Mischief and Starlight: The Fantastical Music of S.J. Tucker
So I said to myself, “Self, let us write a blog about the presence of High Fantasy in Music.”
To which I replied, in my characteristic thought-bubble: “AWESOME! That should be EASY PEASY! …Right?”
Well, I told me direly, we’ll just have to see.
I knew I should avoid scribbling about how music itself has influenced Fantasy literature since time immemorial. After all, that’s been written before, and by people with Ph.D.’s no less, and even if I felt like giving it a go, I’d have to memorize all those ballads about Tam Lin and talk intelligently about Margaret Atwood and Ellen Kushner, and learn Old English; I just couldn’t stir myself to that level of scholarship.
What I wanted to explore is the music of now. What does music right here, right now, today, this moment, have to do with Fantasy as a genre? Is there some kind of movement? Are there professional musicians who make their livings singing about dragons and elves and ghosts and, I dunno, Time Lords – and if so, where can I find them?
Two things immediately came to mind when the words “Fantasy” and “Music” collided. The first was S.J. Tucker. The second, Heavy Metal.
Oh, boy. Talk about colossi. There is simply TOO MUCH in either subject to fit into one tidy little blog by yours truly, whose only desire was to give fantastical music a MENTION, so I decided to split the subjects evenly in twain, conduct a few interviews, and tackle them in separate blogs.
Heavy Metal is scary. So I decided first to write up S.J. Tucker, who is not. [Claire’s Heavy Metal post is now here. You thought she was joking, didn’t you? — the editor.]
Or rather, she is scary, but in more of a Faerie Queen sort of way. Like Galadriel, during her “beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” moment, is totally scary, but maybe less scary than, say, Sauron. Who is definitely Heavy Metal. (Just listen to Summoning’s album Oath Bound if you don’t believe me. They sing – I use “sing” loosely – in the Black Speech of Mordor! There are ORC HORNS!)
Therefore, S.J. Tucker.
Known as “Sooj” to her community, as “that Skinny White Chick” by visitors to her website, and to the world at large as a gypsy-pixie-punk-faerie-bard, S.J. Tucker travels the United States in her van, with her guitars, her stuffed fox Brigid, and her companion Kevin Wiley, to sing at conventions, house concerts, acoustic venues, weddings, woodland gatherings, and even aboard pirate ships.
Tucker is not only fantastic; she’s like a character out of a fantasy novel. She weaves myth and magic into her lyrics as easily as a strain of cello, a lick of something electric, the chuffing of a train engine.
This is the woman who brought us “The Wendy Trilogy,” a three-part epic that focuses on a brief scene in the latest live-action film Peter Pan, when Captain Hook offers Wendy (instead of John, as he does in J.M. Barrie’s book) a chance at piracy, to take the name “Red-Handed Jill” and sail the high seas.
“The story goes she told him no,” Tucker sings. “But not all tales are true!”
But it’s not just the 19th Century British Classics she spins into song. Oh, no.
In “Valkyrie Daughter,” on the album Sirens, Tucker mines Norse mythology, delicately threading its olden gold with the story of a bereaved father:
“Valhalla is ever receiving
As her sons are forever at war
But her gates are not barred
As you may have been told
To the women and children worth fighting for
Time was that a soldier named for Loki
Had daughters a plenty
He reared them up fierce in his pride
The fairest had just reached her flowering time
When the Norns cut her thread and she died…”
Tucker has a knack – no, a genius – for weaving old ways with new. Her song, “Neptune” (to be released on her upcoming album Mischief) brings together a common human tale of lost love with the abyssal mythos of an ancient god. Lyrics and music are chilling and lovely; once heard, “Neptune” sinks into your marrow and thunders there.
Elsewhere, in other tunes, on other albums, fauns, firebirds, dryads, satyrs (and even ninjas) abound. There is no lack of magical creatures in S.J. Tucker’s work. Some of her recordings are more menagerie than music!
No. I lied. Tucker’s music always prevails. Sometimes the music is folk and sometimes it is punk. Sometimes it is rock or blues or chant or jazz. Tucker’s repertoire is as elastic and generous as the Fantasy genre itself, and as joyful.
Perhaps most intriguing to me are her collaborations with Fantasy author Catherynne M. Valente. Twice now they have toured together, with Valente reading excerpts from The Orphan’s Tales and Palimpsest, and S.J. Tucker singing selections from For the Girl in the Garden, Solace and Sorrow, and Quartered: Songs of Palimpsest, soundtracks that she composed as companions to Valente’s novels.
About a month ago, when I emailed S.J. Tucker asking for an interview, I was nervous. I don’t usually conduct interviews. What if my questions were inane? Why pester her with all the things she’d been asked in a dozen interviews before? Gah!
I needn’t have worried; Sooj is an inveterate raconteuse. She handled my stammerings gracefully and lifted the anvil of the interview right up from my shoulders.
I will forthwith present the results for your pleasure and bow out of this blog discreetly…
But not before alluding in the most mythological way possible to the dangers of sirens and the benefits of stopping your ears up with wax.
Speaking for myself – S.J. Tucker’s music is an ocean I’d happily drown in.
Who inspires you musically?
There are so many of us who come up from the ground and have no contracts and no networks. Because of artists like Ani DiFranco, there is a clear gorgeous path through the trees – drive all over the country in my truck and sing for people who liked me. I wake up in the morning and think I can do this, it’s real – and it’s because of people who break the mold. Mr. Jonathon Coulton sings about mad scientists and zombies and every other delightful sci-fi silly thing you can think of. And is a super star, as far as the geek-known world is concerned.
You’ve done many collaborations; are there other authors – poets – graphic novel writers – playwrights – out there with whom you have crazy crack-dreams about collaborating? Name a few?
People I dream of collaborating with – it’s sort of been falling into my lap. So I’m almost afraid to dream – because what if I’m not ready?
Weirdly out of the blue, Mr. S.M. Stirling – author of Island on the Sea of Time and the Dies the Fire series – emailed me back in October to say, “Dear Miss Tucker, my name is Steve Stirling, I’m the author of all of these fun books, and would really like to get copyright permission to use your lyrics in my novel…”
He’d already quoted one of my songs and hadn’t realized it was mine. He sent me all of his books – signed – in one gorgeous Christmas package. We’re going to meet up with Steve later this month, and stay at his house and let him cook us dinner.
Peter S. Beagle has always been one of my favorite, favorite authors and I get to meet him in a couple weeks at ConFusion in Detroit. He’s fun and he’s a musician also.
In the latter half in 2009, I met Charles DeLint and MaryAnn Harris and we had a jam session until 2 in the morning – I’d never turn down an opportunity to collaborate with him. So Charles and Peter S. Beagle are on my list of pipe dreams.
Did you read a lot of fantasy growing up? Are there particular novels, poems or songs you consider intrinsic to the artist you’ve become?
Oh, golly. We could talk about this for days. I read so much from the minute I learned. Do you remember the Scholastic Book Fairs? They’d come around every few months or so. I always had a half a stack more than everyone else. My mother was wise enough to know that I needed feeding so she’d send me in with however much money she could spare.
I did not read Lord of the Rings until I was eleven; it took me all summer; I stuck my nose in it and would not give up. All the neighborhood cats that came to our house have Tolkien names. Pippin is the one who stayed. He’s seventeen years old now.
E.B. White to a certain extent. Stuart Little. My mom said, “That book is weird,” and yet she had it on her shelf. And Stuart Little was weird. A woman giving birth to a mouse. But it didn’t strike me as weird because it was in a book.
Mine was always a houseful of books. Nothing was off limits. Nothing.
I have a Great Aunt I am named after. She’s the Jane in my “Susan Jane.” She and her family are the wild, redheaded Louisiana cousins. Like the Ya-Ya sisterhood – in her sixties, she still looked like Sophia Loren. And she would always, always bring me books. The book I remember most notably is a large book of Greek myths. I devoured that thing. I read that over and over and over. My defection to fantasia. Bacchus running around with the centaur girls. That comes up in my songs sometimes.
Tell me about the origins of the Wendy Trilogy?
My brain and I have a game that we play. It generally will go like this; “What if so-and-so did blah, instead of how it goes in the stories?”
When the Wendys came along – it was one of those things. We’d recently seen the latest live-action Peter Pan film. We were out on the west coast, just south of Portland, Oregon, and I got this idea.
What if Wendy did not go home? What if in that scene where she and her brothers are tied to the mast, and Captain Hook asked her, “Wouldn’t you rather stay with me?” what if she took him up on it? And owned his ass!
And I sat in the car, in the garage, and I wrote and wrote, and skipped meals, and wrote Parts One and Two in a notebook, editing as I went. It’s a good thing that I studied theatre as much as I did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have the ability to memorize all these crazy lyrics. I can’t stop, because it keeps on coming (“Sooj, Sooj” my friends told me, “There’s ice cream!”) but I can’t stop – it’s not done with me. Until I finally ran out words. That’s what happens with my favorite songs. They ride me until I’m exhausted, and we’re done. It’s very much like a lightning bolt. People talk about being a vessel, about channeling. And without being woo-woo fluffy fluffy… It’s like that.
Part Three of the Wendy Trilogy came as we were driving out of the desert after Burning Man. “Let me introduce you to Green-Eyed Sue. And by the way, she needs a jig.”
Tell me about your various bands. How does the music differ, the storytelling, the energy?
SKINNY WHITE CHICK
Sooj and Guest Artists
That’s been my band name for over ten years now. I had a sticker on my guitar case that said, “If you are not a Skinny White Girl, you are nothing,” which was a blatant social commentary on the whole princess Paris Hilton thing. I use the band name whenever I’m playing with other people. If it’s Betsy and me, it’s Skinny White chick. If it’s me and a drummer, it’s Skinny White Chick. If it’s just me by myself, it’s S.J. Tucker.
Alexander James Adams, Betsy Tinney, Sooj
My dream of the funnest band ever that I actually get to be in! We play my music, we play Alec’s music, and we play Betsy’s music. It’s a true collaboration between the three of us. We have three separate careers. Alexander James Adams has 25 years on me as a performer. I’m so lucky to know him, and to collaborate with him musically, because he’s brilliant.
Just about every show has been better than the last. We play music that’s “Celtic Rock for Naughty Faeries.” All the fun, fantasy-appropriate stuff from our rather monumental song catalogues. Alec and I are writing all the time. Betsy writes a new one, and the world opens up. All of Betsy’s songs have been about critters. “Alligator in the House” and “Ballad of the Boy Cat,” and “Tough Titty Cupcakes.” On our album Mythcreants, “Dryad’s Promise” is Betsy’s 100% Faerie song.
We get a little into High Faerie with Alec’s music. He comes from the serious, glorious Celtic tradition, where the Sidhe will carry you off – and there’s nothing you can do about it. With Alec’s encouragement, I wrote “Daughter of the Glade” as a response to his “Creature of the Wood.”
Someone gave me a challenge to write Tam Lin – and it came out, but it would not have been what it is without Alec and Betsy. We help each other, we know each other, and we have fun together. The first time we got together to rehearse, we took a weekend and we practiced for 8 hours for two days in a row. And we didn’t want to stop, we didn’t want to go to bed, we didn’t want to eat – we were having so much fun. The costumes have gotten crazier and the energy has never lacked for fun.
When we played the Tall Ships festivals in July 2008, we were dressed up as pirates on top of Puget Sound, and the Tall Ships were behind us, and our MC was not the Jack Sparrow, but he was a Jack Sparrow. Our fans really impressed the organizers of the festival. It’s not normal, apparently, for your fans to show up in full pirate costume and sing along at the top of their lungs and pantomime rowing their boats through the grass.
THE TRAVELING FATES
Ginger Doss, Bekah Kelso, Sooj
The three of us had our first show as The Traveling Fates just over a year ago. It’s a trio. All three of us are songwriters.
We have a lot to bring to the table. What we have is something bluesy, sexy, salty and extraordinary. Three women, with very powerful voices. Two guitars, one keyboard, three drummers, and a band-in-a-box. We’re just unstoppable.
We had our first full tour this past November. We went to the beach; we did silly band things together. Oh, gosh, it was so good. It was so very sweet.
Ginger has got a voice that sounds like the way red velvet feels when it brushes your skin. The richest, smokiest alto in the world. I’d sit at her feet and let her sing to me for a week and not move.
Bekah is equal parts Fiona Apple and KT Tunstall and BRINGS it. And she’s movie star beautiful on top of it. She’s up on the political world and is not afraid of writing about it. Here’s this white girl, rapping out of nowhere, and it’s amazing. Hidden talents and Pleiades magic.
FIRE AND STRINGS
Kevin Wiley and Sooj
This started out with me doing improvisational music while Kevin spun fire, live and unrehearsed. It evolved to me writing specific music for Kevin and me and other folks to spin fire to.
I do my concert, my sets, and then we go out and spin fire. It’s less a band, less a troupe, and just straight up collaboration. Me, reacting to the beautiful things that Kevin is doing, and Kevin reacting to music.
The two of us teach classes on spinning poi and spinning staff. We don’t let our students spin fire until we feel they’re ready. Fire is something not to be messed with. It’s to be feared and respected.
The music I’ve written for Fire and Strings has lots of Middle Eastern influences, is almost entirely electronic, and has broadened me and woken parts of me I didn’t know existed.
“Recall now what I’ve said
About how faeries love to gab?
This goes for everyone from
Tinkerbell to Old Queen Mab
One night on the horizon
A new set of stars was born
And Neverland played host to folk
Who sailed in fleets of silver boats
No stars were these, but the royal fleet
of Titania and Oberon
The King and Queen of Faerie
Come to Neverland this night
On sailing silver ships that run
On mischief and starlight
To meet this human girl child
Of whom the tales are sweet
And respectfully ask Wendy
If she’ll lead their royal fleet…”
– S.J. Tucker
“The Wendy Trilogy: Part 3”
Photos by Kyle Cassidy.
This falls into the heavy metal section but theres a song called “Soulforged” by a band named Blind Guardian, i’m pretty sure their european. the song is about one of the main characters of the Dragonlance novels.
There’s a great young band called THE SWORD out of Austin, Texas (of all places) that have the mythic-fantasy quotient honed to perfection in their doom-and-sludge riff-rock heaviness. I think it’s too mellow to be called “metal” but it’s definitely “heavy.” They have two albums out so far and are working on a third. The first two “Age of Winters” and “Gods of the Earth” are simply brilliant. For George R. R. Martin fans, there’s a great son on “Gods…” called “To Take the Black” that you’ll really appreciate. Check them out…some have called them “stoner rock” but drugs are entirely optional. 🙂
Thanks for the band alerts! They will go into my research pile for the Heavy Metal blog!
Well, I’m not exactly OWNED by S. J., but I have been traveling with her over the last year or so! She was really kind in taking me on as a roadie. 🙂
Ah, yes. Forgive me. Deepest apologies, Ms. Fox. And to your fair (and true) owner, the Lady Volpona.
Well, SHE doesn’t really OWN me. She lets me live at her house when I’m home, true, but I am an Independent Sort of Girl and shan’t be owned, thanks much.
Meaning no disrespect, mind.
[…] this thing I do when I know a given task will be difficult. I announce my intentions. Loudly, casually, on Facebook, in blogs, emails, telephone […]
[…] in Metal, her detailed looks at Goblin Fruit and Ideomancer, and her lengthy interviews with S.J. Tucker, Gene Wolfe and Ysabeau […]
[…] S.J. Tucker (of whom I have spoken at length) has released a FREE SONG on her website, entitled, […]
[…] remember S.J. Tucker, don’t you? I did this whole long interview thingy with her, back in the Olden Days, before I was Black Gate’s FELL AND REVERED Blog […]