Arts & Events

The Big Personality: Shari Ulrich

Shari Ulrich and her daughter, Julia Graff, who produced Ulrich
Shari Ulrich and her daughter, Julia Graff, who produced Ulrich's latest album.
— image credit: Supplied photo

Shari Ulrich is many things: a multi-Juno Award winning artist, teacher, actor, composer and an advocate for women’s rights.

She’s also a prolific songwriter with a wealth of experiences to draw on, but one thing Ulrich is decidedly not – at least not anymore – is a hippie.

“I like wearing shoes,” she says from her Bowen Island home. “I don’t wear long skirts anymore and I don’t necessarily believe in free love. Some values have changed, but that’s just a part of growing up.”

Ulrich makes a distinction between her so-called tree-hugging days, when she left the U.S. in protest of the Vietnam War and was quite content hitchhiking about, living out of a van, and how she lives today: as a musician and an informed environmentalist – in a comfortable home.

“In terms of profession, it’s kind of crazy that I went this direction,” Ulrich says. “It would have made more sense to stay. Politically and environmentally I’ve never regretted my decision. Frankly, I think it’s just insane down there. ... When 9-11 happened – looking at the objections to America going to war over that – it was pretty quiet compared to how we were.”

Ulrich’s career grew organically from a standard creative upbringing, complete with artist parents and piano lessons in San Rafael, Calif. She wasn’t looking to start an independent record label in a kind of pre-Internet kickstarter campaign with her first band, Pied Pumkin. She was just doing what felt right at the time. Fans of Pied Pumkin (with Rick Scott and Joe Mock) asked the group to record, so they took pre-orders on their first record and the enduring Squash Records was born. She’s played her fiddle alongside Barney Bentall and Tom Taylor in BTU, a cast of characters in The Hometown Band, her current blues project, The High Bar Gang, and on Feb. 8 a 25-year-long rock and roll partnership with Bill Henderson and Roy Forbes steps onto the Mary Winspear stage.

“Testosteronic” is a word Ulrich would like to invent to describe the UHF experience.

“It feels so good, so meaty,” she says. “They play guitars like nobody else. They just dig in and play and it makes me want to play that way.”

Ulrich is amidst much quieter days on Bowen in the run up to her hard-rocking Sidney stint. This morning she saw the return of her daughter, 23-year-old musician Julia Graff, to the Vancouver Airport post-holiday visit. Like any child, Graff has left an indelible mark on her mother’s music, but unlike other musical mother-daughter duos, the fourth-year McGill music student produced her mother’s upcoming album.

Graff, an accomplished musician and budding sound engineer asked (read: announced) that Ulrich would need to write the album in a month before recording would begin in Montreal.

“I am a deadline person and if I don’t have a deadline, I can’t write for months and months and I’m just fine with that, other than the guilt and the self-loathing,” she says. “I’m just not someone drawn or compelled to do it, but I found that having no choice – I was so productive.”

Days and nights holed up in her home writing, culminated in a different outlook on her perceived limitations as a songwriter – and an unexpectedly smooth recording session.

“I’ve had a ton of experience and she’s had very little ... but she was so confident and so knowledgable and so quick, that I just surrendered to her and it was very easy to do – and a relief to be able to do, to let go of the reins. I mean, I didn’t completely let go of the reins, because you never can. It didn’t have anything to do with her being my daughter, just as an artist you have ideas and I carried on as I always would.”

Her ideas bleed from a fearlessly intertwined approach to life and songwriting, unafraid to speak and write openly about every personal issue she’s come across. In 2007 that meant writing about a reconnection with an adult son she had put up for adoption as a teen, and prior to that, a brutal attack and sexual assault. Her openness in addressing the crime – over a sense of obligation and desire to reduce shame for other victims – led to speaking engagements in an effort to reduce violence against women.

“Writing and living get rolled into one,” she says. “I can’t imagine what I would feel is off limits. I feel like my best work is still in front of me, that I’m just getting started, that I’ve got this huge potential that I’ve yet to fully tap.”

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