If you’re not iconic, legendary, a superstar or judged to be the next best thing, where does one fit in the glib lexicon of today’s music hierarchy?
If you are Shari Ulrich, none of the above tags apply. Yet she has successfully carved out a career in music that spans 45 years in Canada!
She’s an original "California girl" of the ‘60s who found her slipstream outside the mainstream and made her way with an enviable company of musicians to float her boat and create a treasure trove of songs recorded and performed the old-fashioned way.
Without beats, samples, or AutoTune software.
Next Tuesday (Aug. 6) she performs a mix of old and new songs at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room Live as part of a concert series supporting the release of Back to Shore (Borealis Records)-her ninth and unquestionably best solo album to date.
First gaining notice at the close of the ‘60s folk boom on Vancouver’s coffee house circuit with Pied Pumkin, and then winning national acclaim with her shimmering vocal performance on Valdy and the Hometown Band’s hit single, Fear of Flying, she’s been soaring for 40 years now on her own.
Along the way she is credited on more than 20 albums, recording eight under her own name, and created small circles with friends. Among them: Bill Henderson and Roy Forbes, in UHF; Barney Bentall and Tom Taylor, in BTU; and, her expandable concertina bluegrass- ensemble, The High Bar Gang.
Writing is a gift, and it is almost always playing in the forefront of her mind as she lives a crazed life in an idyllic spot on Bowen Island that affords her a front-row seat overlooking Howe Sound, mountain peaks and a lush forest of evergreens.
Crazed at least some of the time, in part because she’s a purist; in part, because she’s a perfectionist who takes charge of every aspect of her career, and her to-do list is long.
Her duties beyond writing and performing include booking shows, negotiating performance fees, arranging flights, dealing with rental firms, PR, writing a newsletter (see below), and then there’s the usual dross of keeping up with insurances, accounting, CRS. The whole enchilada that comes with running one's own business.
Aspiring songwriters who rely on performance income to generate revenue would be wise to consult with this master of the universe. It’s not a life in the fast lane, but it’s not chamomile teas and sunsets on the beach or as idyllic as Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville might have you believe.
Back to Shore is an eleven-song collection (plus an instrumental that is a constant in all her solo recordings) that lacks artifice in exploring her past. These are songs that are autobiography set in stanzas, written with an economy of words, decorated with sunbursts of acoustic instruments and electric guitar that envelope and romance her stories.
What has evolved from that child of the ‘60s is a woman in full bloom who has survived life’s unasked cruelties and the land mines of love to find light and renewal in dark places where others find only sadness and despair. To wit, addressing infidelity in the title track:
I know you’re talking that you’d never leave her
While in your pocket goes your wedding ring
We’re always thinking that the grass is greener
I can promise you it just looks that way in the spring
Better still is her irresistibly infectious tribute to the land she has made her (newfound) home. A song brimming with affection that we all should share, entitled Canada, and included on Ship to Shore.
Exploring deeper, Ulrich’s rose-coloured outlook on life characterizes her as a Wendy or Gwendolyn figure blessed with an ability to float above common pettiness and weighty slights. She offers hope and acceptance in a world fed from a menu offering variations on acts of indifference and cruelty.
Her thoughts and music provide inspiration, inspiration and a level of musicality that is at variance with most of what we see and hear today, and for this we say ‘thank you’ to Ulrich for sheltering us from the storm.
There is much else to be found as one delves into this album. She has moments that tell us Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Heart's Dog and Butterfly have paved a way for her to find her own way to rock. All in, it's a feast of treats that unfolds as one listens to the album in its entirety. She’s a unique voice in a space crowded with hecklers and shamans who have found fame and fortune and are as empty as discarded sea shells on a beach.
What is truly remarkable is her ability to communicate with her fans. Nobody does it better, so let me stand aside and let her tell her own story as published in the recent newsletter to her fans.
So my faithful mailing list gang. This is my first time sending to my e-mail list via Squarespace - the host of my new website. I hope you’ll let me know if you received it okay. It takes a fraction of the time to prepare, which means you will receive it more frequently (though that may not be good news!) and I haven’t learned yet how to “fancy it up” but I will.
I started this post over a month ago - the day after we played the last 2 shows surrounding the actual CD release date of June 21st and my last shows for awhile with the full band - Geoff Hicks, Kirby Barber, Scott Smith, Cindy Fairbank and Julia Graff. A girl simply couldn’t ask for better. It took me a few decades to realize what is most important to me in players...it’s those who understand that we are all there to serve the music. It’s not about dazzling an audience with skill and prowess, (though they certainly can and do) but it’s about Serving the Song. And they get that and I love them so much for it - and for the exceptional humans that they are - kind, thoughtful, dedicated, and wickedly fun to be around!
To me, making music isn’t about us - the singers, songwriters, musicians - it’s about celebrating what a powerful force music is - how it forges its way into us and makes us think and feel and reaches and opens up places in us that we don’t even know are there. Whatever the heck it is, I’m in awe of it. And everyone who plays a part in that is damn lucky and should honour it. (Oops - sorry about the “should” - it’s a feature of “maturity”!)
Performing is kind of an odd thing to do if you think about it. The writer or musician spends thousands of hours alone in a room, working on their craft, because they are utterly compelled to do so. And then they arrive on a stage where people watch them do this thing that they love. It certainly makes for a challenge to be comfortable and grounded - they didn’t come up with the “stage fright” for nothing! Fortunately I’ve never been inclined to feeing anxious about being on stage, but, believe it or not, (and if you’ve been to any of my shows in the past 35 years you won’t) I used to simply DREAD talking to an audience. Playing? Singing? Totally comfortable. But talking?….I was a mumbling bumbling ball of insecurity. It was torture. But as time went on I realized that if I was “myself” and didn’t think I had to be anything or anyone other than that, it was a breeze. Now I have to learn to shut up and play the song! And I may have lost more than a few filters along the way! It’s more fun than could have ever imagined in my inhibited youth.
Now, fast forward to the present…after a trip to Eugene to visit son Mike and family, a serene river rafting trip on the Columbia, a Paul McCartney concert, Butchart Gardens with the High Bar Gang, and way too much time in front of the computer advancing tours…. tomorrow….
Tomorrow the Pied Pumkin is doing a set - the first show in 7 years - in celebration of Rick Scott being inducted into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame…and I won’t even tell you where because it is very sold out. (sorry!) But I am already feeling so moved revisiting this music. Simply put, there never was, and never will be - anything like the Pumkin. The incomparable and mighty spirit of that music, driven by the unique treasure that is Rick Scott, taught me everything I know about all I said above - as well as how to be in-the-moment as a musician. The joy of that music was/is SO utterly undeniable and the love we have for it and each other was the foundation of all I value about music. So kudos to Valley Hennell for seizing the moment with Joe being over from France and the stars aligning of me having a week between shows in Ontario. It’s kind of an orange miracle. Hang on!! Pumkins are in the house!
After the Stewart Park Festival in Ottawa - the hottest I’ve EVER experienced but SO enjoyable nonetheless - we had to send Julia home to her “other” job as a music editor, and flew the equally delightful Kirby Barber out to join me and Cindy Fairbank for the rest of the shows. I couldn’t resist sharing the selfie of the three happy damsels. The BEST travelling companions EVER! My fave was the Wingham Town Hall Theatre, a 105-year-old Opera House restored thanks to the love of the amazing Beard family, and some dedicated donors. We met cellist Thomas Beard at McGill when he played in the string quartet on the “Everywhere I Go” album and have since fallen in love with the entire family. His parents have raised 3 remarkable musicians and played a huge part in their community with their “For the Love of Music” series (that Thomas AD’s) and many conservation and restoration initiatives. It is so inspiring to see what people can do when they lean in and put their efforts into positive change. To say nothing of their dedication to bringing an eclectic mix of remarkable music to that gem of a theatre. Thomas played with us that night and in Guelph so now of course I want a cellist!! Preferably HIM! But alas, he’s far too busy. Damn you Thomas!
Okay - enough with the earnest enthusiasm and onward to seducing you to shows! We have 3 CD release concerts left in this run - Hugh’s Room in Toronto on Tues. Aug. 6 (with my friend and fellow Borealis label-mate James Keelaghan - just because I love him and want to hear his new songs), Aug. 7 at the Carleton in Halifax, and Aug. 9 at the Indian River Festival in PEI. Cindy and Kirby will be with me and I can promise you won’t regret missing a night at home watching Netflix. I get to hang for a few more days in the Maritimes which I am mighty excited about! Old friends, a different ocean, and….who knows what else!
The next missive will cover the musically unrelated topics I’m dying to share with you!
Happy trails and I hope to see you out there in the world!