“I often feel when I walk out on stage for a sound check that it’s like being in church. It’s a very sacred, wonderful place to get to be.”
Shari Ulrich drives onto the ferry in Horseshoe Bay heading towards Bowen Island; it’s a short ride to the isle off West Vancouver she now calls home. Her soft voice periodically cuts out depending on the phone’s reception, but her unremitting thoughtfulness is transparent even through speakerphone.
She’s just returned from a family reunion in Boulder, Colorado, a distance from where she grew up in San Francisco’s Bay Area. The late summer day is nearing its end, but she speaks like an artist who’s enlivened at night. A two-time Juno award winner, she’s released 23 albums (eight of them solo) and has been a member of such bands as The High Bar Gang, the Hometown Band, UHF, BTU, and Pied Pumkin. Despite a longstanding career, her accomplishments don’t overtake a humbleness that’s integral to her character.
“The thing about performing and why I enjoy it so much is because I really feel like it’s not about me,” says Shari. “I’m fortunate that I’ve got this gift, this thing in me, but what I’m celebrating when I’m performing is the music. It’s about how it’s making us feel. So I feel like in between me and the audience, there’s this place where the music is and I feel incredibly honoured to be the one making the sounds.” She laughs as the next thought surfaces, “Sometimes I’m just in awe that I can remember the lyrics!”
A self-professed “child of the ’60s” raised in Northern California, Shari moved to Canada at 18 after the Kent State shootings in 1970. (In May of that year, the Ohio National Guard in Kent, Ohio fired at unarmed college students who were protesting the war in Vietnam, killing four students and injuring nine). This contentious period under Nixon’s presidency that sparked Shari’s decision to move north marks a pattern in her life – strife manifested into creativity. It’s evident in the lyrics of her songs, which Shari says are a representation of what she’s lived. For her, there isn’t any topic that’s “too personal” to address.
“I’ve come to feel that secrets don’t necessarily serve us well, whether they were a victim of something or they had a life event that society might attach shame to,” she says. “I’m not secretive about those events in my life because if I were to be, it would perpetuate the myth that we should feel ashamed that they happened, and that’s not right.”
Putting pen to paper after trying times has been therapeutic for Shari. Creative outlets, she says, allow you to transform an experience that might’ve been negative, dark or confusing into something beautiful.
“When I talk about my experiences or write songs about them, it can help people heal from similar situations,” she muses.
One difficult event that Shari chronicles can be found in the song, “Mysterious Child.” In it, she talks about the son she gave up for adoption at 16. “I was kind of mining my life up until that point and that was a song that came out as something I had wanted to write about but didn’t necessarily think would go out into the world,” she says.
Raised in an era when teenage pregnancy was considered taboo and undoubtedly kept a secret, it’s clear why Shari has made a point to be as open as she has. Despite her family knowing about the pregnancy, at the time, most of her closest friends didn’t find out about it until college, or even later. “Some of them asked if that’s why I disappeared for a period of time,” she says.
Early in her career, Shari set out to write commercially viable songs to be played on the radio. As she wrote them, other more personal songs began to pour out, but she thought they weren’t meant for anyone else, let alone on an album. However, once her producer heard them, he knew they were her best songs. With his encouragement, she was set on a course of honing her authentic voice that’s carried through (similar in tone to the vulnerable, confessional quality of Joni Mitchell’s work, someone who inspired Shari early on).
For “Mysterious Child,” it’s a narrative that has come full circle. A few years ago, Shari wrote a song about finding the son she gave up, Mike. It was intended as a gift for his fortieth birthday (he’s now a large, joyful part of Shari’s life that includes her daughter, Julia) but their story resonated with others in a way that needed to be shared. It wasn’t until Shari started singing the song that she discovered how adoption touches so many people’s lives.
“There is something about the power of putting that subject, or any subject really, to music that makes it get into people’s hearts and souls in a way that just reading about it doesn’t necessarily. I can’t tell you how many people have thanked me for writing that song, because it allows them to feel emotions in a way that they don’t allow themselves to otherwise.”
Although she was already performing with the Hometown Band, songwriting is something that Shari thought she came to relatively late at 26. She wrote her first song in 1977 when the band was recording their second album, though she had wanted to and “sort of tried” to write songs since she was 20.
“I had been feeling kind of frustrated singing other people’s words when they weren’t mine, weren’t the way I would say something. Then the record label did what they often did in those days: after you recorded an album for them, they would say, ‘Well, we don’t hear a hit, so we want you to record a few more songs.’ That was the point I decided that I should finally write my own song.”
The song she did write, “Feel Good,” ended up being a successful single off of the album, proving it’s never too late to start (now that her daughter Julia is 26, she laughs at her prior belief that it was old).
The reason it took Shari six years to complete a song was because she didn’t know how to start – a process she doesn’t think has become any easier (a sentiment that might give creative-types relief because of mutual anxiety that it won’t get any better). “I just find I have a hard time surrendering to the process and staying with it until things start to come,” she says. Although, her credentials affirm she has stuck with a process long enough to see through countless projects and even use that knowledge to become a mentor to upcoming songwriters (she’s taught songwriting at Humber College, UBC, and the VSO School of Music).
When asked if she has a formula she follows when writing a song, she says there is a subtle pattern that she’s noticed. It begins in a familiar way for many artists:
“First, I do a lot of avoiding of it and then I finally surrender to it. Usually, I will sit down with an instrument – a guitar or a piano or mandolin or dulcimer, perhaps – just play something that captivates me and I’ll keep playing it until it evolves, or I start singing melody over it using nonsense words that have the sound that I want.
Eventually, in some mysterious way, it tells me what it’s about. Then, if you want to call it that, a formula kicks into play where I know what the subject of the song is and I know what I’m wanting to say and then it’s a more ritualistic process of creating the verses and the lyrics for it, which I tend to do when I’m riding my bike or walking. I do a lot of work on my lyrics when I’m walking.”
The creative process is one Shari calls a wondrous experience she’s always in awe of (in keeping with her humble spirit, she never seems jaded). Her favourite part of the process is when brainstorming or “playing around” is met with slivers of creative breakthroughs.
“When writing the song about finding my son Mike, I knew it needed to have a phrase, the hook phrase that summed up the song, but I never go into the process knowing what that is,” she says. “I didn’t even know what I was going to write when I sat down to write, but then the phrase “By the Grace of Goodbye” came up one moment and it rolled into the rest. When you have those moments, it’s fantastic.”
Family has always been a catalyst for Shari’s work. Her musical leanings have carried over to her daughter Julia who accompanied Shari for years on violin, mandolin, guitar and piano. While Julia worked on her Master’s degree in music in sound recording from McGill, she asked to record an album for her mom for a term project. In the past, as bandleader, it was Shari who was calling the shots; for this project, it was Julia’s turn to come up with the arrangements and pick which performances were best.
“I thought there would be times I would pull the experience card and say, ‘I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I know what I’m doing,’ but she was so confident, and has such a fantastic way as an engineer and a producer that I just surrendered to it completely. There was never any friction between us. And she’s done quite a bit of recording for me since. It’s really a wonderful relationship and I feel very fortunate.”
Although, Julia is working on more of the technical side of music, she does go to Shari for advice about the industry.
“I would say the most consistent advice I give her – or anybody, really – is to listen to your instincts,” says Shari. In her own career, trusting her gut has served her well.
With regards to the best advice she ever received, Shari refers to a song she wrote about her mother. In it, she quotes her, “Two things are advice and one is just something that she used to say, because we would talk about our beliefs, although neither of us were religious people, and she would say she believed that God is love. The line in the song is, ‘She said, be yourself and God is love, and above all else, be kind.’”
On her journey, Shari believes that being kind to people has been just as important as what she has done in music. In an overstressed society, taking time to slow down and acknowledge each other is important.
“All it takes is responding to someone in a kind way, making eye contact or smiling at them, and it can change their day. It’s quite a powerful thing.” Shari pauses before broadening her thought, “I think in our times that are so scary and distressing and there’s so much ugliness out there, the only thing we can affect is our very immediate world – our friends and family and the people we randomly encounter. So I try to make it as positive as I can. It takes so little to make a difference. And you get so much good stuff back when you do that.”
As her ferry arrives at Snug Cove Terminal, the sky now decidedly dark, Shari ends the call with gratitude and a mirthful joke, “Other than reminding me of my identity as a senior, it was great!” For some, their brooding past is fixed in the downturn of their mouth or in their outlook on life; for Shari Ulrich, the marks of her most personal experiences are left in the liner notes of her albums; the positivity she exudes is an example that sullied moments can be transformed into light – and can even be used for inspiration.
As she drives off the boat, a parting question proposed: What’s something everyone should try at least once in their life? She laughs, taking not a moment’s hesitation, “I’m torn between telling people to write down their story, and just put on music and dance. We don’t dance enough.”
For Shari, another album to write and more tour dates in the months ahead, the possibility of what a new day can bring is reason enough to dance.
Snapshot with Shari Ulrich
If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give her?
This is your one life. Make it big and make it count. Don’t even THINK about getting a tan – wear sunscreen. And don’t waste another precious moment worrying that your hips are too big. Oh, and note that lust unfailingly masquerades as love, so don’t make major life decisions while under its compelling and intoxicating spell. This too will pass.
Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
Undoubtedly my mother in ways I can’t even identify, but primarily by her independent, spunky spirit. If it needed to be done, if it needed to be fixed - she did it herself. She was relentless in getting the best out of her life. But it’s a toss-up with my daughter, who inherited all those traits, plus my father’s keen intelligence. Julia’s a constant positive influence in her calm and sensible approach to life, all while taking on one new exciting challenge after another. Her fearlessness and dedication to learning is awe-inspiring.
What does courage mean to you?
Courage means saying yes to a new endeavour or adventure that is scary. I’ve always said yes, and it has NEVER backfired.
What does success mean to you?
My concept of success has definitely evolved over time. It used to be focused on success as an artist. Now, it encompasses living up to my creative potential, being truly happy and fulfilled, leaving as small a footprint as possible, and being surrounded by loving and lovable friends and family.
november 2016 INSPIRED senior living
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