by Bruce Mason
Many Common Ground readers have grown up with the diverse, award-winning music and songs of Shari Ulrich – created in our part of the world over the course of 45 years. She has been featured on over two dozen recordngs with Pied Pumkin, Valdy’s Hometown Band, Bill Henderson and Roy Forbes (UHF), Barney Bentall and Tom Taylor (BTU), and the seven-piece bluegrass group, The High Bar Gang.
Her latest work – Back to Shore, a ninth solo album giving full expression to her lovely voice and passion for song-writing – is being hailed coast to coast as her best. “It really bothered me to sing words that weren’t mine, that I wasn’t comfortable with and didn’t necessarily speak to me,” explains the multi-instrumentalist. “Like all my albums, it reflects where I am now, and I spent more time crafting these songs than any other of my career.
“I was able to steep myself in the process more than in the past. I wrote almost all of Back To Shore on Vancouver Island in a little seaside cabin, on walks or paddling in my kayak, so it was hard to keep out what was constantly inspiring me,” she reports. This latest creation is awash with images of the ocean that include undertows, impending storms and higher ground.
Wrapped in the welcoming seascape artwork of ex-husband David Gaff, the six-panel CD Back To Shore is packed with surprises, and peopled with characters and many perspectives. The 12 songs are like tide-pools teeming with life, awaiting discovery, exploration and reflection. A lover with a wedding ring tucked in a pocket is tempted by Sirens to “Rocky Shores.” In “That’s What I Thought Too”, an aging man, like all of us, “thinks there’s time / that we’ll fix it” on his final day. Another reflective tune pulls at the threads of memory while clinging to “The Sweater” of a significant other suffering through the horror of dementia.
Other songs celebrate Canada, her adopted home and lament the insanity of those who haven’t thought through a plan to escape to Mars. The last song on the album starts out with “Goodnight, oh beautiful world” and later apologizes to the Earth for human cruelty. “It was like a personal love song between me and the utterly mind boggling beauty of nature that makes me constantly swoon,” says Ulrich.
“It’s impossible to create a body of work without reflecting social issues – it’s long been the role of music and art in our society. And of course, these days the primary concern for everyone in the world is the health of the planet,” she told Common Ground. “It’s almost unbearable to me that so much of what goes on puts greed over the health of our existence. And I know we only hear about a fraction of it. So I focus on what I can do: making music that both comforts us and makes us think.”
She writes about her song “Mars” in an email: “it just seems so crazy obvious that sticking with the planet humans can survive on makes a lot more sense. In fact, the need for humans to put unlimited funds into “the new frontier” seems almost immoral, given how valuable [those] resources could be to the folks living on this planet.
Standing out on Back To Shore is “These Lines,” about aging, and Ulrich herself. “Looking in a mirror and wonder who’s looking back. She looks familiar but I’m not as old as that,” also envisions acceptance and forgiveness: “Well I drew them all to get to you. I love these lines.”
Exploring Back To Shore is much more rewarding when grasped and unfolded in the listener’s hands as a CD – more satisfying than clicking a mere digit on a sound file. There’s more here than meets the ear. And digital just won’t do, given the scope of the project. “The whole package is part of the artistic expression,” she says.
The CD includes a separate lyric booklet, and full credit to everyone who took part in the project. No guesswork required. The clear, clean, rock-steady claw-hammer banjoist is Cara Luft; tasty musical fills come courtesy of Scott Smith; fulsome keyboards provided by Cindy Fairbank; Peggy Lee on gorgeous cello; on Hammond B3 is Michael Creber; the choir is the Marcus Mosely Ensemble. And so on.
Ubiquitous is daughter Julia Graff, now integral to Ulrich’s music. Like her mother, she is a gifted multi-instrumentalist / vocalist with a keen, unerring ear. Add a degree in sound from McGill, where she met partner James Perrella, who is the CD’s engineer and third co-producer. The trio’s sonic landscape lives up to, and completes, Back To Shore. There is no flotsam or jetsam. No wasted words, or notes.
Ulrich has been very vocal, open and active regarding her personal experiences, including giving up a child for adoption and a horrific physical assault at knife-point. Her perspective on the state of our planet – along with her sheer joy and talent for making music – is important, poignant and personal.
Looking back, she concludes: “In the formative years, I think it’s so easy to let one’s identity be formed by those directing your career. And there can be quite an internal disconnect as a result. Being able to learn how to take who we are on stage, to be vulnerable, to have all those different facets integrated – it all goes into creating a unique artist and unique voice.”
Shari Ulrich does all that, evolving and arriving on Back To Shore. She has created a safe harbour, a sonic refuge which can help the listener navigate our troubled, storm-ravaged times.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.