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

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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.

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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?

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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.