The singer-songwriter and renowned cello player Shana Tucker has been credited with creating her own sub-genre of music. Chambersoul draws on her love of jazz, classical, pop music, world music and movie soundtracks. Kreol Magazine caught up with Shana to find out about her music, her latest projects.
Shana Tucker has been described as producing a “gumbo” of sound, a mash up of some of her favourite artists including Tracy Chapman, Dianne Reeves, Joni Mitchell and – her main inspiration – Bill Withers. But before getting Shana to define Chambersoul, we learnt more about her musical roots.
Family and early influences
“Everyone in my family can sing, but I’m the only one who studied formally. My mom can hold a tune, but she uses it to make up silly songs about pretty much everything: waking up in the morning, bedtime, cleaning our rooms, bellybuttons… I think that’s where I get my song-writing skills from. And my dad has this cool crooner-like smooth baritone. He grew up in LA and has stories of going to different places to see all the jazz greats, like Lee Morgan at The Lighthouse.”
Growing up in Long Island, New York, the first music Shana remembers falling in love with was a number-counting song on the TV show Sesame Street, which she watched at her grandmother’s house. She said: “The music was so funky, with conga and a dope bass line. I didn’t realise until I was older that I was also really feeling the mix-meter and the feel changes. It was only recently I found out the song was called Pinball Countdown, but the best part was discovering that the awesome vocals were done by The Pointer Sisters!”
It was also at her great-grandmother’s house where Shana started learning the piano. She’d go on to play violin in fourth grade and switched to cello in sixth grade, aged 11. It wasn’t long before her talent was spotted by her high school orchestra and chorus teachers, Mr Schwartzman and Ms Kaplan. They encouraged Shana to take private cello lessons, compete for regional and state placement, and consider going to school to study music. She was also given an insight into how musicians made a living. “Ms Kaplan used to take me and a couple other students to places around Long Island where her friends were gigging. She wanted to show us the real-life ways artists made a living besides just seeing people perform on TV.”
University and beyond
Shana’s cello talents led to her being awarded a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, DC, where she was first introduced to jazz. She also wrote her first song, ‘Set Free’, about a boy who had broken her heart in her late teens. “I have to laugh when I remember it. The rhyme scheme is so crude. I think I will record it one day, just to have an example of how you should try to commit your words and melody to paper and finish it, even if it’s not your best work. It’s all about completion.”
While the novice songwriter was still finding her feet, she was drawing inspiration from other musicians, and one in particular.
Anybody who knows me knows that I LOVE Bill Withers. I love how he is the voice of the everyman. His chords are simple, his lyrics are straightforward. His melodies are memorable because they are easy, but there is soul in everything he does. He is my hero. I try to add a Bill Withers song to my live performances every once in a while, usually the more obscure/lesser known ones.
She reels off a list of other artists who have inspired her, including Joni Mitchell, Sting, Jamie Cullum, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and Sarah Vaughn to name just a few.
Although used to performing publicly at school, Shana’s first professional gig was in a bar, accompanied by a guitarist. She said: “I only had about ten songs that were ready to present in public, but it must’ve gone well, because the bar owner asked me back.”
Since then, Shana Tucker has gone on to perform live at festivals, record her debut CD ‘Shine’, and play cello and do vocals on studio recordings for other artists. In 2011 she was contracted to perform with the show KÀ by Cirque du Soleil at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The latter is a period she looks back on with mixed emotions.
“I was thankful for the stability of a day job, but ten shows a week was a grind, playing the same music again and again. If I didn’t have my own music, other projects, and teaching to look forward to whenever the show was on break, or on the weekends, I would have gone crazy.”
In 2014, Shana was awarded the prestigious Nevada Arts Council Artist Fellowship, one of only three performing arts fellows in the state, for her work on stage and within her Las Vegas community.
The birth of Chambersoul
Back home in North Carolina, recognition for the qualities that made her unique started to become more widespread. These she describes as a pureness in the quality and tone of her voice that mingles with just the right amount of soulfulness. Of course, there is also the cello, which she likes to play more like a bass, or an accompanying instrument as opposed to a lead.
Having just released a single, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ (the Tina Turner 80s classic anthem), and working on her second album, Shana gave us the low down on her sub-genre of music Chambersoul:
“It best describes what the listener should expect when experiencing my performance. I’m intrinsically drawn to real instruments with resonance, tone and depth that can sound without or with minimal amplification. I always try to set a tone of acoustic intimacy with the other musicians and audience so that everyone feels close. That’s the ‘chamber’ part. The ‘soul’ is that I sing, play and write from the soul, hoping that the music and the message will land and find a home in the soul of the listener.”
Collaborative working and teaching
As well as pursuing a solo career, Shana enjoys collaborating on projects and has worked with poets, choreographers, playwrights, songwriters, pop and jazz artists, gospel singers, and other cellists. “It’s refreshing to not have to be the only one thinking of all the ideas! I enjoy working with choreographers and playwrights the most. Writing soundtracks and figuring out how to fit transitions, emotions, and movement is a wonderful challenge. I learn so much about how rhythm and melody work together to translate emotion and help tell stories.”
She has also been teaching cello for the past twenty years and particularly enjoys teaching beginners. She takes students of all ages, including adults who say they have always wanted to learn to play cello because it is such a beautiful instrument. She also teaches elementary school-age orchestra.
Talking of young performers, Shana has a powerful message for the young in general: “I want them to remember that they are powerful, even when they feel like the rest of the world is trying its best to make them feel invisible. It’s our mission to teach them well and let them lead the way. My elders did that for me; one of the reasons why I teach is so that I can always be in an environment to instil the spirit of curiosity, courage, excellence and stewardship in the young people who will soon inherit this world and improve on all the ways we fell short.”
Finally, with her career on an upward trajectory, what – if anything – did Shana still wish for?: “That I could eat all the bread and chocolate my heart desires and actually lose weight!”