If variety is the spice of life, then the musical tastebuds of Suzie Vinnick are certainly well-sated. Few Canadian artists cover as much stylistic territory as this Saskatchewan-raised, Toronto-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and she takes pleasure in the diverse roles and musical settings she continues to occupy.
“It keeps things interesting,” she says. “Knowing who I am, I think if I was sticking to just one style of music or course, I’d get a little bored. Each project helps inspire all the other aspects of what I do as a performer. I joke that my CD collection goes from Bach to ZZ Top and many places in between.”
Vinnick has long been in demand by other artists as a bassist and backing vocalist, and her extensive résumé includes work in two popular harmony-based female trios, The Marigolds (with Gwen Swick and Caitlin Hanford of Quartette) and VSH (Vinnick Sheppard and Harte, with Elana Harte and Kim Sheppard). Then there’s roots-music collective Betty and the Bobs and a long and ongoing collaboration with blues singer-songwriter Rick Fines. “Rick and I have been playing together for 17 years,” says Vinnick. “He has definitely been both a mentor and an incredibly supportive buddy.”
Her partnership with Fines helped Vinnick gain a foothold in the Canadian blues community, as her numerous Maple Blues Awards in the Female Vocalist and Bassist categories testify. She is especially proud of the 2006 Maple Blues Award for Songwriter of the Year, a trophy shared with Fines. “We had worked really hard crafting the songs for our album Nothing Halfway, so it was great to get that acknowledgement,” she says.
Over the past couple of years, Vinnick has concentrated a little more on solo recording and performance, which has increased her industry and public profile. A turning point came with the 2008 release of her third solo album, Happy Here. Her most accomplished work to date, it received highly positive reviews and a 2009 Juno Award nomination for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo.
Happy Here, described by Vinnick as “a singer-songwriter rather than a blues album,” showcases her pure, powerful vocals and burgeoning skill as a songwriter. Alongside solo original material are songs co-written with an A-list of Canadian roots-music songwriters including Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) and Josh Finlayson and Michael Johnston (Skydiggers). Fearing produced the album, while such notable instrumentalists as Kevin Breit, Kevin Fox, John Dymond, Gary Craig, Denis Keldie and Greg Leisz contributed.
Vinnick had previously crossed paths with Fearing. “When I was 18 and living in Saskatoon, I closed a concert for him at a folk club there,” she recalls. “When I moved to Ottawa a few years later, I saw him perform again and his  album Out to Sea became my record of that summer.”
Singing backup on a couple of Fearing-produced albums gave Vinnick a glimpse into his studio manner. “Stephen is super-organized but also laid-back and fun. I liked all those aspects, so when I felt it was time to make a new record I asked him to produce. He agreed but said, ‘The thing I want is to have a hand in the songwriting.’ I respect what he does and thought I’d learn a lot from him in that capacity.”
Success in some prestigious songwriting contests has certainly boosted Vinnick’s confidence as a songwriter. In 2005, she won first place in the Blues category of the International Songwriting Competition for the song “The Honey I Want,” a co-write with David Leask and Liz Tansey, and in 2009, her song “Sometimes I Think I Can Fly” (co-written with SOCAN staffer Dan Kershaw) was No. 1 in the Unisong International Songwriting Competition.
A writing workshop in Nashville a year ago proved invaluable. Hosted by acclaimed songsmiths Mary Gauthier and Darrell Scott and boasting legendary songwriters Guy Clark, David Olney and Beth Nielsen Chapman as guests, it is described by Vinnick as “frickin’ amazing. There was an incredible energy of openness and creativity in the air.”
The experience helped Vinnick complete a Canada Council for the Arts writing grant. “I was able to take more time working on crafting lyrics, trying to develop that muscle,” she says. “I find the music tends to come a little easier to me than lyrics do.”
Looking ahead to her next album, Vinnick admits, “I’m trying to sort out where to go stylistically. People seem to really respond to the big voice when I do the big and bluesy-ish songs and I’ve been digging more into the guitar, so I’m trying to write more material to showcase that. It may take me down a bluesy road or in a more aggressive or rockier singer-songwriter direction. I love so many different styles that it’s hard for me to settle in one place.”