The third album by singer-songwriter Sarabeth Tucek opens with a devastating line courtesy of her mother, Joan, as she hands her an old photograph. “It is the way I wish you could have always stayed,” she says, “fearless and full of love.”
As Tucek – now operating as SBT – makes clear, however, that’s not how life works. Joan Of All is her first record since 2011’s Get Well Soon, that delay suggesting its existence was never a given. “When I stopped writing music it was at a time in my life when I really had to figure out whether or not I was going to have children,” explains Tucek, fighting through a cold at home in Los Angeles. “I kind of just put everything else to the side. Around that time, I became pregnant, then I miscarried, and then I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do with my life was become a mother. I think because that ended up being a difficult road, I blamed everything I had done, including music.”
Music came back to me…
Despairing of “this bohemian existence fraught with anxiety and insecurity”, she got a job doing costumes for film and TV, joined a union, bought a house – “a way to really care for myself.” It was only during lockdown that the songs on Joan Of All started pouring out from her. “I really didn’t know that I would ever come back to it,” she says, “but it came back to me.”
As she sings on 13th Street’s never-go-home-again lament, Tucek was raised in New York – the mark of Lou Reed is upon her – but she mixes dirty rock’n’roll boulevards with West Coast haze and cosmic innerspace. She started writing songs when she moved to Los Angeles, meeting Bill Callahan through a friend. “I didn’t know that I had made any impression upon Bill because he’s very stoic,” she says, and nearly “passed out” when he asked her to sing on 2003’s Supper. Even heavier validation came after her self-titled 2007 debut, when one of her first gigs was opening for Bob Dylan in Massachusetts.
It has taken until now, however, to make “the thing she is most proud of in her life”. Released on her Ocean Omen label, Joan Of All is remarkable emotional cartography, documenting “the whip and the lash” (as she sings on The Gift) with both analytical cool and almost hallucinogenic intensity. Tucek wears symbolic armour on the sleeve of Joan Of All – a representation of her struggles, of the way women are again “under siege”, and a tribute to her “badass” therapist mother. She quotes Louise Gluck: “The hope is that if you live through it, there will be art on the other side.”
“I didn’t really expect there to be anything on the other side,” Tucek says, “but it turns out there was.”
SBT's Joan Of All is releases by Ocean Omen on May 19.
● For Fans Of: Lou Reed, Bill Callahan, Aldous Harding
● As an associate of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Tucek appears briefly in Ondi Timoner’s 2004 documentary Dig!.
● As with many others who have met Bob Dylan, Tucek has developed “a voice” – a rasping, anecdote-enhancing impersonation. When she walked past his tour bus Dylan called, “Hey! What’s the most exciting thing going on around here?” Taken aback, she answered, “I think it’s you.”
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