Pixie In Overdrive
The Badass Bardery of S. J. Tucker
by Phil “Satyrblade” Brucato,
photos by Kyle Cassidy & Jeff Navarro
A Seattle basement, mid-winter. The room swarms with eager fans. Each person, it seems, knows the words to every song belted out by a slender pixie in a jester’s cap. FaerieWorlds, 2007. A blue-braided power-house whales on a bodhran, sending hundreds of bright-clad neo-tribals leaping happily through the air. Sunday morning barefoot boogie. Dozens of dancers gyrate to a song they’ve never heard before. Grabbing the chorus, they sing: The circle is here/ It lives in each of us/ In perfect love/ And perfect trust. This is the magic of S. J. Tucker, and if you haven’t heard of her yet, you will.
S. J. Tucker is a self-made Pagan performing artist. The “folk” label is too limited to hold her. Although she seems at first glance like a simple “guitar chick,” in truth she’s a glittering badass of fire-spinning verve. Musically, “Sooj” ranges from a capella Gospel to World Fusion technobeats. Combining theatrics and mysticism with info-tech savvy and spirited attitude, Tucker defies expectations. Despite her elfin appearance, this “skinny white chick” has a roaring voice and thousand-yard stare. Like Ani DiFranco and Jonathan Coulton, she’s a product of timeless artistry and postmodern opportunity. Though bardic in tradition, S. J. Tucker is fully an artist of Now.
As digital DIY demolishes the traditional music biz, artists like Tucker define themselves on their own terms. Snubbing the status quo, such artists tour heavily, press their own discs, distribute through the Internet and produce their albums on portable computers. Ani DiFranco set the pace for this method in the early 1990s, and as the new millennium progresses, hundreds of new artists are following suit. S. J. Tucker is one of them.
As neotribalism (see sidebar) spreads throughout the Pagan scene, she’s become its poster girl with no poster: an activist, an inspiration, and — to many fans — a friend.
Tucker has a mission. Like Ani DiFranco, Sooj has turned down offers to “Celto-sex me up” for popular consumption. Instead, she has dedicated herself to recording, promoting, and experiencing life in a magical way. A longtime Pagan, Tucker has gathered a vast tribe of fans both in and outside neopagan circles. One among them, fire performer Kevin “K” Wiley, became her manager, life-partner and fire-spinning mentor. (“We met,” he says, “when I hit her in the face with a flaming ball of Kevlar.”) These days, they live like modern Gypsies — on couches, in guest rooms and at festivals — bringing magic wherever they go.
The word “magic” is essential to understanding S. J. Tucker. For her, music is a magical act. Like fellow mystics Kan’Nal, Tool and Michael Franti, she packs intent behind each song — especially during live performances — and her audiences welcome it. Folks don’t just enjoy Tucker’s concerts. They come away transformed.
Born on February 22, 1980, Sooj was raised in Dumas, Arkansas, far away enough from everything to be peaceful, but close enough to Memphis, New Orleans and Helena to have music in its bones and blood. “I grew up,” she writes, “with an awareness of trees, crops, and the lush grass under my feet… my family are the best sort of Christians, placing value on love and kindness… my (late) father was a stoic band instructor who truly loved music and who encouraged me to learn to play a myriad of instruments. My mother is still a teacher these days, and she supports almost my every move.”
Since hitting the road, Tucker has also counted various “families of choice” among her support network. These tribes range from Burning Man regulars to shop owners to retired Military Intelligence operatives. Her key companion, however, is lifemate K, whose carnival-arts experience gave rise to their flame-art troupe Fire & Strings. “K is my partner in all things,” Tucker says. “We still surprise each other and make each other ridiculously happy. We work together on so many levels. Last night, a friend read Tarot for me, and K came up as the King of Swords. He watches out for me, protects me, and makes certain that my needs are met. I do my best to do the same for him.”
Our interview with Sooj took place in 2008, at the end of a busy year.
On top of a touring schedule that included FaerieWorlds, Burning Man, Pagan Spirit Gathering and Salem’s Samhain celebration, Tucker released five albums in slightly over fifteen months(!) — Sirens, For the Girl in the Garden, Blessings, Solace & Sorrow — and a live record with her side-band, Tricky Pixie. The latter group also features Alexander James Adams (formerly folk artist Heather Alexander) and Betsy Tinney of Gaia Consort, and has become a popular draw at FaerieWorlds. Nestled by a fireplace among her Seattle tribe, Sooj was taking a well-earned rest before heading off again.
Satyrblade So what seperates you from all the other coffee shop guitar chicks out there?
I’m not a coffee shop guitar chick. I’m a bard. I don’t say that with any pomp whatsoever. It’s simply the truth.
Satyrblade If songs are your magic mirrors, which ones describe you best?
We are constantly evolving, all of us, men and women. One of my many High Priestess friends, a breast cancer survivor, observed recently in a workshop that all women are unfinished women in that we are works of art eternally changing, never meant to be finished. “Mummy Medusa” speaks of the light and the dark sides of every woman. In the song, Medusa and Rapunzel get into a fight over a love interest, but they learn quite a bit about each other and in the end the Light takes on the best qualities of the Dark. They are stronger together than at odds with each other. Such is true of my own journey, my own self-awareness. As one of my teachers said, everyone thinks that the Dark Goddess is one to watch out for. But the truth is that the Dark Goddess holds shadows and safe places you can hide in, while you can’t hide anything from the Bright Lady; everything’s out in the light.
Every girl has light and dark inside her. They are tools just waiting to be explored and used. Some days, I feel like Medusa: strange and horrible, with a thousand-yard stare. Some days, I feel like Rapunzel, long-haired and ravishing, singing from my tower. On my best days, I am both, and no tower or curse can hold me.
And then there’s “Firebird’s Child.” This one’s an interesting full-circle of a song. My friend Catherynne M. Valente, author of the Orphan’s Tales books, saw me spin fire and wrote me into one of her stories as a feisty young girl who wishes more than anything that she could dance in the flames with her foster father, the firebird who raised her. After reading the story, I composed and recorded “Firebird’s Child.” It was first played as part of a set of fire shows that [Tucker’s troupe] Fire & Strings performed at a ski resort in Colorado, and the dancers and audience loved it. I know what it’s like to dance to the beat of your own tune. It’s been a very long time since someone asked me what I would do if my music career “didn’t work out.” To me, that’s a good sign. And “Lady Vagabond,” I know, is on the tip of your tongue…
Satyrblade Yep. How did you become a “Lady Vagabond?”
Made up my mind, really. I knew, starting in college and leading into my adult life, that what I really wanted to do was to pursue my music full-time.
I started Skinny White Chick in 1999, and the original lineup performed together whenever we could — at outdoor shows and little restaurants and clubs in Memphis and Arkansas — through the spring of 2002. I held onto that dream all through college, and it carried over when I graduated and moved to Memphis.
I first attended Pagan festivals as a performer and participant in 2002. Coming back to the customer service job I held at the time, after spending weekends in the company of wonderful people who understood my songs, was awful. Seated at my desk at work one afternoon, I half-consciously sent a prayer to the universe: I wish that my job could be driving around the country, singing for my friends. I began recording my first full-length album shortly thereafter, and started to lay the groundwork that allowed me live my dream. In March of 2004, I released my first album. That May, I quit my job and had my first tour, mostly consisting of Pagan festivals, and everything has been falling beautifully into place ever since.
Satyrblade Your music is earthy yet deeply spiritual. Where does that come from?
For some, there’s no difference. Religion and folklore are so close, yet the former is supposed by some people to have nothing to do with “earthly” things, while the latter is looked upon as common, unsophisticated and unwashed. In so many cases, [if you] put a folktale and a religious tenet under a certain light [you’ll find that] they’re interchangeable. Music is the universal translator. You can get away with saying just about anything if you have a tune behind it that people enjoy listening to.
I think the earthy/spiritual brownie batter really cooks when I write songs like “Crystal Cave,” which compares the Descent of Inanna with personal meditation and examining your own head, or “Baba Yaga,” which tells a modern story of the Russian grandmother-witch moving Stateside to watch out for runaways. I want to make sure that we are still learning from old stories, by presenting them in the best ways I can; sometimes gritty and nasty and down in the dirt, and sometimes entirely cast in dreams and light.
Satyrblade Your song “Valkyrie Daughter” [on Sirens] is a potent example of that. Where did it come from?
I wrote “Valkyrie Daughter” at the request of a friend whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. In traditional Norse folklore, the Valkyries carry those who’ve died in battle up to Valhalla, where they feast and fight and have a ball for all time; everybody else goes to the Land of the Dead, including all women. My friend, who follows the Asatru path, asked me to write something that told a story of the Valkyries deciding not just to come for fallen warriors. In short, he believed that his daughter deserved to go to Valhalla, and he was asking a bard to tell the world that.
I saw it as a great responsibility, and it took me a long time to fulfill his request. His daughter was well-loved in the community that I consider my home crowd, so anything I wrote for her would have to be worthy of the ears of all of those people, not just her bereaved parents.
Finally, some two years later, I sat down in a friend’s back yard in Ohio, and I wrote it all out in one long stroke. I performed it for just a few friends the next night, and there was not a dry eye in the house. I was pretty emotionally messed up by the process of writing that song, myself, though I felt honored to have been the channel for it.
Over the summer and fall of that year, there was a worried voice in the back of my mind saying, “What if it’s not the right thing?” I realized that I had written something that was dedicated more to the bereaved father than to the fallen daughter, and I worried whether I had made the right choice.
Samhain came around, and I performed “Valkyrie Daughter” for my friend at the end of my concert at Summerland Grove’s Festival of Souls. All of his loved ones gathered around him, we all yelled “Odin!” at the top of our lungs when it was over, and that brought the house down. A lot of healing happened that night. People who had been unable to grieve finally allowed themselves to do so. I’m blessed to have had a hand in that healing.
Satyrblade Do you have any particular rituals or magical practices that you engage in besides your music?
Sometimes. I enjoy group ritual presented by or attended with people I love and trust. It doesn’t have to be a faith or a tradition that I follow, either. If you’re open to experiences and to learning, any ritual experience can be revelatory.
A lot of my practices are little things, like putting intent into some protection for my car wherever I park it for the night; asking for a parking space; sending good thoughts and love to my friends whenever I can. I tend to offer up songs and performances as a “thank you” to particular deities or forces that I believe have done me good, and I tend to schedule shows on equinoxes, Pagan holidays and full moons, whether I mean to do it or not.
Satyrblade What is magic to you? And how might it differ from worship, if it does at all?
Magic, with or without the “k,” has a lot to do with making up your mind. Worship generally involves saying, “thank you,” while magic involves saying, “these are my needs/wishes,” and then taking steps to fulfill them. There’s prayer, and then there’s intent: sometimes they go together, but not always. It’s wonderful when I put them together and see gratifying results.
Both magic and worship are easy to overdo or misinterpret. Just asking for what you need isn’t always going to make it fall into your lap; nor is having the shiniest, most jewel-encrusted wand going to make your workings more effective or call more of your gods’ attention to you, unless it’s to laugh at you. Your own mind, body and will are your best magical tools. You are your own best instrument of worship.
Satyrblade Who are your greatest influences?
We could talk about this for days! [laughs]. My musical influences are spread out across cultures and centuries. I’ve gotten into the music of the women of Madrigaia, a Manitoba vocal group that parted ways in 2008. They make me want to find six other women to sing with! The Beatles were huge for me, growing up and to this day. There is a shrine in my heart to Sister DiFranco, who has paved the way like a one-woman highway department, and also to Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and Jeff Buckley. Beethoven and Stravinsky are my two favorite classical composers, with Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and modern film composer Iain Bellamy ranked just underneath them.
This is just a bare sampling of the playlist in my head, but in my first few years as a full-time traveling performer, the other musicians I’ve met and heard in my travels have had more of an effect on me than anything else. I run with quality people, outstanding performers who continue to amaze me each time we meet.
Satyrblade How does your Pagan faith sustain you?
It’s very easy for me, because my faith is strongly rooted in the idea that music holds everything together. All I have to do to feel in touch with the Source, the divine, whatever you call it, is open my mouth to sing, or pick up one of my instruments and play.
Satyrblade Any special instruments you love best?
I have so many toys, and, sadly, I can only travel with two or three of them at a time! I have my favorite guitar, my durable guitar, my tiny travel guitar that I can practice on while we drive or fly, three electric guitars, three different hand drums, a small harp, a five-string bass, three flutes of various materials, and a trumpet. I just ordered a purple fiddle on eBay so that I could start learning. If I could carry all of my instruments with me, I’d be so busy playing them that I’d forget to eat!
Satyrblade What’s your method of recording/performing?
My studio mantra is Get it done, get it done right, and get it done fast. The first two times I went into the studio to record a full-length album, I was working under a co-op system with the studio itself, which made it in my best interests to work as efficiently as possible. I’ve continued to come across progressive folks and situations in recording since then. With almost every album I’ve recorded, we’ve completed all of the tracking in just about one week. It’s a work ethic that’s served me well and it definitely ensures that I have my act together before we ever hit “record.”
Performing is a whole other world. In concert, I ride the wave, try to connect with the audience, be adaptable, and have as much fun as I can. The difference with performing is that I [only] have an hour, maybe, to do the work I need to do. I have a responsibility to the people who lend me their ears. If they seek to be inspired, if they seek healing, laughter, and tears, they need to find it. I have to channel a lot of energy.
I also have to pay attention to my audience. If I have time before a concert, I do research to find out what sort of people I’m going to be singing for, and I write my set list accordingly. Sometimes, I end up changing direction on a whim during shows, playing songs I’d never intended to play that night, scrapping songs I was sure would be just the thing. It’s all about paying attention. I have to trust my gut. I’m listening just as much as the audience is, if not more.
Satyrblade What do you see ahead for independent music?
Digital has already taken over. It’s my wish that we evolve with grace, that we accept the gifts of technology that come along instead of fighting them tooth and nail. The grass-roots approach provided by house concerts and independent festivals, for instance, provides a huge outlet for folks who would never get to play for an audience otherwise.
Satyrblade How would you describe your lifestyle?
I’m not sure how to answer that question exactly. Am I a spiritually and folklorically-aware entrepreneur? Am I a bard? A nomad with songs in her head? A Druidic seeker? A physicist? I found out about string theory not long ago, and spent a nerve-wracking morning trying to figure out the answer to that last one. My friend Jason Cohen, leader of the band Incus, said that it didn’t matter to him [what I was] as long as I kept singing. That statement put it into perspective for me, and I stopped worrying. The bottom line is that I take my songs on the road and seek to make people’s lives better and I manage to survive just fine.
Satyrblade Do you miss anything from the settled life?
The Internet saves me. It’s made most of this possible, in fact: friendships, booking, spreading the word, everything. The way we’re set up to travel currently, I can’t bring all of my instruments along, which can make me sad. We pretty much live out of the car when we’re staying with friends so we have to put pressure on ourselves not to unpack all over our hosts’ home and get in the way; K calls it “exploding.” Sometimes we travel so much in a week that there’s no time to play with our stilts or practice poi and staff, no time to go and see a movie or anything.
The roughest part, now that I have so many friends all over the country, is that no matter where we go, I’m bound to be missing someone! Also, I can’t have any pets on the road in spite of how hard people have tried to press ball pythons and kittens upon me. My cat lives with my mother, and thankfully both parties are happy.
Satyrblade You’re connected to various tribes around the country. How do they sustain you?
It’s all about the Internet. I’ve been welcomed at so many homes, circles, and sacred fires, coast to coast. The benefits are huge: I’m warm, safe and in the company of friends no matter where I am. There’s so much love, and I am so blessed.
Satyrblade What does “tribe” mean to you?
There’s a fierceness in that word, and I love it.
There’s a deep knowledge that I feel when I’m with people I can really laugh with, can really understand and know that I am understood by. It’s the feeling that I’ve known them before, and that we’re picking up where we left off. It goes deeper, the better you get to know someone that you’re comfortable with. There are many words for it: kismet, sprak, kindred spirits. Tribe is another one of those words.
Satyrblade Do you see yourself ever settling down?
That is a tricky one, because it’s going to take a lot to convince me to settle down at any point in the future. The closest thing I can imagine is that we might settle in the Pacific Northwest for at least a while, since I’m in a wonderful band (Tricky Pixie) that’s based there, which I want to devote more time to. We have so many amazing friends in that area who are dedicated to conscious personal evolution, as well as magick, healing, and global change. The siren song of Seattle is very, very strong.
Satyrblade Any advice for our readers?
As soon as you figure out what it is that you want out of life, your dreams, your career, whatever, get after it. You will not fall, and if you’re headed in the right direction, your gods will let you know!
Satyrblade So what would your dream direction be?
I’m living it.
This is my dream.
Since this interview was completed, Tucker has performed with Wendy Rule, embarked on a tour with author Catherynne M. Valente to promote the novel Palimpsest and the album Quartered, faced a painful illness (see sidebar), toured with Ginger Doss and Bekah Kelso as the group The Traveling Fates (see www.travelingfates.com) and probably did two dozen other things that wouldn’t have fit in this article anyway.
To find out more about S. J. Tucker, check out the following links: www.myspace.com/sjtuckerskinnywhitechick www.myspace.com/firestrings www.myspace.com/trickypixieband http://skinnywhitechick.com http://s00j.livejournal.com www.trickypixie.com www.sjtucker.com
For tour information, contact: http://skinnywhitechick.com/contact.php
Top 10 Vagabond Jams
For a taste of that eclectic Sooj sound, track down some of these tracks on iTunes, CdBaby.com, iLike, or skinnywhitechick.com.
- In the Name of the Dance (Blessings)
- Go Away, God Boy! (Sirens)
- Lady Vagabond (Sirens)
- That One Song (Tangles)
- Follow Me Down (Haphazard)
- Hymn to Herne (Blessings) 7. Come to the Labyrinth (Blessings)
- Snake Star Song (For the Girl in the Garden)
- The Pixie Can’t Sleep (Tangles)
- We are Shangri-La (Fire & Strings MySpace page)
- Haphazard (Young Avenue Records #MR0005, 2004). Featured as one the “albums no Pagan should be without” in newWitch #8.
- Tangles (Young Avenue Records #MR0012, 2005). Recorded shortly after Sooj met K.
- Sirens (Skinny White Chick LLC, #SJT003, 2006). Received a five (out of five) broomstick rating in newWitch #15.
- For the Girl in the Garden (Skinny White Chick LLC #SJT004, 2006). Official companion album to Catherynne M. Valente’s novel The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden; songs and spoken-word.
- Blessings (Skinny White Chick LLC #SJT005, 2007). Dedicated specifically to Pagan rituals, featuring two of Sooj’s best, “Come to the Labyrinth” and “In the Name of the Dance.”
- Tricky Pixie – Live! (Skinny White Chick LLC/Sea Fire Productions, independent pressing, 2007). Limited-run recording of the band’s unofficial debut performance.
- Solace & Sorrow (Skinny White Chick LLC #SJT006, 2007). Official companion album to Catherynne M. Valente’s novel The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin & Spice; songs and spoken-word readings.
- Quartered (Skinny White Chick LLC, download-only, 2009). Official companion album to Catherynne M. Valente’s novel Palimpsest; features new electronica and industrial songs by Sooj as well as new acoustic music.
There’s much, much more online at Sooj’s sites!
This article first appeared in the magazine Witches&Pagans #19
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