North Carolina cellist and singer-songwriter Shana Tucker has been a musician since picking up a violin at 9 years old. She’s garnered a reputation as quite the storyteller in jazz and ChamberSoul. However, the drive to tell a story, to pen meaningful lyrics to music, came about when she saw Spike Lee’s 1990 joint “Mo’ Better Blues.”
“There’s a song on that soundtrack called ‘Harlem Blues’ [Cynda Williams] and I know that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate at the time but that song was just my everything,” Tucker explains. “And I remember trying to write lyrics to that song because I loved the melody and I loved the way it made me feel. And I wanted to write a love song, a love story to that music.”
Fast forward two years later when she started playing with a trio at Howard University in Washington, DC, called HUE. Tucker had to bring original material and an original arrangement to the table, in addition to being able to harmonize and play an instrument. She brought her love song.
“It’s called ‘Set Free,’ as in the whole basis of the song is if you love someone with all your heart, then you should set them free. And if they come back, you know it was meant to beeeeeee,” she recites. “The song is so… not bad [she laughs] but I look at it now. And it’s like your first stuffed animal that has one button left for the eyeball. And it’s hanging on a thread, you know. It’s such a beautiful first attempt.”
In fact, after reminiscing over her first attempt at songwriting, Tucker swears she’s planning to add it to her evening performance this week at UNCW’s Lumina Arts Festival on Thursday, July 25. Tucker’s earlier ChamberSoul SEAHAWK Family matinee will start at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, and will be interactive.
“We will be asking for crowd participation,” Tucker confirms. “People will become instruments I’m actually making a mental note to bring my towel and bring my fan because there’s going to be a lot of moving body parts during the show!”
Tucker will perform as a quartet—complete with bass, drum and guitar—at 7:30 p.m. later that evening. She will play original music, including a few new tunes from the past couple of months. As well, she’ll share arrangements from her upcoming project, “Playlist,” which is a collection of choice ‘80s covers set for release before the end of the year.
It’s not uncommon for Tucker to play pop covers; over the years they’ve served as either an encore or palate cleanser. But for “Playlist,” she chose to focus on the era in which she grew up. “That’s when I was living my best childhood life,” she says. “A lot of music from that era is good. . . . Some people might think it’s cliche, but there’s some really sweet songs from Cyndi Lauper, Tracy Chapman, Sting, Billy Joel.”
As a songwriter and teaching artist, Tucker is frequently involved with music outreach, workshops and classes benefiting North Carolina’s youth. She works with a lot of middle-school and high-school aspiring creatives who simply don’t know where to start with songwriting, or don’t want to “do it wrong.”
“I have to tell myself this many, many times over different parts of my life: you have to keep writing even when it’s shitty,” she quips. “You can’t not write. Because it’s a muscle, like anything else. It’s not like riding a bike. It’s not like once you learn how to do it, then you’ll always do it. . . . Songwriters are called to do something that much of the world can’t do, which is to put the human condition into phrases and stanzas and lines and voices, and speak a truth that we all experience, or that we experience over some point in our lives, but we can’t articulate it in a way like this.”
This week Tucker will share a new song, called “In the Moment.” It started several years ago where most of her songwriting starts: behind the wheel of a car. At this point Tucker had been listening to a lot of classic mid-century/last century Brazilian music. While she didn’t know what the Portuguese lyrics meant, she wanted to understand the song form she was hearing with short or crooked measures and phrases.
“My biggest takeaway with Brazilian music is the percussiveness of the melody of the voice,” she observes. “There’s all of this roundness and playfulness and fastness and attitude, sometimes. Then I wonder to myself, Is it possible? How can I do that? And still tell a story that makes sense?”
Though Tucker doesn’t believe her original songwriting is so esoteric that it needs translation, she does share the stories behind her songs on stage. She intends for her music to incite an ability to feel, or at least, to think about universal stories. “November,” off of 2015’s “Shine,” is essentially a journal entry from a 22-year-old Tucker. It’s all about a guy and her first real experience in love and heartbreak.
“I don’t miss the guy. But I do miss feeling the way that I felt about that time of my life in that relationship,” she explains. “But I don’t feel like I have to say that because I feel like people will take away what they will. . . . I want to be able to tell a story that’s clear but that also makes you remember the relativity of it and apply it to something that happened in your life once, or that you hope that would happen, or just something that triggers the other parts of your brain that make way for hope and regret and sorrow and happiness and joy; All of these different emotions have to be engaged.”