Although she was active in 14(!) bands back home in Cincinnati, Sharon Udoh didn’t step on stage for months after moving to Columbus in 2009.
Her parents and older sister, all born in Nigeria, had returned to their home country due to immigration issues. So Udoh, the first in her family born in America, moved in with her younger sister in Columbus and took a web programming job at Nationwide.
At first, Udoh traveled down I-71 to make noise with her old pals as often as she could. After a tectonic shift in her family life, severing ties with her musical community was too much to bear.
“I didn’t want to play music here,” Udoh said. “Once I play music in a town, I belong to that town.”
It’s safe to say she belongs here now. Udoh, better known by her musical alter ego Counterfeit Madison, has become a pillar of the Columbus music scene, lending her keyboard skills and magnificent bellows to bands including The DewDroppers, Audrey & Orwell, The Apes, Trains Across the Sea, Andrew Graham & Swarming Branch and more.
That all started when, at some friends’ urging, Udoh visited Andy Gallagher’s open mic at Taj Bar in January 2010. There, she met Gallagher, the brains behind Trains Across the Sea, as well as future collaborators Joe Gilliland (The DewDroppers), Adrian Jusdanis (The Apes), Jason Dutton (Audrey & Orwell) and Andrew Graham.
“It changed my life,” Udoh said. "I play in all their bands now.”
Udoh became ubiquitous in Columbus, but always playing other people’s music or steeped in collaborations where she could deflect credit. She quietly compiled a treasure trove of songs that didn’t fit with any of her other projects but shrunk back from a solo project
Credit some of that hesitance to growing up in a church environment that emphasized glorifying God, not self. Some of it, though, was simply an introvert’s desire to keep her inner workings private.
She probably would have, too, if not for incessant prodding from This Is My Suitcase’s Joe Camerlengo. As a fan and friend, Camerlengo couldn’t stand the thought of Udoh’s songs going unheard, so he kept bugging her until she caved. A year ago, she began airing out her most personal songs and the heavy emotions behind them.
“You can only be constipated for so long,” she said.
She planned to include dozens of guest stars, but DewDroppers bassist Mike Kohn convinced her that was a cop-out, another way to hide behind a community’s cacophony. Instead, she made spare solo recordings then passed them to Camerlengo for additional arrangements. They made a good team, kindred spirits channeling weirdness into wildness.
“All we want to do is hide from people,” Udoh said, “but when you put us on stage, we’re like fireballs.”
The music is anything but zany, though. The recording coincided with one of the roughest, most redemptive years of Udoh’s life.
She was thrown for a loop when her boyfriend, the man she called “the love of my life,” came out of the closet. That experience made her realize how much she let others define her. As she attempted to change that, she began mending some of her more dysfunctional friendships.
Meanwhile, she found solace through a new hobby, a new job and a new understanding of self. Dance classes at Feverhead helped her shake out the negative energy. She scaled back on computer work to oversee the kitchen at Impero Coffee, which lent her consistency and community in the midst of chaos. She learned to be honest about her feelings and came to grips with the heritage she hadn’t fully embraced.
“I’m becoming my mother in the best way possible,” Udoh said.
The intimate record that emerged from the tumult beautifully ties together disparate threads from gospel to piano pop to classical to swing to Elliott Smith confessionals. Entitled Opened and Shut, it’s about the meaning of life as Udoh sees it — specifically, “figuring out what to open your heart to and what to shut it off to.”
Sunday and Monday, she’ll celebrate the album with shows at the Garden Theater. Both will feature some of Udoh’s favorite things: a potluck dinner, an opening set from Glenn Davis of Way Yes and a Counterfeit Madison performance accompanied by Gallagher, Udoh’s doorway to Columbus music. With her 32nd birthday looming Tuesday, the concerts also serve as punctuation for the past year.
“It’s still history. It happened,” Udoh said. “But I wanted it to be documented and out, and I can start 32 with new things.”