By Zenith Wolfe
Five days in Alabama changed one local singer’s life. Now she’s bringing the music home to Ottawa.
Sherri Harding has been a professional musician for more than 35 years, performing across Canada and at overseas military shows in Bosnia, Dubai, and Italy. On March 25, the Carlington resident will take centre stage at Gladstone Theatre to debut her first solo album, A Million Pieces. It takes a multi-genre approach rooted in rock and blues to explore Harding’s musical career and personal life.
The album’s history began with Harding’s appearances in cover bands. She calls herself a “jobber,” a musician for hire. But she’s always had that solo itch to scratch.
“When you play in a cover band or you play cover music, you’re trying to sound enough like whoever the artist might be,” Harding said. “For (A Million Pieces), I didn’t have to sound like anybody but me. That was liberating.”
In 2017, long before Harding would set foot in Alabama, an Ottawa-based southern rock band was seeking backup singers. Harding was up for consideration after pianist Ed Bimm put in a good word to Dick Cooper, the co-founder, songwriter, and occasional producer for the Cooper Brothers.
She soon found herself on stage with the Cooper Brothers at Centrepointe Theatre, and in the studio to record their most recent album, Radio Silence. Despite her obvious talent, Cooper said, he couldn’t tell her voice apart from the other singers when she first joined the band.
“She was just singing backup stuff: ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ and singing in the chorus. It was only really after that, when I went to see her play her solo show, that I realized how really good she was,” Cooper said.
The early days of the pandemic presented them with an opportunity, according to Cooper. Its upheaval gave him enough free time and quiet at his Wellington Village home to draft 20 songs for Harding.
This was the first time Cooper wrote from a woman’s perspective, which was challenging – writing for the Cooper Brothers was always “very much a guy thing.” But the unfamiliarity was also freeing, since writing for Harding was outside the conventions of a band or a specific genre.
“She can sing anything. The palette for me was pretty broad (and) I could do whatever I wanted, from A to Z,” Cooper said. “The record has a whole bunch of different styles, which reflects her voice.”
He and Harding collaborated on the lyrics, bouncing ideas off each other and narrowing down to 10 songs until they felt the album properly told her story. Harding even requested a song about Betty, her late mother, which eventually became Lady of the House.
Cooper had never met Betty, but Harding said he wrote like he knew her.
“When I played the rough version of that song for my sister in the car, (she) was crying,” Harding said.
Production finally began in 2022 when Harding and the Cooper Brothers travelled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama for a five-day recording session.
Muscle Shoals has long been considered a musical mecca for southern rock, and a commonly misinterpreted lyric from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. It’s home to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and The Swampers. Muscle Shoals was also the recording capital of the world from the 1960s and 1970s, drawing in Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, among others.
When they stepped through the doors of the NuttHouse Recording Studio, Cooper expected Harding to “fangirl” over its suite of famous musicians – bassist David Hood, organist Spooner Oldham, drummer Lynn Williams. But she kept her cool.
Muscle Shoals artists had no ego, Harding said. They were humble and eager to play, which motivated her and made her feel comfortable.
“There’s a saying: ‘You always want to play with people that are going to up your game.’ Being with those guys, you have to step up to the plate,” she said. “The vibe was really inspiring.”
The trip wasn’t just about enlisting big name artists, Cooper added. It was about the calm and friendly but professional atmosphere, the way everyone got along personally as well as musically.
“They’d come to the studio on days when they weren’t recording, just to hang out,” Cooper said. “You don’t get that in Nashville or Memphis. It’s a special place, a magical place.”
The experience was also memorable for the Muscle Shoals artists, including guitarist Kelvin Holly. As a former member of Little Richard and the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Holly has performed in Alabama since the 1980s.
Holly said Harding’s recording session was easy and fun. The songs and the Ottawa-based musicians had “a move and a groove.” It felt like every song told a story, he said, as though he was reading a book. He’s looking forward to working with them again.
“I felt like I could call them my friends, and a lot of times that’s not the case. You come in and you play on somebody’s stuff, you walk out and you kind of forget about it. Not with them. It was like a family thing,” Holly said.
Cooper and Harding said they are hoping to return to Muscle Shoals someday. Cooper called the album “one of the best things” he’s ever associated with. This after recording more than 10 albums with the Cooper Brothers and other artists.
Harding loves the gravitas Alabama’s musicians lent the album. She’s excited to share the sound with Ottawa through her March 1 single, Don’t Tell Me How I Feel, and the debut of A Million Pieces at Gladstone Theatre March 25.
“We could have recorded what we did here (in Ottawa), and the guys would have done a fine job,” Harding said. “But they wouldn’t have thought to play it the ways the guys down there did.”