Although long gone are the days when Canadian songwriters had to make their reputation in America in order to sustain a career, we’re still too modest when it comes to honouring our own. Yet on the international stage, Canadians have built an impressive reputation: Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell… the list goes on. Added to that list are veteran songwriters like Shari Ulrich, who after 40 years as a solo artist is back on the road again with a new album to tour.
“Occasionally I think: Gee, I’m past where ‘normal’ folks would retire, and it’s unimaginable to me,” says Ulrich. “I just love making music so much and still have the stamina to do it! I try to stay healthy so I can do it as long as possible. I dread the day when something happens to my hands or voice to compromise my ability to keep touring. So I’m aiming for another 20 years.”
I interviewed Shari in anticipation of her return to the Slocan Valley for a concert at the Slocan City Trading Company May 31st on the heels of her new album Back to Shore, due out June 21st from Borealis Records. The new album marks her third collaboration with her daughter Julia Graff as engineer and producer, along with Julia’s partner and fellow graduate of McGill’s Master in Music in Sound Recording Program, James Perrella.
I first met Shari about ten years ago when I organized a reunion concert for her original band Pied Pumkin at the Silverton Memorial Hall. Like her former bandmates Rick Scott and Joe Mock, she retains a warm, down-to-earth nature that sidesteps the coolness of the ‘star’ persona. One of my seminal early musical experiences was seeing Pied Pumkin perform at the former Notre Dame University campus in Nelson, BC in 1975. I couldn’t believe that just three people—without a drummer—could create so much rhythm and energy. Like so many classic trios—Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Rush—this was clearly three monumental talents in total mind-meld harmony, making a sum greater than its individual parts. The crowd was on its feet almost from the first song and stayed there the rest of the night. Shari struck gold—both creatively and professionally—when she sang the gorgeous Fear of Flying with Mock, still one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. She later reprised it with the Hometown Band.
What brings you back to the Slocan Valley and what do you love about it?
It always starts with that one invitation which in the Slocan is unfailingly a message from Lowell at the Old Castle Theatre in Castlegar saying people are asking when I’m going to return. Of course, that always feels great! Lowell and the gang and I go back a long way by now! I love their dedication to that space and to community. And I love returning to the Slocan as it was such an important part of my introduction to being a touring musician when I was with the Pumkin. The spirit of the area and the people has aways resonated with me and always will.
It’s been a long road since you began your solo career in 1978. How many albums does your new one make? And what have been some career highlights you recall that have made it all worthwhile for you?
Oh gosh…that’s such a big question! Counting the album with the Pied Pumkin, The Hometown Band, Ulrich Henderson Forbes, Bentall Taylor Ulrich and the High Bar Gang, and solo, this makes 26.
Career highlights are in fact kind of the other end of the spectrum from what makes it all worthwhile to me. Opening for Supertramp at Maple Leaf Gardens was pretty damn exciting. The whole Valdy and the Hometown Band era was so special. The whole Pied Pumkin era was absolutely magical. But the special moments are the small ones—the one-on-one with people sharing their stories triggered by one of my songs. Sharing what music means to them. Moments with an audience where I feel like the wonder that is music and how it affects is shared together in that room. It’s the relationships with other humans—especially people I play with and work with that have developed over time that are the heart of it all.
Would you say your sound and composition style has changed much since you started as a solo artist? How? What musical influences have crept in?
I started out writing to have my songs played on the radio. I was aiming for pop. And then other songs would spill out that I assumed would never be recorded and Claire Lawrence knew those were the important songs to share. So over time I wrote to get to the heart of the matter and to be moved. Everything I’ve ever heard creeps in there. The Penguin Café probably had an influence melodically after I started writing but otherwise I couldn’t pinpoint anything. I just love a finely crafted lyric and melody, which ironically usually first come out as sheer mysterious inspiration followed by the crafting.
Writing lyrics can often be a challenge for musicians, as it seems to occupy a different part of the brain, hence the prevalence in music history of duo teams in songwriting—Rogers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney, Bernie Taupin and Elton John, etc., often with one supplying the lyrics and the other the tunes. Has lyric writing always come easily for you, or has it been a challenge? Was it easier when you were writing with Pied Pumkin?
I didn’t start writing until a few years after the Pied Pumkin. The first song I wrote was Feel Good at the end of the Pumkin era, which became a single, so that’s how I knew I should keep writing. My big confession is that I don’t co-write. I probably should but I think I might be a bit afraid of it! I love writing on my own and seeing where things lead. And lyrics are generally not that hard for me. Getting down to writing is, however. But once I surrender to it and take lots of walks, the lyrics tend to come.
How have your lyrics reflected the changing concerns and priorities of getting older? I notice that artists still active after several decades—those not trapped by having a commercial image to satisfy—often write some of their best lyrics late in their careers.
Oh, I have always written about the stage of life I’m in, as that’s what I’m experiencing. So that’s probably why my audience has generally been my age. They’re aging with me and my songs are what we’re experiencing and thinking about. I think I probably do write better songs as I go—at least I hope so! That’s the goal.
What lyrical or musical changes are reflected in your new album? What excites you about it?
It’s a pretty wide range of subjects: A cautionary tale about infidelity; the power of love; creativity; dementia; lines and aging; the absurdity of travelling to Mars; regret about wasted time; the inevitability of change; forgiveness; and an apologetic love song to the Earth. I love the production, the contributions of the musicians, and the songs!
Are you optimistic about the future of music? If so, why? If not, why not?
The challenges of music being consumed in a fashion that doesn’t remunerate the creators, artists and performers are very real. I kind of have blinders on and am still creating the actual artistic ‘thing’ in the form of a CD—I love the object. I love to play concerts and offer folks a way to take the music home with them—to read the lyrics and look at the artwork, etc. And from a sociological point of view, there is such a hunger and need for music. I often say I think music is one of the best things we do as humans and is our saving grace. So it’s not going anywhere. We need it. It’s a confusing time and music helps weather the chaos.