Shari Ulrich, Centennial Theatre, Tuesday, June 18, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $30/$35, available by calling 604-984-4484 or online at tickets.centennialtheatre.com.
While Canadian folk hero Neil Young was starting to sing about packing it in, buying a pickup and taking it down to L.A., American singer-songwriter Shari Ulrich was foreseeing an opposite transnational trajectory for herself.
Politically disenfranchised and emotionally marred after hearing the news of unarmed college protesters being shot at and killed by the Ohio National Guard, the tragedy later dubbed the Kent State massacre, Ulrich took her mom’s car and headed north – not south. It was 1970 and Ulrich was 18 at the time, living in the San Francisco Bay Area where she’d also grown up.
“At that time, I suddenly felt so unsafe,” says Ulrich. “I literally packed up the car and within a couple of days I was on my way to Canada.”
Although it took some back and forth before she finally settled in her adopted homeland, it was here, while living in the coastal community of Gibsons, that Ulrich really set out on her musical journey.
“I started playing conga drums,” Ulrich says, with a laugh. “I had played violin in grade school and so I started picking that up again. I would just come across people who would encourage me to play with them. That’s when the light bulb finally went on.”
For Ulrich, that spark of musical inspiration has stayed lit for more than four decades. Fresh off releasing Back to Shore, her ninth official solo album, she is also celebrating 45 years as a touring recording artist and musician, stretching back to when her first band, Pied Pumkin, put out its debut release in 1974.
“I’m kind of in awe of the number,” she says – but adds: “For me, it’s always been about moving forward and so I don’t tend to reflect in that way.”
Since getting those initial musical opportunities in B.C.’s coffeehouses and concert halls during the early ’70s, Ulrich has subsequently added the mandolin, guitar, piano, dulcimer and, naturally, her exceptional singing voice to her folk arsenal. Though her musical education started much earlier.
As a child of the ’60s growing up in the Bay Area, Ulrich was lucky to be able to hear and experience all kinds of music, both popular and countercultural, that swept through the hippie hot spot that decade. While endeavouring to experience any and all music she could, Ulrich found she was more attracted to the acoustic storytelling and emotive fabric of folk music than the psychedelic panache of jam bands like the Grateful Dead.
“That wasn’t really the stuff that spoke to me,” says Ulrich, noting her then still developing musical sensibility didn’t really come into focus until she heard Joni Mitchell. “She was just such a storyteller. The lyrics didn’t click with me before that – and then suddenly there’s this woman with this angelic voice being very vulnerable and honest and telling elaborate wonderful stories. That was a game-changer for me.”
Career-wise, the game-changer for Ulrich was when she was compelled to set out as a solo artist. While touring with the Hometown Band in 1977, support for the band’s tour was abruptly cut off by the record label after ticket sales were slow for the Ontario leg of shows. Oddly, the tour’s cancellation occurred the night before the band would end up winning a Juno award for Best New Group.
“It did always amaze me that they didn’t just wait another day since the Junos were on,” says Ulrich. “That would have affected ticket sales!”
But maybe it was all a blessing in disguise, she muses. While performing in the Hometown Band, Ulrich wasn’t singing her own songs, which, as someone born to sing, she eventually came to realize wasn’t going to work for her.
“It really bothered me to sing words that weren’t mine, that I wasn’t comfortable with and didn’t necessarily speak to me,” she says. “When we decided to disband the band, it was a logical step for me to go solo.”
Sequestering herself in a little cabin on Salt Spring Island, she started writing her own songs. It’s a trend that’s continued for the last several decades. Preferring to write in a dedicated space rather than on the road or amidst the distractions of home, Ulrich absconded to a coastal cabin on Vancouver Island to write her latest batch of songs.
Across 12 tracks, the singer-songwriter, who has lived on Bowen Island for the past 26 years, explores themes ranging from love and infidelity, to a celebration of Canada as well as the larger implications of space travel.
“Humans have such a strange mixture of the need to conquer new territory and the avoidance of really problem solving” the issues here at home, Ulrich says about her new song, “Mars.”
Audiences can see the new album performed in its entirety when Ulrich takes the stage at Centennial Theatre on Tuesday, performing alongside musicians Kirby Barber, Cindy Fairbank, Scott Smith, Geoff Hicks and daughter Julia Graff.
Ulrich notes it’s easy for her to be philosophical about the role that music plays in our lives, believing it has the capacity to play an outsized part. “I think that music does allow us to open up a little bit to feelings that we try to keep a lid on,” she says.
She notes she has particularly enjoyed playing her new song, “These Lines,” about the heartbreak and joy of aging, on the current tour.
“I look in the mirror, wonder who’s looking back/She looks familiar but I’m not as old as that …” she sings.
Ultimately though, the song is joyous; Forty-five years into her career, Ulrich shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’m just happy I’ve been able to do this all my life. I feel like I’m just getting going as far as what I can produce in the future.”