Summer Queen 2015, Interview with S.J. Tucker

The shelves and windowsills were crowded with ravens; the hedgehogs took the first row of seats; even a few of the local fae could be seen peeking shyly around corners now and again. The Jacks and the Annies were in attendance, of course, and most of the staff from both Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog.

It’s not often one gets to sit in the court of the Summer Queen and hear her speak on wondrous things, after all. It’s a rare treat, and a lovely break from a long day’s workload. On this particular occasion, the Summer Queen title descended upon noted singer/songwriter S.J. Tucker; she was gracious enoughCover of S J Tucker's Ravens In the Library to grant an Open Court Q&A session, and we’ve recorded the results for our readers to delight in.

First up, of course, were questions about her now-infamous (within the bounds of this particular Library, anyway) song “Ravens in the Library” (which she later performed, to the delight of all assembled–some more so than others; we’re still picking feathers out of the shelves from the impromptu raven dance.).

“I can’t get this song out of my head,” said one of the reviewers, a bit plaintively. “I’m playing it constantly, and it made me look for the book by the same name, and I’m sitting here today because of that one song. How did you come to write it? Tell us all about it — no detail too small!”

Our Queen laughed and said:

I’m really happy that Ravens in the Library has been such good company for you, and I’m happy to know that the book is in your hands as well. I wrote the song early in 2007, when my band Tricky Pixie got together for our very first rehearsal weekend.  I was in Seattle, just having started my tour for that year. A friend of mine who’d come to my most recent concert gushed about the campus library at the University of Washington, where she was in grad school.

She told me all about the art exhibit in the Allen Library, which includes a group of sculpted ravens that hang from the ceiling.  Many of these ravens have different symbols, letters, kanji, or punctuation in their beaks, and they are all painted black, with deep blue whorls and circles.  No two are quite the same.  On the wall in the gallery below them, the following words are posted, both in English and in one of the languages of the First Nation of the Pacific Northwest: Raven brings light to this house of stories.

I was enchanted at her description, and I immediately found this lyric floating around in my head:

my friend bids me come and see/the ravens in the library/setting quiet pages free.

Hot on the heels of this, two strong concepts occurred to me.

The first was the idea of a post-apocalyptic library, still standing, being invaded by a small family of ravens, who then discovered the books and began teaching themselves to read.  Ravens are amazingly intelligent birds, they’re talented mimics, and many ravens learn to speak as humans do.  They practice reason and strategy every day — the thought of them learning to read books didn’t seem that much of a stretch to me.

(At this point the ravens in our Library all puffed up big enough to bust and cawed loudly.)

The second concept that came to me was more the spirit of Raven as a trickster, appearing repeatedly in the library stacks in present times, just in the corner of the eye, spooking scholars and students just for the hell of it.

A few days later, curled up in my cellist’s living room between periods of glorious rehearsal, I wrote the rest of the song.  I remember that our fiddler was amused to see me in the grips of a songwriting fit, writing about something I hadn’t yet actually seen with my own eyes.  “Just wind her up and let her go,” he said.

It took me another year and a half before I actually got to that library and saw those ravens in their exhibit.  They’re wonderful.

Of the few hundred songs I’ve written, “Ravens in the Library” remains one of my favorites.  It’s always fun for me to perform it, solo or with a group.  Two years after its release, I’m still satisfied with the recorded version, which includes a couple of demented vocal counterpoint sections — the familiar old raven counting games set to music behind the song’s main melody.  It’s a piece in praise of literature, communication, folklore and whimsy.  Librarians everywhere have fallen in love with it.  Little kids sing along with it, and adults who listen to it get the giggles in spite of themselves — if the lyrics don’t get them, my raucous corvid noises at the end of a live performance gets them every time.

(She demonstrated, much to everyone’s amusement.)

Another staff member called out, “How many collaborations like the Ravens in the Library anthology have you done to date? Are you planning more in the future? Didn’t you just do a collaboration involving Catherynne M. Valente’s books — tell us about that!”

Our Queen’s face lit up with another big smile. She said:

The Ravens in the Library anthology was less a collaboration for me than an act of magick, an act of community, a boon, and a gift. To this day, I feel that I owe the editors and contributors my sanity and comfort, if not my life.  The Ravens in the Library anthology was also created under atypical circumstances — friends, colleagues and luminaries rushed to my aid when I was very ill and facing significant hospital bills and debt.

My typical collaborations started with author Catherynne M. Valente, a dear friend of mine. Since I met Catherynne in 2006, she’s become a New York Times best-selling author and won many an award.  She and I became friends shortly before the release of her Orphan’s Tales duology.

It was those two novels which sparked our first full-scale collaborations — I recorded an album of songs and readings for each of the two Orphan’s Tales books.  Each of the songs I wrote was paired on the album with a reading from the part of the book that inspired the song.

Since then I’ve written more songs inspired by Catherynne’s work, and I’m currently closing in on an album inspired by her New York Times best-seller, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The album’s title track, “Wonders”, celebrates the courage of the book’s protagonist — a little girl named September, and thus the courage of all of us who take on quests, even when it seems we may be too small or too ordinary.

I think of it as a treat, writing songs with people I greatly admire. At the moment, I’m completing songs with lyrics written by C. S. E. Cooney and by Satyros Phil Brucato, and I have ideas in the cooker from writer/artist James A. Owen, wordsmith Amal El-Mohtar, essayist Ryan James Loyd, and others.  I’ve written songs inspired by artist/writer Emily Carding, J. M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, Jim Butcher, and author/artist/editor/fairy godmother Terri Windling.

Author S. M. Stirling became a friend shortly after he asked permission to quote my lyrics in his novels. Being quoted in such a way was something I’d dreamed of since learning how often author Charles De Lint — no slouch as a musician himself — quotes the lyrics of others in his work.

Writing songs is one of my favorite things, and so having such creative geniuses as friends to write with and to cross-inspire feels as good as going to recess did when I was five.

Not all of my collaborations end up in the recording studio.  Some of them come about strictly as live performances.  I’ve been blessed to share concerts and week-long touring adventures with Catherynne Valente many times, in support of her books and my albums.

I’ve also had the good fortune to create storytelling concerts with Mr. Mark Lewis of Eugene, Oregon — Mark is a master storyteller, and he’s very keen to let Betsy and me provide a soundtrack for him on stage, with little-to-no rehearsal.  It’s lots of fun.

One of the most recent unexpected joys of my performing life has been meeting and working with a family troupe of puppeteers in Washington state — the Nymbol’s Secret Garden troupe, led by Bill and Samantha Cass.  Bill, Sam, their two daughters, and their amazing little puppet creatures have shared some of my favorite shows with me over the past two years.  They’re working on a pitch for their own TV show right now.  Each of their new ideas is more fun than the last, and I love being invited to be part of the magic that they all create — sometimes as a puppeteer, sometimes as a singer.  I imagine that it’s a bit like what it must have been like, being a guest star on The Muppet Show — but with even more sarcasm and lack of need to be politically correct.

My songs about Wendy and Peter Pan have sparked quite a bit of collaboration and opportunities to share art, also — there’s a picture book in the works, there’s been discussion of a graphic novel, and I’ve heard scripted radio dramas and taken part in live theater versions of the songs!

SJTuckerSeeking collaboration, and having it seek me, is usually as easy as asking the other person, “You wanna?”  We start with an artist’s agreement, usually over email, and then proceed on to more complicated documentation as necessary.  Thankfully, I’ve never been in a situation where I have to worry that, without legal paperwork, a partnership or collaboration will turn nasty later on.  Most of the people I know would rather simply inspire each other and celebrate the work that comes along, rather than quibble about who owns what.  We all respect each other and each other’s work.  I still insist on contracts more often than not. That’s the only part which isn’t fun.  The rest of the process is sheer bliss — brainstorming together, sending each other little bits and pieces of creative stuff as it comes out, and inspiring each other. Pretty serious magick happens there.

“Tell us about the musicians that play with you,” a reviewer said. “Have they been the same since the beginning? Are you the one in charge, and they’re playing what you tell them, or are they collaborators within the music-creating process?”

S.J. (we were all feeling quite familiar with our Queen by this point)  leaned back in her throne, thinking for a moment, then said:

I started my first band in 1999, when I was nineteen.  Before that, I played solo shows and hoped to find the right people to play and perform with.  Over the years, I’ve found some truly amazing peers and co-conspirators in the music world.  My various bandmates and songwriting buddies currently include Alexander James Adams, Jori Costello, Heather Dale, Ben Deschamps, Ginger Doss, Melodie Griffis, Renee Janski, Bekah Kelso, John Stadtlander, and my brilliant cellist Betsy Tinney.

Alexander, Alec to his friends, is a multi-instrumentalist with a successful 30-plus-year music career under his belt.  He’s also quite the recording engineer and producer, having produced his own solo work for many years.  These days, he’s the Faerie Tale Minstrel, delighting festival crowds and pubs and con-goers alike.  Alec is an integral part of my mischievous, loosely Celtic band, Tricky Pixie.

Jori Costello is a one-woman song-storm, well loved by the womyn’s music community.  Jori’s voice and guitar playing can get you fired up or make you weep, whatever you need most, and her command of a coctail drum kit is super impressive.  Jori is one third of the rock band Big Bad Gina, together with Melodie Griffis and Renee Janski- three women who have become my sisters and who inspire me greatly.

Heather Dale of Toronto is a true Queen of Bards.  She’s the closest thing to a rockstar the SCA has ever seen, for all the right reasons.  She’s a brilliant singer, a gifted songwriter, and a scholar of all things Arthurian legend.

She’s also become one of my very best friends, sharing her bandmates and tours with me across the USA and Canada over the past two years.  Heather makes me bring my A-game, as it were, and I love arranging songs with her- both mine and hers.

Ben Deschamps, Heather’s partner in life and in music, has become my all-unlooked-for big brother.  He’s a ham and a goof, something people don’t often expect when they look up at his imposing 6’7″ scowl.  He’s amazing with guitar, fiddle, and cittern, and he’ll even break out his viola d’amore from time to time.

Ginger Doss and I have worked together since shortly after we met in 2005.  Ginger has a long, ongoing music career, and she’s had a hand in producing every recording I’ve made since my second album.  Needless to say, I look up to Ginger and I love her.  We’ve toured together many times as part of a project called The Traveling Fates, and we’ve backed each other up at all kinds of shows and on all kinds of recordings.  Ginger’s a genius, a warrior, and a shaman whose strength is most evident in her humility.  She’s a quiet giant with more power than it seems her body could ever hold.  All you have to do to feel it is to be within earshot when she starts singing and playing piano, or beating a drum.  Ginger has a dark, velvety alto voice and a constant air of peace and calm.  She inspires me, encourages me, and helps me to do my best, no matter what the situation.

Melodie Griffis of Big Bad Gina is the most impressive guitarist I know.  She’s another introvert who knows how to blow your mind with a sudden rip of a guitar solo or a sweet blast of soprano singing.  She just recently became one of my guitar teachers, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  Mel feeds jazz chords into my brain and grins like a maniac when I pick them up and play them back — she’s the best kind of teacher.

Mel’s had an interesting life, just like her bandmates Jori and Renee — I recently got to hear about her time in Cameroon, where she worked in the Peace Corps for three years, ended up joining a band, and organized the Cameroon World AIDS Day Music Festival. Like most of my best friends, she blows my mind.  I don’t get to play and sing with Mel often enough.

Renee Janski is my sister of heart and song, to be sure.  She retired from professional Opera before we met to raise her amazing twin sons.  She’s been active in several flavors of ministry, and is now one of my favorite activist-rockstars.  She’s also my vocal coach when we can both be still for a few days-those days are getting increasingly rare.

Renee wears her passion on the outside, and you can hear her heart in her beautiful voice.  She has soulful command of piano, fiddle and bass guitar, and is no slouch on percussion.  No matter the song, Renee can sing the hell out of it, and she’ll show you honestly how much fun she’s having as she goes.

All the members of Big Bad Gina switch instruments throughout their sets, and I’ve always loved bands who can do this.

Renee and I have just recently begun to write songs together, and we hope to do more in the future.  I couldn’t share enough shows with Big Bad Gina — I’m very proud to have these incredible womyn in my musical family.

The icing on the cake is that we’re all native Arkansans who play music full time.  When I was a child growing up in Arkansas, first learning to sing and play instruments, I had no friends or peers who thought about music that much.  That’s no longer true — it’s incredible to have such good friends back home nowadays.  My musical life is rich in synergy, and Renee is the sweetest example of that.  I have no sisters by birth, but perhaps that’s because my life had to leave room for vibrant, talented, brilliant people like Renee.

Bekah Kelso is a force of nature and a brilliant songwriter.  Stand in direct line when Bekah sings, and some part of you will melt and love her all the rest of your days, I promise you.  I met Bekah in Texas in 2005, and the kismet was immediate.  We share a love of jazzy, sexy songs, and I can honestly say that I’d just about follow her anywhere.  She’s just started a family, and I’m proud to be one of her son’s many faery godmothers.  Bekah’s very good at making amazing art, and her new son falls squarely into that category.  Bekah has a sweet, soulful voice, but she’s not afraid to bring in a growl and a serious lyric along with it.  The entire time I’ve known her, she’s worked for positive change in herself, the communities she sings to, and in the world.  Bekah’s going places, and I feel that she’s unstoppable.

Any time she sings with me, or I get to sing with her, the magick is palpable.  Bekah is the third member of the Traveling Fates project, and in recent months she and I have worked on our first film soundtrack and score together.  Our musical relationship continues to grow and evolve, and I feel lucky to call her my sister.  She had me record lead guitar on her song “Seething Sun”, which we play live together every chance we get, and she had me do quite a bit of production on her song, “Crossroads” this past year — my first opportunity to produce anyone else’s music.  Imagine what that did for my self-confidence.

John Stadtlander is the most self-deprecating fellow I’ve ever met.  He’s also one of the most talented drummers I’ve been blessed to know.  John is a regular member of the Heather Dale Band, and so I only really get to work with him when I work with Heather.  That said, we’re all starting to work together more and more.  John truly cares about doing his very best, and so he’s super self-critical.  I know that feeling, and so it raises appreciation and tenderness in me when I see it in others.  John is great fun to tour with, and even greater fun to perform with.  I hope to have him be a guest on many a tour and a recording in the near future.

When I met Betsy Tinney, she was so serious and quiet that I thought she didn’t like me.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. Since we met in 2004, she’s become my best friend and foremost collaborator in song arrangement and writing.  I’ve done more shows with her as part of various bands than I have with anyone else on earth, and I feel blessed to say so.  I’ve also traveled the furthest with her — Betsy and Alec and I had our first trip to another country to perform as a band this past fall, when we did a tiny tour in Great Britain and Germany together.  Betsy’s song “Alligator in the House”, which she allowed me to help her flesh out and arrange, has gotten us more love from fans worldwide than just about anything else.  Her “Dryad’s Promise” is a tear-jerker and a crowd favorite at Tricky Pixie concerts.  She’s equally gifted at writing the sublime and the silly where songs are concerned, moreso than anyone else I know.  I’ve written more songs at Betsy’s house in the Pacific Northwest than just about anywhere else — I have my own little house and recording studio now, and I’m thrilled to get to host Betsy in return for the first time this winter.  In the spring, she’ll be doing some work on her very first solo album, to be called Release the Cello; I get to help her out for a change.

Betsy’s cello, and therefore Betsy, can call up anything from a thunderstorm to an elephant in mid-pirouette. She is truly amazing. We amplify each other, and it’s always a joy.

I much prefer leaving room for brilliant, creative people to be brilliant and creative, instead of just telling them what to do.  There are times when I have a specific part in mind for someone to sing or play, but even then, I leave it open to that person’s interpretation.  When we all work together, the person who wrote the song is understood by the rest of us to be in charge.  We all love and respect each other and each other’s work; we all want to help each other shine.  I think I gain more by being open to suggestions than I would by being rigid and unbending.  Sometimes it’s a lot more fun when you don’t know precisely what you want for a song, and you can ask your friends to help you find it.

“Tell us about ‘Alligator in the House’“, came the next request. “Your performance at Balticon 2012 was magnificent. Where in the world did that song come from, and what, in your opinion, has been the best public performance of that piece?”

S.J. laughed at that, and said:

I’ve already mentioned that “Alligator in the House” was Betsy’s brainchild, and that our fans love it dearly.  “Alligator” was the first song that Betsy was able to finish writing.  It was inspired by her songwriting teacher’s encouragement to find something around the house to write a song about.

Betsy raises and breeds Maine Coon cats, which are some of the snuggliest beasts on earth, and one day she noticed how much her cats loved cuddling up to a large plush alligator pillow in her living room.  “There’s an alligator in the house” was the line that started it all, naturally.  Betsy and her daughter Kate sang the song for me in its infancy, and I couldn’t help but write another verse or two for it, once we all stopped rolling around in the floor laughing.  It started with something so small and silly, and it became a tango about paranoia, inner demons, hallucinations, and reptile affinity.

No two performances of “Alligator in the House” are the same.  My favorite instances of the song as performed live have always been when the audience gets really involved — everything from spontaneous dancing and chomping pantomime in the aisles to full-on alligator tango costumes suddenly slinking their way across the stage!  It’s theater tradition to uphold what’s known as the fourth wall — implied separation between the performers and the audience.  We break down the fourth wall with “Alligator in the House” all the time, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You perform at an interesting range of venues, from fantasy-sf conventions to churches, art centers, and community centers,” someone pointed out. “How do you manage to book into such a wide range — and line up so many performances, as well?”

It’s been that way for me since the beginning of my touring career. As independent artists, my colleagues and I are almost always better off seeking out odd, alternative venues than we would be if we exclusively played in bars.  When you can come into a space and make it your own with ambiance and music,  the show is bound to be a memorable one.  My first large-scale performances — with full stage and sound and lights-were at Pagan festivals, which bands like Velvet Hammer/Dreamtrybe and Emerald Rose set the precedent for.  I’ve done my fair share of coffee shop shows and bar gigs, but if you really want people to listen to and remember your work, you’re better served in a situation where your music is the focus, not just part of the background.

This is why I much prefer festivals, conventions, and community centers.  I don’t have a booking agent — I book my own tours with help from a very well-seasoned and trusted inner circle of friends and associates.  It’s much easier to do so these days than it once was — independent artists (those of us who work with small record labels or no record label at all, and do our own promotion and touring) have gained a lot of respect and credibility in recent years, where not so very many years ago it was unheard of to make a living as a performer if you didn’t have big-time representation with a known company.

For me, it’s about going where my audience is, and going where my audience wants to be.  When I’m working on booking a tour, I always ask the fans in any given area first where they think I should play, where they’d like to see me perform: what towns, what types of places, what festivals, what conventions, etc.  The conventions and festivals are kind enough to come looking for me, which is a huge compliment and a great gift.

“Your musical style is remarkable for its diversity,” came the next comment. “The songs ‘Witchka’ and ‘The Truth About Ninjas’ couldn’t be more different. How did you develop such a varied style, and which of your songs do you like best?”

S.J. thought about that a moment, then said:

I think it’s most important to be open to all sorts of inspiration and influence.  Playing only one type of song makes it easier for you to build on your brand and for people to find a category to put you into — many artists are very good at this.

My own strengths lie in doing all sorts of things as best I can, with as much fun and respect and beauty as possible.  Since I was a tiny thing, I’ve loved everything from classical music to indie and alternative and industrial.  My favorites of my own material, and that of others, changes daily.  So does my voice, for that matter!  I never know when I wake up in the morning what I’ll have the most fun singing or playing that day:  something slow and jazzy in a growly voice, like some of the new pieces I’ve been writing, a sing-song thing like “Ninjas” or “September’s Rhyme”, a weird aria like “Hieratica in Flames”, or a fierce tune like “Witchka” or “Red-handed Jill”.  No one in my life has ever told me there was anything I could not or should not sing. I’m pretty critical of my own work, but I’m gentle on myself as censors go — I don’t over-weed my own garden.

In the words of Ginger Doss, “who knows what’ll grow if you give it a try?”

Our Queen looked to be getting tired, so we announced that only two more questions would be allowed. Someone blurted,  Where did you come up with the name “Skinny White Chick”? That sounds like a story all on its own!”

Oh, yes. Remember how I mentioned that I started my first band in 1999?  I was nineteen that summer, and I attended a lot of poetry slams and readings back then, in and around the town where I went to high school — Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Hot Springs is a sweet little artsy tourist town with its own classical music and film festivals.  It was a good place to come of age.  A good friend of mine from the poetry scene, poet Ginna Wallace, gave me a choice of home-printed stickers one evening.  I chose the one that read, “If you are not a skinny white girl, you are nothing.”  At the time, I was very much a skinny white girl, often carrying around a guitar that looked much too big for me.  Wiseguys on the street would ask aloud, “Is there a guitar in there?  Can she play that?  Can you play that?”  I put this sticker proudly onto my big brown guitar case where every wiseguy could read it, if he’d ever bothered to learn to read, and I considered it an act of empowerment.

My band’s original name was Headcase.  There were three of us. We were invited to perform at a daytime even in Hot Springs, on one of the hottest days of the summer.  Our addition was last-minute, but the good folks at Banjo Dan’s Vintage Guitars who were hosting the event managed to get our name on the posters anyway — except, when we saw the posters, there was no mention of Headcase.  Instead, because the guys at the store DID bother to read the sticker on my guitar case, they assumed that our band name was Skinny White Chick.  We decided that truth in advertising (and a little female empowerment — they were smart boys, my original band) was best, and so we kept the name!

The final question allowed that day came from a shy girl toward the back of the crowd:

“I imagine that even with all the touring and interviews and publicity,  there are still questions you wish people would (or wouldn’t!) ask. Is there something you wish you could talk about, and is there something, by contrast, that you wish people wouldn’t bother asking you about any more?”

S.J nodded and answered:

In the past two or three years, I’ve been lucky enough for conventions and festivals to ask me to start teaching a class or giving a workshop here and there.  It’s amazing how much you can learn, about your chosen field and about yourself, as you teach.  I’d love to do more teaching, and to discuss it as well.

I’ve been developing a class/workshop on how each person can individually use music as magick, as healing, as power for energy work that’s been very well received.  I’ve also had a chance to lead instrumental improv sessions with Betsy and with others — at a lot of events,  the focus is on singing, and many people never get a chance to improvise without lyrics or just with an instrument and with people they’ve just met.  Talk about a revelatory good time!

As far as things I’d rather not discuss, it’s more about the attitude for me than the question itself.  It’s rare that someone will ask me a question without a sense of respect to it, and more of a feeling of “who do you think you are, anyway?”  But it has happened.  That’s the kind of thing that really puts me off and makes me rather not talk at all.

At this point, our Summer Queen yawned, then apologized, assuring us that she was merely tired from staying up all night, noodling around with a new tune that she was slowly coaxing to life. We promptly led her off to a guest cottage to get a well-deserved nap, then set about cleaning up the mess — largely left by the ravens, of course, but try asking them to lend a hand with tidying up!

For those readers inclined to find out more about S.J. Tucker and her work: her Web site; her Facebook page; her music download page. You can find videos of her performances on YouTube. She can be found on Twitter under the name @s00j. Last, but not least, S.J. Tucker’s thoughts on summer.

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