Quick Q and A with Suzie Vinnick

One of my favorite quotes on Suzie Vinnick’s website says that she makes the act of genre-hopping seem completely effortless.” I couldn’t agree more. Here is a woman who’s got it all—she’s got tasty guitar and bass chops and can belt out a blues number or soothe your soul with a ballad or old-fashioned folk song. She’s one of those musicians that should be known well beyond the borders of her home country of Canada. Start spreading the word!

As is often the case for me, I got turned onto Suzie’s music by her appearances at NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) over the years. Her lively and enthusiastic stage presence and great command of her instruments (voice and guitar) made for some memorable musical moments. Suzie has been nominated and won multiple songwriting and recording accolades from the Canadian Folk Music Awards, Juno Awards, and the International Songwriting Competition. One interesting factoid in her biography that I didn’t ask her about was being the “voice” of Tim Horton’s for five years! Mental note to self: Next Time!!!

To find out more information about Suzie, check out her website and read below for a link to her Wednesday evening virtual shows!

Take a look at Suzie rocking out with a band on “Happy as Hell.”

Please tell us a little about growing up in Saskatchewan.  Besides the fact that it’s difficult to spell, I haven’t a clue as to what it’s like there. Did you live in a relatively large city or were you in a more rural environment?

I was born in raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; Saskatoon is about 5 hours north of the Montana and North Dakota borders. Saskatoon had 180,000 people when I lived there (I left for Ontario in 1991 to pursue music); there are now about 246,000. Our house was on the outskirts of the city in a suburban area so I got a taste of both living in a city and in the country. Winters are cold and snowy but the bonus is there are a lot of sunny days; summers are dry and warm. A running joke about Saskatchewan is you can watch your dog run away for days since it’s so flat with the prairies but the terrain does change…

Oh and a fun fact – Joni Mitchell was born in Fort McLeod AB but grew up in Saskatoon. My friend’s Mom was good friends with her growing up, and an old boss I had in my teens told me how as teens Joni had taught he and his sisters to do the twist in their living room! I’ve never gotten to meet her, but have those ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ connections to her 

I’m most curious about your relationship to music living in Saskatchewan. Did it mean a lot to you while you were living there or did your love affair with it begin after you moved away?
When did you first pick up the guitar?  Do you play other instruments as well?

I started playing guitar when I was 9; I spent hours entertaining myself as a preteen and teen and got involved in my grade school and high school music programs. I played saxophone in school band and in concert and wind ensemble in high school. I learned how to play electric bass in grade 9 for the junior stage band; it became my main instrument for almost 17 years. I would still sing and play guitar at home and occasionally do folk shows in my later teens, opening for artists and sometimes sharing the stage with other artists, too. In 1991 I moved to Ottawa to play bass and sing in a blues trio with my friend Tony D, who had lived briefly in Saskatoon (we played music together for a few months in Saskatoon). We kept in touch after he moved back to Ottawa and I ended going for the summer to play music with him; I ended up moving to Ottawa. We played music together for two years and then I moved on to other projects in Ottawa. We’re still good friends now and occasionally do shows together. He’s like a brother to me.

To dig even deeper, I’m even more curious about your affinity for the blues and roots music.  Where did that come from?  

I mostly listened to classic rock in my early teens – bands like Heart, Supertramp, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and many more. There was always a radio playing in the kitchen so I heard lots of music. I also listened to music that my brother liked; his tastes were in the rock and roll vein but a little more eclectic.

I attended my first open stage at 15 with a couple of friends of mine; played my first Jimi Hendrix tune there and sang for the first time in public; about a year later the venue burned down. The only other place I could go and jam in public with my friends was the local blues bar called “Bud’s On Broadway”; we were underage but in the daytime it was a restaurant so we were able to go and get up and play a few songs every Saturday. I had heard of blues via Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan but was otherwise unfamiliar with the genre. I just knew I enjoyed it and getting to hear live music – it was inspiring and challenging learning a new type of music. Mostly I enjoyed the expression that blues enabled me – singing with a bit of improvisation sometimes. I spent several years of Saturdays jamming at Bud’s, eventually running the jam with my friend guitarist, Curtis Scarrow. The bar was also really great to me; even though I was underage they would let me come in at night to catch the touring blues bands – there were many Canadian blues artists that came through as well as American blues artists (the ones that were willing to drive in a Canadian winter!). I received a great music education at Bud’s, for sure. The beautiful thing is it is still open and the jam is still happening. It’s nurtured many young Canadian artists who have gone on to have big success. Jordan Cook of the musical project Reighwolf was five when he first got onto the Bud’s stage; he’s opened for Black Sabbath, The Who. There was a band named Wide Mouth Mason who got their start there – they went on to open for ZZ Top. And one other jammer I’ll mention is Kyle Riabko who toured opening for BB King, James Brown, John Mayer and starred in two productions on Broadway in New York, Hair and Spring Awakening.

Through MuchMusic (Canada’s equivalent of MTV) in my late teens I was also exposed to a number of different artists, one in particular, John Hiatt. He was interviewed on MuchMusic and performed his wonderful song “Have A Little Faith”; I saw he was coming to Saskatoon and bought a ticket to see his show at the Broadway Theatre – I’ve seen him many times since and am a big fan. The Broadway hosted repertory movies and many concerts so I started attending more music shows there as well – I saw Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Canadian Folk icon Connie Kaldor and more.

I love your story about your parlour guitar. Care to tell us the story here?

I had been playing a Seagull parlour for a few years but it got cracked on a flight; I got it repaired but it never sang the same. So I went looking for another parlour and found “Mabel”. Mabel is a Larivee parlour guitar – the body is made of maple and the top is spruce. The guitar is pretty bold – the maple gives the guitar a bit of a honky, bluesy tone which I like; it can also be very warm sounding, too, when I do more gentle finger picking. I generally dig in pretty hard when I play, so much that I say I’m (not intentionally) ‘Willie Nelson-izing’ the guitar (wearing a hole in it from the way that I play). Willie’s guitar has a hole in it from the way he plays…

Sometimes I’d get asked what kind of wood the guitar was made of and one time I answered ‘Mabel and spruce”, meaning to say maple and spruce. I corrected myself “maple” – but I thought..hmm..Mabel – that would be a fun name for the guitar. And it stuck, so much that folks will sometimes ask me where ‘Mabel’ is when I don’t have her along. Mabel was my main guitar for 13 years until I had a custom guitar built by Ontario luthier, Joseph Yanuziello. So now Leslie Rose is my main guitar; she is a Mariposa model Yanuziello stringed instruments guitar, comparable in size to a Martin OO.

Are you a disciplined writer? Do you journal or sing snippets of songs to yourself on your phone or some type of recorder?  

I love writing but I’m not so much disciplined as a writer; I wish I were but I’m a bit scattered. I do a lot of co-writing as I find my chances of getting a song completed are much better.

I am always on the hunt for song ideas, however – that is ongoing for me. If I see or read something that inspires me I will email it to myself to add to a little Gmail file I have called ‘Songwriting snippets’; I’ll often include a reference (a video, or a newspaper article if need be to give it more context).

If have a writing appointment with someone I can easily access my snippets in advance or during the session and see which of my snippets resonates with me when I think of the person I’ll be/am writing with. I record little song ideas in my phone’s voice memos and leave them there for reference. I sometimes email them to add to the Songwriting Snippet file, too, but most often I leave them in my phone.

What inspires you to write? Do you search for moments of humanity in day-to-day life or do you actively seek out ideas to write about?

I try to keep my eyes open for inspirations; some days I’m better at seeing and catching those little inspirations than others. Sometimes I will read articles, or see a phrase that I will save for future writing reference. Occasionally I’ll come up with new ideas but I mostly go back to my snippets as I know there are ideas there that have resonated in my belly, if that makes sense?

I’d love to learn more about the creation of your latest album, Shake the Love Around. It’s an amazing album. I think my favorite cuts are “Find Some Freedom” and “Drift Away.”

Shake The Love Around took a few years to come together.

In mid-2016 I decided to demo a few songs with my friend Mark Lalama who I’d done a bit of work with and lived about 20 minutes from home on an acreage in an old renovated farm outbuilding. I demoed “All I Wanna Do,” “Beautiful Little Fool” and “Drift Away” with Mark – the process was fun and it was really nice to be back in the studio. I hired a grant writer to apply for an album loan from one of the music granting bodies here in Canada, FACTOR (it’s hard to get funding from them). I ended up being approved for the grant which was great!

I co-wrote a few more tunes, did some digging and found some older tunes and a few cover tunes that were inspiring me and the album came together at Mark’s place. The bulk of the album was recorded in 2017, completed in late 2017 and released in March of 2018. It was a great process – on the album I wanted to focus on my ‘voices’ – my vocals, my guitar playing, my bass playing and songwriting as much as possible. I hired a drummer and tracked the beds with him while I sang and played guitar. Mark added keyboards and accordion, I also hired a couple of my favorite guitar players to play on a couple tracks, hired a great woodwind player and wrangled a couple friends for background vocals on a few tunes. So the album was essentially Mark and I working together with a handful of special guests. It was a fun and creative process where we could bounce ideas of each other as we went. It challenged me a bit, too, figuring out parts on the fly on lap steel and guitar.

Shake The Love Around was named after meal-time grace tradition. My friends Shannon and Don Shakotko used to run a venue in Forget, Saskatchewan, called The Happy Nun. I performed there a number of times. They’d make these incredible meals and before dinner they’d have us all hold hands as someone said grace, then at the end they’d say ‘Shake the love around’ and invite everyone to shake their hands around, kinda like the wave. I always liked how Don and Shannon created community through their meals (and their venue) and thought it’d make a fun title for the album and put a nice little positive message out there. 

Regarding those fave tunes of yours “Find Some Freedom” was written in Nashville in 2009 at a Songwriting retreat I attended that was hosted by Mary Gauthier and Darrell Scott. One of the biggest messages I got from that retreat (on the first day) was that the Muse is always delivering inspirations; we just have to have our antenna up. That first day at lunch I was sitting by a labyrinth eating my lunch and a bunch of little kids from a local daycare were running around, chasing bugs, making little clover flower crowns, all sorts of neat things. I watched for what felt like 10 minutes when I realized “I think I should be taking notes” and I ended up writing two pages of notes of all the different little things that I saw. I took what I felt were the more sing-able lines and ended up writing “Find Some Freedom” with them.

“Drift Away” was written here in the old church with fellow Canadian, Matt Andersen, for his album “Weightless”. Matt hails from the east coast of Canada and tours regularly in Canada and the United States – if you or your readers are not familiar with him I highly recommend looking him up on YouTube – he’s an amazing vocalist, guitarist and performer. He sells out places in Canada and is making more and more in roads into the United States. His latest album features a duet with Amy Helm (I think they’ve done a bunch of shows together).

I loved singing “Drift Away” at my own shows; audience members would often come up to me to say the song helped them somehow. So when I was putting material together for Shake The Love Around I asked Matt if he would mind if I recorded our song as well and he gave me the thumbs up.

I understand that you bought a church that was built in 1880.  What brought you to that property and has the space affected your creativity?

Our friend Joe Yanuziello moved out to Wainfleet in 2010 or so; we were friends in Toronto and would drive out here to visit him. There was a church up the road from him for sale and he said we should check it out. So for fun one day the three of us (Joe, my partner James, and I) took a look from the outside and not long after it was off of the market and still empty. Over the next few months during visits to Joe’s, James and I would stop and peek at the church. It came up for sale again; I was looking for a new place to live in Toronto and decided to look at the church seriously as I couldn’t find a suitable place in Toronto that I could afford; I also thought it would be neat to be able to own a property and properties in Toronto were cost prohibitive. The church was a very reasonable price; I ended up buying it – no other bidders and I got it for a really good deal. The church was already renovated and just needed a little TLC; with James being a carpenter he got everything in working order and in we moved in December of 2012. The church was built in the 1880’s and there is also an attached “Sunday school” that was built in the 1950’s; the church space is wide open and the Sunday school was previously renovated into 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and living room. There is about a ½ acre yard that overlooks a big farm field of corn. There is a cemetery for the church but it is a half a mile off the road from us. We are on a highway so it’s a bit noisy here for recording, but otherwise the church space is perfect for songwriting, rehearsing, and could be a concert space if we so desired. It’s especially nice to be able to plug in my electric guitar and make a little noise and not worry about disturbing the neighbors!

How are you coping during this strange COVID existence?  Have you learned any new lessons about yourself?

COVID has been interesting to say the least. A world pandemic. I still find it hard to believe. Some days I just want to go to sleep and wake up when it’s safe to go outside.

Like most musicians, all of my live gigs in 2020 were cancelled, though a few socially distanced ones have come up recently. However, I have been doing weekly online concerts on a little website called StreetJelly.com since the end of March 2020; it’s the only website I could make work with our slow internet out here in the country. I have a small but loyal following there and am grateful for them all! I’ve kept doing the concerts as I’ve been pretty isolated out here and so it’s been great to have some regular contact of sorts with folks, it’s kept me playing live and it’s also provided me a bit of income (though not enough to survive off of). It’s also challenged me in some ways as I’ve invited folks to send me their requests – I’ve learned a bunch of tunes that I wouldn’t normally perform. That’s been a lot of fun and got me digging in a bit.

Regarding lessons I’ve learned about myself, I’m not sure, it’s been good slowing down and ‘seeing’ more, much like the big lesson I took away from the SongFood Songwriting workshop with Mary and Darrell – the Muse is always delivering if you slow down enough to look/listen.

I haven’t been more prolific as a Songwriter but I have been contemplating things a lot more with all the time on my hands. I have definitely renewed my love of nature and am spending more time in it. I’ve been going for almost daily walks and bike rides in the country side where I live; it’s been really good medicine for me and very grounding. I take little pictures of the things I see on my country side adventures and share them on my Socials – I get a lot of positive responses from folks on them and how much they appreciate the pictures. So I’ve been doing my best to spread some joy online via music and photos, trying to figure out next steps and stay well and safe in these crazy COVID times.