Shari Ulrich: Always Up For A Challenge!

When your child asks you for help on his/her homework assignment, it usually involves solving a math problem or dealing with some English grammatical puzzle. Yet in the case of Shari Ulrich’s daughter, Julia Graff the assignment in question was a little trickier.

As a project for her Masters in Music in Sound Recording in 2013 at Montreal’s McGill University, Graff asked her Mom if she could produce and engineer Ulrich’s next recording which, considering Ulrich wasn’t planning at recording a new album any time soon, posed a unique challenge.

Fortunately, accepting her daughter’s challenge total overrode the reality that Ulrich didn’t have any new songs written which triggered a one-month song writing frenzy for the Vancouver resident to fashion enough tracks for the recording.

Now with “Everywhere I Go” finally released on Borealis Records label and Ulrich touring in support of the release with dates including a Sunday March 9th appearance at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room, (accompanied by her daughter and pianist Ted Littlemore, who also appears on the album), Ulrich says the whole recording process was a great experience that presented her with unique, new challenges.

“I’m a deadline person but when in the absence of deadlines, I will always find more important things to do,” noted Ulrich on the phone from her Bowen Island residence. “But once I made a commitment I couldn’t let her down. I didn’t have time to second-guess what I was writing; I just had to claw through what I was doing. By the second week, I was sending Julia a new song every day; it’s amazing what happens when that creative streak kicks in.

The record’s material focuses on simple messages of everyday life including a poignant song about losing friends and loved ones on “Making Friends With Gone” “You get to a point in your life where you start losing people in your lives,” noted Ulrich. “And I lost a rash of them just before Christmas. So I just sat down and knocked the song off in about 20 minutes.”
The one album track Ulrich didn’t write is `One Sky’, a timely ode to pollution and global warming, written by Zac Doeding who presented the song at one of her song writing seminars that Ulrich regularly stages to promote and inspire new songwriters.

“I guess every song writer who attends these song writing workshops has this fantasy about presenting a song that you think, Wow! This is so good I just have to record it,” laughs Ulrich. “But that is exactly what happened when I heard Zac’s `One Sky’ song. It is a fantastic song.”

Allowing daughter Julia to produce and engineer the album, recorded mainly on campus at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, meant Ulrich had to totally surrender to the process of Graff not only producing the tracks but also using fellow McGill students to provide instrumental backing for the sessions.

“As an artist, you want to have control over who is playing on your record,” but in this case, I had to totally rely on who Julia picked for the sessions,” explained Ulrich. “So I had these 21 and 22 year old students coming in to do the job and they were fantastic!”
One of those students, Ted Littlemore, had taken the same piano lessons as Graff when they were both five years old and they re-connected at McGill many years later. Littlemore plays a significant role in the sessions playing piano and accordion and has toured with Ulrich and Graff over the past four summers.

When Ulrich isn’t touring her solo material as the Shari Ulrich Trio, she can be found performing as a member of the seven-piece bluegrass band, The High Bar Gang along with recording artist Barney Bentall. “It’s just another outlet for my musicianship,” allows Ulrich. “We play authentic bluegrass music and it’s great to take the pressure off and just perform someone else’s music – and it’s a lot of fun.

Performing with outside bands including UHF with Chilliwack’s Bill Henderson and singer/song writer Roy `Bim’ Forbes and BTU with Bentall and Tom Taylor have further allowed Ulrich to expand her performing chops when not recording one of the eight solo albums in a career that stretches over 35 years.

A former native of San Rafael California, Ulrich first made her name around the Vancouver hippy coffee houses in her first band Pied Pumkin before joining past Chilliwack member Claire Lawrence in the Hometown Band which toured in support of Valdy in the mid-seventies. A stand-out spot in every show was Ulrich’s vocal performance of `Fear Of Flying’.
“Everybody remembers me from The Hometown Band, but we only did two albums together,” notes Ulrich. “We didn’t last very long at all.”
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Still Ulrich’s vocal promise was rewarded with a 1982 Juno Award as Most Promising Female Vocalist and she appeared all set to launch a high profile solo recording career when A&M Records signed her later that year. Unfortunately, although her third album, “Talk around Town” (released on MCA Records) succeeded domestically, plans for a U.S launch were dashed when new MCA president Irving Azoff slashed 85% of the label’s roster including Ulrich, just one week before her proposed U.S release.

“At that point, I dropped my manager, I reassessed my career and decided to release future albums independently,” explained Ulrich. “Unfortunately, this was at a time prior to the introduction of social media so it was difficult to be an indie artist and without that corporate machine and all the press behind you, it’s very easy to drop off people’s consciousness. My creativity didn’t stop, I was still releasing albums but fewer people knew about them.”

Even though future records like “Every Road”, “The View From Here” and “Find The Way” were not commercially successful, Ulrich was unflagging as she kept busy, augmenting her career by performing with other bands; UHF, and BTU as well as appearing as a television host with David Suzuki on “Futurescan” and both writing and hosting the BCTV’s Inside Trax. Ulrich was even hired by Music Express to co-host our 1984 Music Express Awards telecast from Vancouver with the late Long John Baldry. Shari also performed in musical theatre in Carole King’s `Tapestry’ and `Baby Boomer Blues’ which not only wrote but also served as musical director.

Yes, Ulrich still has pangs of jealousy when she sees the likes of Sarah MacLauchlan and Jann Arden still enjoying world-wide success. “This will probably sound arrogant but performance-wise I’ve always felt on par with both Sarah and Jann and others who have huge commercial success. Yet, I can’t be negative about the way things turned out. I still hold out that fantasy that my music will get out to a larger audience beyond Canada one day but I’ve had a colourful career, a wonderful audience and I’ve enjoyed a great life in music. My on-going motto is “if it scares me, I need to say yes .”

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