Sarabeth Tucek interview
Twenty-one years ago, Sarabeth Tucek stopped talking to her father. She was 17. She’d had enough of him being aloof and vague, and this was her way of calling his bluff. “I tried to have a connection with him, but it always felt like he was a distant relative,” she explains. “And every time I tried, it left me feeling terrible. So one day I just thought, okay that’s it, I’m not going to see him anymore.” And with that, she cut him off. “But really,” she confesses, “I was testing him: I wanted to see if he would miss me if I went quiet. The problem was that while I was testing him, he died.”
She wasn’t invited to his funeral. Mr Tucek’s new wife – her parents separated when she was two – excluded her from everything. From Sarabeth’s point of view, he “just kinda died,” she reports, still sounding slightly confused about the specifics, as if describing an old family pet. Her father was cremated privately, and no one was told where his ashes were scattered. There was no finality. Afterwards, Tucek’s step-mum sent her a bin bag containing her father’s old shoes, a broken digital watch and an empty cologne bottle, and that was that. “She was pretty sick,” Tucek concludes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the whole episode stuck with her. “At 17 I couldn’t deal with it – I didn’t have the psychological resources,” she admits. “I felt derailed, I had enormous guilt because I hadn’t spoken to him, and my mum wasn’t any help because she couldn’t bear to see me so upset. It needled away at me for twenty years until finally a friend said that I needed to do something about it – every drunken conversation kept on going back to the death of my father – so I wrote a song called The Doctor and realised that this was something I wanted to do.”
That “something” became Get Well Soon, Tucek’s second album and an attempt, twenty-one years on, to resolve her feelings about her estranged, deceased father. A lighthearted knockaround it ain’t, but as an exercise in deeply cathartic songwriting, it’s rather compelling. “As I arranged and rearranged those songs, I was actually rearranging my feelings bit by bit and finding their place inside of me, like tidying up the mess in a room,” she explains, talking like the psychiatrist’s daughter that she is. Uncomfortably candid at times, delicately beautiful at others, Tucek says her album is “about my father, about how he made me feel, and about the things he did that made me react around other people,” but in reality it’s not as painfully self-aware or indulgent as that description might suggest. Yes, it’s an undeniably solemn affair – a small-hours classic rather than summer barbecue music – but as with other great monothematic albums (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Boatman’s Call and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon both feel like distant cousins) there’ a tenderness and contemplation that offsets the oppressive subject matter. Musically it’s in thrall to the grand guitars and simple melodies of Neil Young and Big Star, which leaves it more with a feeling of melancholia than dourness, and it’s sung with a beautifully ageing voice full of aural wrinkles. While the whole record hints at a life lived with the occasional low point, it also carries a stoic optimism that prevents it becoming too overbearing.
While still a relative unknown, Tucek’s been on the fringes of various music scenes for ten years. Indeed, keen-eyed readers might recognise her. At the end of the legendary 2004 rockumentary Dig!, which chronicles the rollercoaster career of celebrated troublemakers The Brian Jonestown Massacre (and the relatively tame corporate rise of their friends-turned-rivals the Dandy Warhols), she’s the girl with the guitar, softly singing around the swollen fists, broken amps and used needles. But far from being some angelic musician offering calm amid the storm, Tucek was just another of the Massacre’s fucked-up team of self-destructives, and only actually started playing guitar after she began hanging out with them.
As Dig! attests, it wasn’t a pretty time: “When I was about 30 I met Anton [Newcombe, lead singer, chief pugilist and head merrymaker with the BJM] and I immediately saw an opportunity to completely self-destruct,” she explains, apologetically. Up until then, Tucek had been trying to make it as an actress, but not much was biting. “I’d been dancing around the idea of just giving up for a while, and then I went nuts – lots of drugs, lots of drinking. Lots of traffic accidents. I gave myself permission to just check out, and that house was the perfect place to do it.” There’s a pause as she retells the tale, not for any dramatic effect but simply because it seems that virtually every one of Tucek’s memories is painful to her in some way.
“But that was also where I learned how to play music,” she says, as if remembering the point of the story, “and I couldn’t believe how much better it made me feel – how much better it made me feel to sit in a room and sing to myself.”
Tucek discovered quickly that playing music helped her “feel better” – a phrase she comes back to again and again in our hour together – and eventually she left the carnage of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and returned to New York, partly a result of a driving ban – the public transport is better there than in LA – and partly because she felt like a fraud being a solo degenerate. “Ultimately, I wasn’t very good at being self-destructive,” she admits. “I didn’t try drugs until I was 30, and I felt like a bit of an imposter when I did. But I think I needed to touch bottom just so I could bring myself back up again.”
Back in New York, the memory of her father was unavoidable – “It was no longer a problem of geography, but one of death,” she assesses, disconnected and eerily objective – and the thought processes behind the writing of Get Well Soon began to germinate. “I was in my thirties and suddenly alone, with all sorts of feelings coming to me. It was that feeling of being alone that inspired me, and a compulsion to, well, feel better.” There’s that phrase again, like a self-help mantra.
“I’m all about finding a way out,” she continues. “The number-one reason why I write music is to make myself feel better. I can’t stand to feel uncomfortable. I’m constantly trying to make myself feel better and mentally more stable.”
As the interview draws to a close, Tucek takes on a look of resignation. “I know I’ve sounded like a complete lunatic,” she says, smiling, or maybe wincing. She hasn’t, I reassure her, but she continues. “The problem is I feel nervous during interviews because suddenly I have no idea who I am. I feel like I can go in a million different directions, and I’ve got to choose one, and the one that I choose is the one other people are going to read, and then they’re going to see me as that forever, and I feel my blood pulse through me and I’m like ‘stop! I don’t know who I am!’”
She doesn’t sound like a lunatic – indeed, her neuroses are exactly the sort that one suspects most feel but to which few admit. However, she does sound like someone whose self-awareness is sometimes paralysing, the kind of person who has to frequently tell themselves to relax, and then can’t. “Most people make art because they’re trying to feel better, like they’re cutting something out of themselves to make their lives more pleasant,” she suggests at one point earlier. Based on her life so far, one can only expect further therapeutically musical amputations.