S.J. Tucker, Ember Days, and Pushing the Boundaries of Pagan Music

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 12, 2013 — 27 Comments

On March 5th singer-songwriter S.J. Tucker released the soundtrack she composed, produced, and performed for the micro-budget fantasy epic “Ember Days” (more about that film in the future). Known largely for her folk-based material, Tucker uses the project as a way to experiment and grow as a composer, dipping into neo-tribal, electronic, and industrial sounds. The results are refreshing. The listener is opened to depths only hinted at in previous albums; a darker sonic tapestry that Tucker obviously enjoys playing in. Tucker, an artist who usually exudes joy and a fey sense of fun, drops the smiles here to excellent effect on tracks like “We Were Angels Once (Wake The Fallen)” and “We Are Shangri​-​La (Emerald City Mix).” In addition, we are reminded through the many instrumental tracks that Tucker can write compelling arrangements without having to rely on her able and road-tested voice.

This work is exciting to me not only because I respect S.J. Tucker as a performer and composer, someone I’ve had the pleasure to see live on several occasions, but because her willingness to experiment and broaden the boundaries of her musical “brand” is a lesson that I feel should be absorbed by those interested in building a more vibrant musical culture within modern Paganism. If you look at music at Pagan festivals and events, particularly the larger, better-attended, affairs, you’ll see a musical subculture that seems stuck in amber, and decidedly conservative in who they pick to entertain them. Even the perceived “younger” acts like Pandemonaeon or Wendy Rule have been around for nearly 20 years. I don’t say this as a criticism of those artists, or those who’ve been around for longer than that, I have a keen interest in the evolution of Pagan music and very much enjoyed the last Pandemonaeon record, but we allow this situation to flourish at our cultural peril. If we aren’t seeing a thriving new generation of artists and musicians at our events, if we aren’t seeing albums from Pagan artists that expand our boundaries, we have to ask what that says to the world and to our younger generations.

S.J. Tucker

S.J. Tucker

“I’ve been warning all of you that this music is REALLY DIFFERENT from what most of you are used to hearing from me. The glowing, enthusiastic response that I’ve gotten back from Facebook and from real-life friends and fans has been bolstering, encouraging, and kind. I want to thank you all who’ve already listened and weighed in on this new stuff, and I want to thank each and every one of you for giving it a chance. I truly hope that it inspires you.” – S.J. Tucker

Are we being challenged by our artists? Do they feel able to stretch themselves, to know there is a culture of support for them to do so? Are we making room for up-and-coming talent while still respecting the previous generations? If the answer to these questions is “no,” for whatever reason, we have to ask if we’re willing to bear the ramifications of not supporting the art that helps define us. A movement with anemic art, with art unsupported by those who consume it, will eventually simply lose their artists. They will not write for us, they will not pen the next great Pagan anthem, why should they?

Tucker, herself a Pagan, has played many Pagan events over the years, including most of the big festivals, but her success has come from pushing outside the “bubble” of our communities and making connections with a variety of like-minded events and subcultures that also appreciate her work. I’ve met many of her fans over the years and you can tell that they each feel a special connection to S.J. Tucker, one that has been built from constant touring and constant connection to her fans. Her ability to raise over $10,000 dollars for a European tour, when she was asking for just over $3000, is just one small example of that connection (she has excelled at the art of asking her fans to support her, a concept that has gained some notoriety lately). This willingness to go outside the Pagan world, to play at a variety of venues in a variety of contexts, not only benefits her fiscally, but I believe it helps makes adventurous works like “Ember Days” possible. It is a model that I think more and more up-and-coming explicitly Pagan acts will have to follow should they want to make a living from their art.

My main concern, looking forward, is that we don’t seem to be engaged in how we can support great art within our communities. Crowdfunding works for some, but it is a model built on an invested community. S.J. Tucker has an invested community of fans, and so they are happy to support her when she experiments, but we can’t all be S.J. Tucker (sadly). I want our infrastructure of events and festivals to nurture music that will surprise me, challenge me, maybe even offend me at times. I have found that liminal experiences come when we are prepared to face the unexpected, and it is an ethos we should embrace when it comes to Pagan music. The boundaries of Pagan music must widen or else we enter the realms of routine and self-indulgence. Through serendipity, S.J. Tucker was able to produce a record that surprised and delighted me, and I want that convergence of moments to happen repeatedly for more of our talented performers.

Let us commit ourselves to supporting up-and-coming artists, let us work to build events that expose new Pagan bands to new Pagan fans, let us create a new media infrastructure that critiques, analyzes, and promotes great Pagan art, let us push the boundaries of Pagan music wide open so more creative people can find a way in. S.J. Tucker’s artistic achievement should be a rally cry for us to make sure countless more achievements can manifest within our interconnected communities.

Oh, and you should probably go pick up “Ember Days,” I quite enjoyed it.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Scott

    “The boundaries of Pagan music must widen or else we enter the realms of routine and self-indulgence.”

    Isn’t that tantamount to dictating to the artists what they should be producing? I personally agree that more diverse ecosystems are healthier in general, but I also think that diversity can’t be forced, particularly in the expressive realms.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I think being open to, and willing to support, new art can take whatever form people want it to. That said, everyone is always free to ignore my advice.

      • harmonyfb

        I think being open to, and willing to support, new art

        Hmm. Artists should be free to produce whatever their muses lead them to…but they shouldn’t expect folks to automatically support/bankroll it. I like what I like, and I’m not going to financially support artists who make music I don’t particularly want to listen to. (Ex: I hateyhatehatehate Metal with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. I will never, ever, ever purchase a cd of Pagan metal music. EVER. If one of my favorite artists started producing screaming Metal, I’d stop listening/buying.)

        • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

          “…can take whatever form people want it to.”

          • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

            Nobody is going to force you to support Pagan Metal.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          It’s quite surprising how much ‘Viking Metal’ is produced by bands who do not identify as Pagan or even ‘historically inspired’.

          To many, it is about as valid a source of inspiration as Tolkien’s legendarium.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001741042586 Gabriel Lorquet

            Lots of Folk Metal bands, while not explicitly Pagan, are still celebrating our values.

            I don’t expect anybody to worship the Gods, I do and it’s alright but when I see people what uphold the values I, as a Pagan, hold dear, they are worthy of my respect.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I don’t see them as upholding the values. I see them as cashing in on something lucrative.

          • Deborah Bender

            Sometimes cashing in is good.

            Some of the great Christian music was written by people who wrote it not because they were believers but because the Church gave them commissions. For that matter, popular Christmas songs were written by Jews like Irving Berlin (although White Christmas doesn’t have any religious content). I think Leonard Bernstein wrote a Mass. Not the world’s greatest Mass, but he used that format because it was an established structure for a particular kind of classical music.

            Shakespeare wrote a witch play because the king asked him to, and a Jew play because the theme was popular. If a theme or genre gets well enough established to attract outsiders, you get more art, and some of it is likely to be good art or at least interesting art.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I’m not disputing the quality of the work, just the integrity.

          • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

            This makes me think of a story told by Isaac Asimov. He would tell how one of his books was being discussed at Columbia University, so he went to go listen in on a lecture about it.

            THe professor began talking about it, and going complete against what he (Asimov) thought. Asimov stood up and said, “that’s not what I meant at all!”

            The professor looked up at him and asked, “Who’re you?” “The author!” Asimov retorted.

            “Oh, well, your opinion doesn’t matter!” the professor shot back.

            An awful lot of meaning exists in who is experience the work, not just the meaning brought by the one creating it. It has nothing to do with ‘integrity’. So they don’t worship our gods, but still find inspiration from them? so? Good, I say! The gods touch whom They will, and there is little anyone can say or do else about it.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            The professor was obviously a tool.

          • Northern_Light_27

            Not surprising to me, it’s just the new trendy thing for that genre the way Satanism was for metal in the ’80s– most acts weren’t actually Satanists, but using the symbol set was a good way to sell records. Just as most current mainstream rappers’ only experience with a street corner is the one they drove by on the way back to the ‘burb they grew up in.

            Everything Viking seems very in right now, it’ll be interesting to see how Heathenry deals with the same sort of influx of trend-following teenagers it scoffed at in Wicca back during “Charmed” and “The Craft”.

  • http://twitter.com/sharonknight777 Sharon Knight

    Thank you for writing this. As you know, the evolving artistic expression of our culture is near and dear to my heart. I strongly believe that the vibrancy of a culture’s art reflects the health of that culture. However, I shudder to hear myself described as an artist who’s “been around”. In my perception anyway, only recently has the burgeoning Pagan and Pagan-friendly festival infrastructure grown strong enough to really support any kind of career as a Pagan musician. I put music on the back burner for many years, and, It’s only been in the last 4 years that I have decided to give this a go as a career. So don’t write me off as an old-timer just yet, I’m just ramping up! :+)

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      You know I love you, Sharon.

      • http://twitter.com/sharonknight777 Sharon Knight

        I do, and it fills my heart with glee.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I want our infrastructure of events and festivals to nurture music that will surprise me, challenge me, maybe even offend me at times.
    I take this as the practical core of your post, in that it recommends what identified people can carry out (or not). You want Pagan festival music gatekeepers to loosen up.
    Maybe a conversation is a way to start. You might, with your resources, arrange for an interview of a gatekeeper, and post that here. Then a dialogue or symposium, also posted here. See what emerges. IMHO.

    • Scott

      The difficulty I see with that position is that “Pagan music” is not a genre – it’s a particular worldview being articulated through musical expression. One can therefore frame the situation more accurately as: Pagan festival music gatekeepers are choosing to book Pagan artists in genres that appeal to as wide a subsection of the Pagan population as possible, and choosing not to book artists whose particular genres are distasteful to large portions of that population, in order to have happy festivalgoers who will come again and tell their Pagan friends. That’s not an irrational position; indeed, one could argue that large festivals that take Jason’s advice would be actively working against their own best interests. Jason’s willingness to be challenged by music is laudable – I try to take that approach myself – but large numbers of our co-religionists are not going to agree.

      • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

        Festivals that normally book folk acts don’t need to suddenly book Viking Metal, or Experimental Glitch acts, but they should be proactive in finding and nurturing new talent that *is* in their wheelhouse. Otherwise, how will that next generation come up?

        I work for a festival, and I can tell you that many days and hours are spent looking for new bands that will fit our mold, that will offer attendees new experiences within the context of that event. We realize that today’s headliners could break up, or become too big to book, or any number of other scenarios, and so it’s vital to support up-and-coming musicians.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        That’s an interesting hypothetical. What I’d like to see is a simiilarly clear statment from an actual Pagan festival music gatekeeper, as the beginning of a conversation. The pivotal claim you implicitly make, that the gatekeeper’s taste is an accurate litmus of the audience’s taste, can only be made (and defended) by an actual gatekeeper.
        I’m not sure I see the relevance of whether Pagan music is not a formal genre. (Is Gospel regarded as a genre?) Gatekeepers must find Pagan music somehow; if it’s not an industry-recognized genre that just makes it a bit harder no matter who gets to perform. I assume there is a musicians’ network through which new potential acts can be auditioned.

        • Keith Campbell

          Gospel is very much a genre — a fairly specific musical tradition. A great deal of Christian music would NOT be accurately described as Gospel music.

          “Pagan music,” on the other hand, is a label that used to be pretty narrowly defined, at least as it was commonly used. These days, the scope is much broader, and we need modifiers: pagan folk, pagan metal, pagan choral, pagan jug band. (Yes, there is pagan jug-band music. :-)

          • Deborah Bender

            There are even pagans who like Gospel music enough to compose and sing pagan music in that genre.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I’m a bit unsure on the whole ‘Pagan Music’ thing.

    How does one decide what is Pagan Music?

    Wardruna would be a clear example of Pagan Music, to me. They are Pagans (well, Heathens, but close enough) making music with Pagan (well, Heathen, but close enough) themes.

    Then there is Amon Amarth. They are non aligned/atheists making music with (fantastical) Pagan (well, Heathen, but close enough) themes.

    Then there are the various Pagans/similar out there who make music not aligned to any particular religious vein.

    I think the first band is fairly obvious, but what of the last two examples, do they still count as ‘Pagan Music’?

  • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

    “My main concern, looking forward, is that we don’t seem to be engaged in how we can support great art within our communities.”

    In part we need to look beyond the festival and convention culture, although I feel these are deeply important to the Pagan communities. Pagan music, as well as other types, thrives in my area because the local occult and Pagan-friendly bookstores are willing to stock them. If you build it they will come, and all that. If we build infrastructure beyond the festival circuits and conventions there will be greater flexibility for those who cannot travel as much to make their music, and make their living on it.

    I see that part of why there is a Spotlight on Pagan Music section for Witches and Pagans magazine is to provide space for those who might not otherwise get that. People are producing work from a variety of musical genres that are part of Pagan music, from the lighter, airier works to the grunge and metal, to the folk, and the Spotlight gives them a place to shine and allows their voice to be heard where it might not otherwise be heard. Magazines on and offline, blog posts, and media of varying kinds besides are just part of the solution to the problem of engagement.

  • cernowain greenman

    It would be very difficult to “make a living” as a music artist doing the Pagan circuit. Lesser known names might get enough for travel expenses. And some festivals will only recompense the artist by giving them “free entrance” into the festival. That doesn’t put food on the table at home. I think Jason may be hinting to the gatekeepers that it is time to start paying artists a more decent remuneration for their gigs.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Which is then passed on to the punters in the form of price increases at the ticket booth. Not saying it shouldn’t happen, just that people are already squeezed for money.

      As an aside, I am one of the only people I know (real world, not online ‘know’) who doesn’t download.

  • Franklin Evans

    As an occasional facilitator of art (independent theater producer) and having a 10-year run (two or three performances every December) of A Winter Solstice Singing Ritual http://www.emeraldearth.net/winter__solstice.htm under my “belt”, I offer my subjectively informed view: art is for the people; sacred art per se is something I prefer to term as art that celebrates the sacred by pointing us to the things that the artist sees as sacred. Art must be interactive in some sense or on some level.
    We don’t and shouldn’t support Sharon and Sooj just because they are Pagan bards. We should keep them plainly in sight with open eyes, minds and hearts. They don’t produce art in a vacuum, they depend on our reactions and feedback. I find Duke Ellington’s stated attitude the perfect starting point: If it sounds good, it is good. The rest is part of the journey for all of us.