Band to Watch alum releases her defining album
In 2004, during her senior year at University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), singer/pianist Sharon Udoh performed a duet with a violinist at an open mic. It was a modest, unassuming gig, but it sent Udoh down a life-changing path.
Performing in front of people was not new to the Cincinnati native, who grew up playing piano in church every Sunday from the age of 7. In fact, until her junior year at DAAP, Udoh had only listened to contemporary Christian music — Twila Paris, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and the like. “Secular” music was something brand new, and she was still trying to make sense of it all.
After the open-mic performance, a man approached Udoh. “This guy named Travis [Moles] is like, ‘I'm gonna play music with you,'” Udoh said recently at a Clintonville restaurant. “I'm like, ‘How do I do that?'”
Udoh was taken aback and confused, but she and Moles began performing his songs around Cincinnati. At one point Moles presented her with a gift. “He was like, ‘Here's a notebook for you to write music,'” Udoh said. “I was like, ‘I don't write lyrics.' He just said, ‘No, no. Here. Take it.'”
Three weeks later Udoh wrote her first song, “Light Switch,” about her initial encounter with Moles. Thirteen years later, that same song shows up on Opposable Thumbs, the new album from Udoh's band, Counterfeit Madison. “You were watching me in the darkness/Approached me in my moment of weakness/A simple conversation changed my life,” she sings. “You flipped the light switch on.”
Opposable Thumbs encompasses all sides of Counterfeit Madison, from the years-old, earnest sweetness of “Light Switch” to “Frank,” an angrier tune Udoh wrote just before recording sessions began with Keith Hanlon at long-running local studio Musicol.
“When I was younger, I really didn't know myself. I had all sorts of incorrect perceptions of myself,” said Udoh, 36. “I thought I was really easygoing and a really nice person and really simple. After 30, I started to realize I'm a vindictive asshole if I go unchecked. I'm extremely Type A and a control freak and really warm but also terrifyingly arrogant. I realized all these different layers of myself, and that I'm not simple at all. … I feel like this album is the first time that people can hear a lot of different perspectives and angles of Sharon.”
Embracing that shape-shifting, yin-yang quality led to an engrossing and wildly varied album with contemplative ballads like “Concept of Life #1 in B Major” and “Control Freak,” a pop-rock number that devolves into a cathartic cacophony of screams and saxophone.
While Udoh recorded the piano parts in one weekend with drummer Seth Daily and bassist Adam Hardy, more than two hands are needed to count all the guest musicians on Opposable Thumbs, which is fitting for a musician like Udoh, who has seemed to show up on 75 percent of Columbus rock albums since moving to town in 2009.
Alex Burgoyne and Joseph Brenneman play saxophone on Opposable Thumbs, and guitarists include Andrew Graham, Glenn Davis, Andy Gallagher and Joe Camerlengo. Vocalists such as Paisha Thomas, Jenny Lute, Amber Knicole, Marnee Richardson and more became the Counterfeit Madison choir, and Udoh recruited Sam Bodary of Hello Emerson to sing lead on one song.
“I recorded my first album with Joe Camerlengo, and I wanted all these cameos, and no one let me,” said Udoh, who will perform with many of her Counterfeit Madison collaborators at a release show hosted by the Wexner Center on Tuesday, Nov. 21. “I'm glad they did that. I needed bitches to put me in my place: ‘You sing on your own album.' … But this time I was like, ‘I'm gonna have a song where I don't even sing the lead.' I wrote [‘Song for the Loyals'] and was like, ‘Jesus, lead me to the person,' and then I went to a Hello Emerson show and was [in awe].”
Continually, Udoh finds her upbringing informing her electrifying performances, which have become don't-miss events around town. “People will watch me play and they'll be like, ‘You were raised in church, weren't you?'” Udoh said. “I think people can tell I spent a lot of time playing in a worship setting. I still play at church every Sunday. I've found myself in United Methodist colorings these days, but my background is very much about spiritual warfare and tongues and signs and wonders and prophesying — screaming and crying and yelling. A few weeks ago I realized, oh, that's why I have exorcisms when I perform. That's one way I know how to express myself.”
Some of the songs' meanings have changed over time. Udoh initially wrote first single “I Hope It's Alright” about an ex-girlfriend — “I don't have to give a shit,” she sings over rollicking piano — but over time the song became a reminder of self-care. “I want to give a shit about everything,” Udoh said. “I was telling my partner how much time I spend thinking of Beyonce's children. I care about Blue Ivy. I care about Michael Jackson's kids. I wonder how they feel. I wonder how Taylor Swift feels. What is she doing? How's she feeling? I spend so much time thinking about Melania Trump. I feel for her so much. But sometimes I'm just like, ‘No, not today. I do not have to do that right now.'”
Even now, certain tracks on Opposable Thumbs surprise Udoh. “When I listen to ‘Control Freak,' and I'm yelling at the end about doing yoga, sometimes I listen to that and I'm like, ‘Am I OK?' No, Sharon. Of course you're not. But it's accurate,” she said. “I'm just trying to make music that is honest.”