The singer talks finding inspiration outside of the church

Still reeling from her brother's death about 25 years ago, singer Debra James Tucker channeled her emotions into a recent one-woman show, “Survival of the Boulevard Singer.” That she was even performing was due to the influence of her brother, who died without being fully out as a gay man.

“It was like after seeing him pass, and not having really been able to fully express who he was, it got me thinking, ‘I don't want to leave here and not having fully been who I am,'” Tucker said in a late-December interview. “And a lot of who I am is about music.”

After practicing law in Chicago, Tucker returned to Columbus and began expressing herself as a musician — teaching the history of African-American gospel music at Denison University and performing each week at a gospel brunch at the now-closed Out on Main restaurant Downtown. Today, she hosts and books acts for another “Gospel Soul Brunch” at Natalie's Coal-Fired Pizza the first Sunday of each month.

The next show takes place Sunday, Jan. 7, and features Central Ohio jazz band E-Flat.

“To my knowledge, this is probably the only place that consistently presents [gospel] as a series,” Tucker said. “Everybody doesn't go to church, and people still want to be inspired.”

Tucker books mostly local and regional bands, but she hopes to feature more national acts in the future. The guest group is the star of the show, but Tucker always finds herself singing at some point. “I'll get up and say something, maybe like what's been on my mind for the week, and I'll sing a verse, a song or something that pertains to that,” she said.

One of her fondest memories during the series, which has been running for about three years, took place when her family group, the James Tucker Inspirational Singers, performed.

“I come from a long line of preachers and gospel singers,” she said. “My grandmother used to get us together when we were really small [and] gather us around the piano. … I just thought that's what people did.”

Although Tucker grew up in the gospel tradition, she welcomes all of its subgenres, which have not always been accepted by others in the field.

“That's been an ongoing question in gospel since [pioneer] Thomas A. Dorsey. [He] was told his music really wasn't church music because it sounded too much like the blues,” she said.

“I just think if it reaches you and makes you feel wonderful and inspired, I don't really care what you call it.”