A versatile instrumentalist, Suzie Vinnick of Local 180 (Ottawa, ON) has won 10 Canadian MapleBlues Awards for vocals, acoustic artist, bassist, and songwriter and a Canadian Folk Music Award for contemporary vocalist. Though she considers herself a roots musician, she dabbles in many styles.
“I love playing and I feel lucky to make a career of it,” Vinnick says. A native of Saskatchewan, she joined the AFM in 1990 and moved to Ottawa in 1991. “The union has been a great liaison for gigs in the US.” For North American and international touring the local helped her with visas and compiling proposals. She adds, “[The union] makes sure we’re taken care of financially. I know that money is put away in the pension fund.”
During live shows, Vinnick alternately plays electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel, and electric bass. Add to her prodigious instrumentation the dobro and mandolin and she’s a one-woman band. Once her solo career took off, she did less session work, but is still heavily involved in Canadian blues, roots, and jazz communities, frequently appearing on recordings by other artists. She plays with the theatrical musical troupe Betty and the Bobs (a seven-piece roots, bluegrass, country band) and The Marigolds, a three-part harmony folk group.
Vinnick took up guitar at age nine, played saxophone in the school band, and as a teen learned bass guitar. She eventually added wind ensemble, stage band, jazz combo, and sax quartet to her performance repertoire. Vinnick says she’s fortunate to have attended a high school with a strong music program and dedicated teachers. In college, she says, “I played in a jazz ensemble and attended a lot of blues jams.”
Rather than taking a strict academic route to success, like many artists, Vinnick says she’s learned much from experience. By the time she was 16, she was playing local gigs with her guitar teacher, John Mair, which she says taught her music and life lessons. Jazz camp gave her access to seasoned players; then, she finessed her skills at festival competitions. All the while, she adds, “dipping my toes in blues bars.” “Jazz playing and education undoubtedly feeds into what I do now. There’s always something to learn.”
This month Vinnick turns out her sixth album, Shake the Love Around. A celebration of blues and roots, she puts focus on her different voices. She says, “There is the voice of guitarist, bassist, singer songwriter, and interpreter—I include a few cover tunes as well.” Shifting from soulful resonance to jazz-infused vocals, her range is on full display, backed by fellow union members keyboardist Mark Lalama of Local 298 (Niagara, ON) and drummer Gary Craig of Local 149 (Toronto, ON).
She counts among her influences Rickie Lee Jones. “I love her singing. Her songwriting has sophistication and there is a lot of heart in her music. It had jazz leanings—so did Joni Mitchell [of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)], for that matter. Sting, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Shawn Colvin, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan—I’ve listened to so much; it’s all kind of found its way into my music.”
“When I do workshops, I say it’s a musical stew. You mix all your influences together and come up with your own voice. I taught a guitar course in Germany and did a map of some of my favorite guitar players and who influenced them. Like Freddie King and BB King—it was neat to see a crossover. For example, Eric Clapton and John Mayer [of Local 47] have a lot of similar influences—how they’re similar, yet different, and how they found their own voices.”
Shake the Love Around has a decidedly positive vibe. “I don’t know if it’s just because I’m getting older, but you see these cycles of good and bad, plus all the social media stuff that’s beaten into us,” She says, “I wanted to try to do a record with as many positive messages as possible, not being Pollyannaish—it’s got some edgy hope. I was a little more conscious of that.”
Vinnick just returned from shows in Maryland and Missouri and the Folk Alliance International Conference. In July, she’ll go to Texas and tour the US Midwest—going, she says, “where the work is.” She now lives in the Niagara region and is in the States almost every month.
For her latest CD, Vinnick received funding from the Foundation for Assisting Canadian Talent On Recordings (FACTOR). She put it out to her fans through a crowdfunding campaign and raised about $18,000. Having a nice size email list and dedicated fans, she was able to cover some of her travel and recording expenses. But Vinnick also used some promotional ingenuity. “I’m Ukrainian so I offered to go to people’s homes and teach them how to make pierogi. I just did one where there were 40 people! All the babas,” she laughs.
Her dedicated fans also buy merchandise. “My audience is into that. It comes from the days of vinyl—where you’re sitting and listening and following along with lyrics. They like the tangibility, whereas younger generations don’t quite experience it in the same way,” she says.
Vinnick, who will be 48 this month, has built a successful and diverse career that combines live performances, workshops, teaching, and session work. “I would say to anyone wanting to pursue music—be open to diversification, doing different things. That’s how you will be able to stay in the business. It keeps it interesting, makes it fun.”