Autocorrect nearly cost Shana Tucker her job with the circus. While reading a transcription of her voicemail with Google Voice, the cellist and singer-songwriter found an audition request from Circuit City. But the electronics retailer no longer existed, so she assumed a friend was simply teasing. Then she noticed the area code of the call: 702.
"That's Las Vegas," she recalls thinking. "OK, this might be something."
Indeed, it was: The call came from a talent scout at Cirque du Soleil—a near-homophone for Circuit City, but still a dramatic stretch for a singing cellist with a background in jazz and orchestral work. Before the transcription snafu, Google had already done Tucker a solid: The scout found Tucker's website by searching for "singing cellist," hoping to replace an outgoing musician in the technically complex masterpiece KÀ at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. Was she available to audition?
These days, Tucker sings KÀ's finale each night in full Cirque costume and makeup; she has just finished her second year as a featured performer in their seven-piece band.
Tucker now calls herself "bicoastal" rather than "Durham-based." She returns to her eastern home Tuesday to play at The Pour House in Raleigh, alongside the quartet of her frequent collaborator and sideman Eric Hirsh. She's termed her own music "ChamberSoul" for its dual jazz and classical pedigrees, knotted by the thrum and moan of her cello.
Tucker has run through most of the stringed instruments in her time, starting on the violin in elementary school on Long Island. "That was my point of entry to the world of strings, and I hated it," she cringes. "I just wanted to be in the orchestra, and they didn't have any more cellos. I looked at the bass and it was too big. Maybe that was a lazy cop-out."
Escaping the scratchy violin and avoiding the behemoth bass, Tucker fell in love with the middle instrument, particularly for its warmth and the way its tones seem to resonate with your body: "It feels good," she says simply.
Once she'd played for a few years, she began to respect the role the cello plays in the orchestra. "You're the conduit between the upper, whiny strings and the lower, cool bass," she says. "You're holding it down with the bass sometimes, and then you say, 'No, I've got something to say with this really awesome melodic line.'"
Indeed, crossovers and connections are a central theme of Tucker's career, from the cello's liminal range to her interests in various genres. Her debut album SHiNE corrodes the music industry boundaries between classical, jazz, folk, R&B and soul. To wit, the album keys on a restless cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car."
"You have to be able to have conversations like that within the music," Tucker explains. "You have to have a knowledge base of all this different stuff so that when you come to the stage, you're saying something, and not just the same old thing."
That spirit enables Tucker to work the Sin City show full-time and to continue writing her own music. She co-composed and recorded the soundtrack for a remix of Chaunesti Webb's play I Love My Hair When It's Good: & Then Again When It Looks Defiant and Impressive, opening Thursday at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater. She's on the bill of Durham's ambitious and eclectic Art of Cool Festival in April. In the past, she's appeared on albums by local notables such as hip-hop synthesizers The Beast and Shirlette and the Dynamite Brothers and arranged music for children with the Community Chorus Project.
Tucker's thankful for the stability of a day job, even though KÀ is a night show. Still, for a restless soul like Tucker's, 10 shows a week is a grind, playing the same music again and again."I'm not that musician who says, 'Whoa, I've been on the road for 25 years. I need to sit down and just wait for my 5:30 call because that's all I want to do,'" she says. "If I didn't have what I do when KÀ is dark, or on the weekends, I would go crazy."
Tucker works hard to balance Cirque's regularity with the shifting storm of performing, writing and recording her own music. The creative jumble of her expanding career helps her endure any numbness that might creep in on her daily commute to the MGM Grand.
Last summer, her own music became a sort of release valve when KÀ turned from a dream to a grind to a nightmare. During the last scene of a performance, in which aerial acrobats wage a mock battle, the rope holding up cast member Sarah Guyard-Guillot broke. She fell 94 feet to her death. Tucker had just come onstage to sing the show's final aria.
"Thankfully, we were behind the curtain," she remembers, "and the audience didn't see the landing. But it changed us, especially the artists and techs that did see the whole thing. A reminder of how, even on a show that has never had a safety violation in the eight years since it opened, with a company that works hard to be top-notch, state-of-the-art fabulous, we are still human and therefore vulnerable and accident-prone."
KÀ took a two-week hiatus after the June accident. The Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated and issued several citations to both Cirque du Soleil and the MGM Grand in October. Tucker says it's still rough for everyone there, even a half-year and hundreds of shows later. For Tucker, it's been a difficult way to learn the old adage that the show must go on.
"I literally ran away to join the circus. And it's fun and ridiculously creative there. But at the end of the day, it's a job," she says. "There's the other stuff that allows me to take a break from my job and be creative, and then to come back and give more to my job because I have that space."
That's why, this weekend, she'll be back in town, making her own music in her own time.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Four-string circus."