Jazz singer and Tulsa native Dara Tucker won the silver medal in the American Traditions Competition in Savannah, Georgia, last month for her rich, emotive interpretations of nine tunes in nine different genres of American music. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on her fourth studio album, Oklahoma Rain (Watchman Music), slated to drop on April 28th. We recently had a phone chat about contemporary jazz, her songwriting, and where she’s headed. Keep reading to find out more about this rising jazz star. (At the end of the post there are some great clips of Dara performing live!)
SL: The American Traditions Competition celebrates the diversity of American music. How did you prepare for the competition, especially for the genres in which you don’t normally perform?
DT: I do sing in several genres, so that was the draw of the American Traditions Competition in the first place. 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. [For the competition], it was just a matter of choosing some of the songs that I connected with.
I learned about the competition and applied in the same day, just so that I would force myself to complete [the application] and not get distracted. The real challenge was stacking the sets in a way that would give me the best result. As far as the songs that I delivered, I have performed Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” before, and I love….classic country. But that’s probably the only style that I generally do not perform in. [Also,] the Stephen Sondheim song “Not While I’m Around,” which turned out to be the final song of the final round. I listen to tons of musical theater, but I don’t get to perform a lot of it. Preparing for that one was just a matter of contacting one of my pianists, Matt Endahl, who put together some charts for me.
SL: 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 crossing over?
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.
SL: 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 Bublé, 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?
SL: The competition aside, 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.
SL: 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.
SL: When did you start songwriting?
DT: In 2003 I lived in [Interlaken] Switzerland. I’d just recently graduated college, where I’d majored in international business and German studies. I really felt that I needed to get more comfortable with the German language, so I decided to au pair for a year in Switzerland. I found that to be a really isolating experience—I’d turn on the television and there were channels in German and Italian and French, and Al Jazeera. All I had [in English] was CNN International or the BBC. So that forced me to find other things to do. I really started to hone some of my songwriting muscles at that time. There was a little music shop in the city square, and I went and rented a keyboard for 30 francs a month. I just took it to my room—I stayed in a little hostel there. And I started to write and express some of the things that were going on in me. I found it to be a great mode of self-expression. When I came back to the United States, I moved to Nashville with just a handful of songs that I had written. I was thinking, “Hey, are these any good?”
SL: Why did you choose Nashville?
DT: [In Switzerland] I was watching CNN International and an interview that Larry King did with Wynona Judd. He was asking her why she hadn’t put out an album in some time, and she said, “I can’t find the songs that I want. It seems that all the great songs are scooped up by other singers.” That just put the little seed in my head. Hmm. Nashville. An interesting spot to be immersed in a musical environment without it being too overwhelming.
SL: Gregory Porter is probably one of the most celebrated jazz singers today. You opened for him when he played Nashville last year. What was that like?
DT: Gregory Porter is my favorite living male singer. I knew he was coming [to town], and I said, “Greg, I think maybe we should reach out to the folks that are planning the show and see if maybe there’s a possibility for an opening spot.” We were having a back-and-forth conversation about should we do this, and right at that moment the promoter called Greg and asked if I could do that show. It was a Twilight Zone moment where you just gotta think that something else is at work.
I think [Gregory Porter] was partly responsible for helping me find my own writing voice in the contemporary jazz world. I didn’t understand where I fit in that landscape. I was checking some folks out and not feeling terribly inspired. And then—first it was Liz Wright and then Gregory Porter and, my goodness—they both come from that church background that I come from. You can hear that gritty gospel thing in what they’re doing. And of course the R&B and soul are there.
That music really spoke to me. I love the message of “Liquid Spirit” (the title cut from Gregory Porter's Grammy-winning debut album for Blue Note). What [Porter is] really speaking about is, let the rivers break—the people are thirsty. The people are thirsty and they want to hear something that speaks to them, something outside of just the typical paint-by-numbers music that they’re being fed. The people actually want something that is risk-taking—like what we were talking about before—the mixing of genres. The industry types may not want it, but the people do. So I consider his success a victory for the people.
SL: What can you tell us about your upcoming album?
DT: This will be the first album I’ve done that features all original music. I’m super proud and excited about that. I told Greg that I don’t want to do a jazz album per se, I just want to write songs that feel right to me for this time in my life. And I want to put out an honest album full of music that’s produced in a way that serves the music. If that comes out as more of a jazz expression, or more R&B, or more singer-songwriter, or more musical theater, then so be it. I’m comfortable with that.
It’s going to be called Oklahoma Rain. I lost my parents a couple of years ago within six months of each other, and that sparked a whole wave of songs where I was working through the grief, the loss, the healing. The songwriting process helped me to keep me from going too far under. Even during the times when I didn’t really know what was holding me up, I felt like I had that as a life raft that I could hold onto. If I couldn’t speak it, if I couldn’t see it, if I couldn’t talk about it, at least I could write it. [The album is] about loss and healing, but it still comes off as hopeful and wistful.
SL: What’s next after Oklahoma Rain?
DT: I’ve got a whole other album written that’s ready to go after this one. The next album will be a more straight-forward jazz album, more in the spirit of what The Sun Season (Dara’s third studio album) is. I’ve been through such a personal shift these last several years with such a tremendous loss—I feel that it’s hugely impacted my songwriting. So I go back to The Sun Season now and I think it’s nice stylistically and right along the lines of what I see myself doing for the next [few] years. But that punch—that shakes you and wakes you up and forces you to make a decision—that element of my songwriting was not quite there yet in The Sun Season. So I’m really looking forward to being able to present these new songs, which have been written in a much more alive, awake feeling place.
Here are the promised clips of Dara recording in the studio, prepping for the CD release, and performing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra: