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Dara Tucker: Seeds of the Divine

Suzanne Lorge By

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What does it mean to write your own music and interpret that in a way that’s relevant to 2017? —Dara Tucker
Rising jazz star Dara Tucker has added three new trophies to a rapidly growing lineup of awards. At this year's Nashville Industry Music Awards (NIMAs) she won Best Jazz Vocalist, Best Jazz Album, and Song of the Year for her April release, Oklahoma Rain (Watchman Music). These three awards follow closely on the heels of her second-place win at the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, this past February. And in 2016, not only did she win her first NIMA for Best Jazz Singer, but she placed as a finalist in the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival. One listen to Tucker's single, "Radio," from her latest album and you'll understand why judges, fans, and jazz luminaries like Gregory Porter and Cassandra Wilson offer such strong support for this Tulsa native.

In this interview, Tucker discusses her views on crossing over musically, her songwriting, and where her music career headed.

All About Jazz: Even though you have gained most of your accolades as a jazz singer, in your work you draw from many different musical sources. How did you gain expertise in so many styles of singing?

Dara Tucker: I grew up singing gospel with my brothers and sisters—my dad was a minister and my mom was a singer in church. Then I moved on and discovered the Great American Songbook and all of the singers associated with that jazz canon. We also listened to a ton of singer-songwriter stuff from the '60s, '70s, and '80s. So my [musical] acclimation has been pretty broad.

AAJ: Nowadays many prominent singers like Cassandra Wilson and Lady Gaga are crossing over, making the idea of musical diversity quite mainstream. This is a departure from how singers have typically approached their careers. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

DT: Cassandra Wilson is one of my mentors and has been super supportive of my journey. I would consider her to be one of the standard bearers in terms of the crossing and mixing of genres. I love the concept. I don't know that the industry loves the concept as much as we creative people do, though. So I still identify myself as a jazz singer when asked simply because I just can't see the benefit of not finding a landing place and saying "OK, this is what I do and it is also influenced by these other things." I'm a jazz singer, but I also mesh that with R&B and soul, and singer-songwriter elements, and Broadway and theater elements. I feel pretty comfortable calling it jazz, though it does deviate in many ways.

AAJ: When it comes to the Great American Songbook, where would you put the line between traditional pop and jazz?

DT: I listened to a lot [of the traditional pop singers like Michael Buble, Harry Connick, Jr., and Michael Feinstein], before I met my manager Greg Bryant. Greg introduced me to the more straight-ahead jazz artists like Joe Henderson, Milt Jackson, and Sonny Stitt. But I feel that there's room for everything. It really is just a matter of taste. I do appreciate it when a publication or an audience can understand the difference between [traditional pop and jazz], though. A jazz singer who is really more of an interpretive singer is different from a traditional pop singer. I think that too often when people say or hear the word "jazz" in a contemporary context, [traditional pop] is where their head goes. It's been part of my mission with Greg to introduce audiences to what contemporary jazz is outside of the Great American Songbook. What does it mean to write your own music and interpret that in a way that's relevant to 2017?

AAJ: You have a good mix of originals and covers. How do approach the arrangement of a cover?

DT: When I do perform live and feel that covers are in order, I try to lean toward the material that I can connect with on a visceral level. I tend not to cover a lot of heartbreak songs. Every once in a while you may hear me cover something like "The Shadow of Your Smile," which is one of my favorite songs to sing. But in general I don't identify very deeply with the heart-on-the-sleeve-you-done-me-wrong torch songs that deal with having your heart broken again and again, because it's not my inclination to put myself in those positions to have my heart broken! If I don't identify with it I'm probably not going to sing it.

AAJ: Tell us about your songwriting. Do you write solo or do you have a songwriting partner?

DT: I almost exclusively write alone. Songwriting is a very internal, therapeutic exercise for me. I live in Nashville, which is very much a songwriting town. When someone identifies with your style of songwriting, the very first thing they'll ask you is to co-write. But I've never jibed with that whole style of songwriting. I just need more of a sense of control—I need to feel that inspiration. It comes in various ways, but I need that inspiration. I would say that songwriting starts with the seed of the divine and [co-writing] doesn't necessarily leave room for the divine. So with any of the songs that I have written that I'm proud of, they start with the seed, which is something within me that needs to be written or needs to be expressed. Then I slowly develop that over time.

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