Is that something you strive for, or something you simply are? Could S.J. Tucker sell out, even if she wanted to?



S.J.: Thank you! Wow. No, I don't think I could or would ever want to. I've been offered record contracts, but no one's ever offered me a better life than the one I already have - the one I have made for myself. I make a good living, I have few needs beyond making sure that I'm healthy and can cover the costs of releasing more work.

Grassroots is a great place to be. There are games I just don't have to play in order to make music, unlike some people who are deep into the mainstream side of the music industry. There is absolutely zero pressure on me to be less colorful, less vivacious, or less weird in order to make people happy. I don't have an attitude about being "obscure" or unique. I'm in this to get the songs out in the world where they can help people who might need to hear them. So far, I have more than what I need to keep going full-time, and whenever I've felt so tired or critical of myself that I've considered quitting, I've immediately heard from someone, either face to face or via email, who'll say to me, "please don't ever stop what you're doing. You're amazing, and we need you." It happens every time. I have to listen to that.

The closest thing to a more mainstream, radio-friendly song I've put out into the world in recent years was my entry in the Song of Arkansas contest. State tourism opened up submissions for a new promotional theme song in early 2014, so I threw a song together at the last minute. In spite of my original intent to just write something that I wouldn't have any emotional attachment to at all, I wrote about what it was like to grow up here and what that meant to me. This was further evidence that my integrity has no mute button. I don't mind.




Songfacts: One song that really gives me a kick is "The Great Velocipede Migration," which is about a "herd of wild, snorting, honking" bicycles. Where in the world did the inspiration for this song come from?


S.J.: My velocipedes come directly from Catherynne M. Valente's book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. In October of 2012, I released a whole album of songs inspired by that book, which is the first in a series of five. My album is called Wonders, and Chaz Kemp's cover art for it is an art nouveau depiction of me riding one of the wild velocipedes. The last of Cat's fairyland books came out on March 1, 2016, and I recommend them all very highly. The story follows a young heroine named September from her home in Omaha, Nebraska, into all sorts of adventures in Fairyland. It's quite a bit like the original Oz books, but with more attitude, and with a very playful and collaborative narrator's voice. September encounters a velocipede wrangler on her travels in Fairyland, as well as a ton of other fanciful folk. I decided that the wild velocipedes needed a theme song.


Songfacts: "We Are Shangri-La (Emerald City Mix)" was originally inspired by some of your experiences at Burning Man. You have a pretty close relationship to the festival. Can you say a bit about how that relationship came about and about what it means to you?



S.J.: I wouldn't call myself a Burning Man insider of any kind, but having been there at all is something that's very important to me. When I say that it changed my life, I'm not exaggerating. I've been attending and working at festivals and retreats for many years, but Burning Man is on a level all its own.

I was lucky enough to work for the ARTery, the festival's onsite art department, for four consecutive years, and also to perform with two different Colorado-based fire troupes every year that I've attended. I'm so grateful for that, partly because I so rarely go to festivals without a performer's job to do. If I'd gone to Burning Man for the first time without having a volunteer position, I might have felt a lot more at sea. As it was, working with the ARTery and with the fire performance teams let me be at the heart of what goes on at the Burn before, during, and after the event itself.

There's nothing quite like watching a temporary center of culture and expression rise out of the desert, flash more brightly than Vegas for a few days, and then disappear again without a trace. The "without a trace" part is important, and it's something that the Burner community works hard to maintain. No effort is ever perfect, of course, but there are a lot of people who work very hard to make sure that the Black Rock Desert doesn't look like it just hosted tens of thousands of people for a week, as they revel and set things on fire and share ideas and create temporary living spaces, once everybody goes home again.

My most memorable experiences at Burning Man involved visiting and interacting with the various art installations, fire dancing, learning Qi Gong, and writing new songs - all completely sober. I love that desert, even though it's a very dangerous place. I hope to also make it out to some of the regional Burns, the smaller Burning Man events that are hosted all over the US. I worry that they won't be particularly different from the Pagan festivals across the country that I know and love, but that's not a bad thing at all.



Songfacts: You've mentioned in the past that you're well known for singing good pirate songs. How did you develop this rather uncommon proclivity?

S.J.: Part of that, I think, is that I was inspired to write some original pirate-friendly material. It all started with what's known as The Wendy Trilogy, my trio of tunes about what might have happened in the Peter Pan mythos if Wendy turned to piracy and became heir to Captain Hook. Pirate music found me, after those songs were finished. I was performing one of them when my friend Alexander James Adams asked if I needed a fiddle player, which was the conversation that prompted us to start our band, Tricky Pixie. We're working on a follow-up to our first album this year, and we've performed both original and traditional pirate-related music at home and abroad since we got together in 2007. You could argue that, in spite of their fictional bent, my pirate songs are rooted more in real-world events than anything else I do, since so much of modern pirate and Renaissance festival-friendly music incorporates and is inspired by traditional tunes from early modern maritime history.



Songfacts: What's next for S.J. Tucker? 
 
S.J.: Heather Dale's Queens of Avalon musical, which I helped write and co-star in, is hopefully about to take the world by storm! Heather and I, together with our bandmates and theatre colleagues in the US and Canada, created, produced, and filmed a feminist retelling of the legends of King Arthur. That version of the production is now available on DVD, and we're planning to take it on the road soon. I invite everyone to come and be part of that adventure by checking out queensofavalon.com, and I'm hoping that it gives people - women, men, and others - as much food for thought as may be found in shows and films such as Wicked, Maleficent, and Frozen. Our goal is to reinforce the idea that women's stories are just as important as anyone's, and that everyone has the power to own their own story, no matter how many other people think they already know how it goes. I've got a strong theatre background, so I'll get to use those skills once again in all sorts of fun ways if we get to tour Queens of Avalon. I hope that we will!

I'll be celebrating the release of The Green Album in May of 2016. It's a compilation CD of all indie Pagan musicians who want to raise awareness about global climate change and other environmental issues. There are 14 new or previously unreleased songs on the record, from 14 different artists and bands, including Tuatha Dea, Spiral Dance, and me. A percentage of each album sale, digital or physical, will go to the Rainforest Trust. We're hoping to make history with this, so please visit thegreenalbum.net to be part of the magic.

April 18, 2016.
Get more at sjtucker.com.

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