“That’s been my word of the year,” says Sharon Udoh from a table at Kafe Kerouac, her favorite hovel to dwell—and think.
“Social media is not working and it’s causing a huge disconnect. I’m not saying it’s not cathartic or that it shouldn’t be happening, but Facebook and Twitter have removed nuance, and story, and background.”
It’s that perspective, and no doubt a concentrated understanding of nuance, which have placed Udoh and her music as Counterfeit Madison as the gold standard in the Columbus scene and beyond. During her tenure in the city she has given herself plenty of identities; the “angry fucking black person,” the mercurial friend who is “empathetic to everyone, everything, and every side,” a “diversity educator” to students at the Arts and College Preparatory Academy. Not to mention an unashamed prodigy with perfect pitch and synesthesia.
But of all her self-proclamations, be it with love or deprecation, the one that stuck out on this day was the phrase “way base.” Indeed Udoh could charge her songs with the preoccupation du jour or rant religiously, but instead she focuses on the simple things that bond us as humans—the emotional ingredients in all of our DNA.
Opposable Thumbs, the title of Counterfeit Madison’s third release (at the Wexner Center, NBD), is as basic a sentiment as Udoh can conjure and the most ambitious and pure recording of her career. Full of big beautiful ballads that could appear on an Adele blockbuster or during the credits of a Disney animated fairy tale, Udoh possesses a voice that is unparalleled and can hardly be contained by tape. The other half provides levity with the floor-shaking electricity indicative of Udoh’s live performance, a polyglot of styles that highlight her range, from blues and funk to adorable indie and folksy piano playing.
It’s a duality that wildly veers between a side that wants to do nothing but express and get her music to the world, but also a side that is introverted and has a “desire to retreat” because of an incongruence between “appearance and personality.” It’s universal because it’s genuine.
“It’s talking about the human experience, it’s our thumbs that make us all humans,” says Udoh in complete earnest. “It’s how we hold and how we function—it’s a very human thing. I’m very simplistic. I wouldn’t call myself intelligent, but I think I’m emotionally intelligent. I know about sadness, longing, snarkiness, sassiness, jealousy … it’s all over the place.”
In a conscious move to evolve her sound, Udoh formed a full band and took to camping in Musicol Studios with engineer Keith Hanlon for the last two years. As a “composing maniac,” she challenged everything she’s made in the past and wrote parts for horns, other guitarists, other piano players, filling the record with complex melodic layers. With a core of Adam Hardy on bass and Seth Daily on drums, there are guest spots from a cavalcade of Columbus musicians including Way Yes’s Glenn Davis, Van Dale’s Joe Camerlengo, Dane Terry, and Val Glenn, making for a momentous, almost epochal, album.
After a few listens, it’s hard to imagine that Opposable Thumbs almost never happened, but after receiving over 80 rejections from labels, local Anyway Records swooped in and plans to release the record this month.
2017, though, wasn’t just about the journey to produce a definitive statement like Opposable Thumbs for Udoh, it was also the year that she performed as Nina Simone to a sold-out crowd. Comparisons to Simone have always followed Udoh, but she never thought of it as something that needed to be done until recently.
“The reason I first did it was because of the biopic, and how they cast fucking Zoe Saldana who looks nothing like her,” says Udoh, half-joking and half-serious. “You could go to any corner in Brooklyn and find a girl who can actually sing. I’m just sitting here like, ‘I can do this.’ Her music has pulled me through a lot of hard times. It felt like a coming of age for my black self.”
The show was a resounding enough success that she was asked to play another sold-out performance, this time at the Hattiloo Theater in Memphis, a city where the issues Simone rallied against are still very palpable and many in the audience were witness to both the MLK assassination and Simone singing those songs for the first time. It made Udoh think even deeper about the parallels the oppressed and the oppressors are going through in the now.
“I hate to sing about empathy because I don’t want to sound like I’m so much more advanced than everyone else, but I’m nothing but empathetic,” says Udoh. “I sing about the lowest-common denominator, so I think what is going on in Washington is very similar to things that are going on in our real life. I just think those boys in Charlottesville are just scared, they don’t have a lot going for them, they have really low self-esteem. But I write songs about low self-esteem. I’d rather talk about the roots of problems. I don’t want to talk about specific political things because in my mind political problems are just as much emotional problems.”
Whichever side you’re on, and whether or not you think Udoh should be a mouthpiece for social justice or simply a musician and poet singing about the balance of our basic human needs, overcoming the thick fog of fear that has divided America is the one metric for success that Udoh strives for with Counterfeit Madison.
“I just see fear. I myself have a lot of fear right now,” concludes Udoh. “So I would like to give people a chance to experience some fearlessness through my music—fearless enough to tell someone you love them, or that you hate them, or be fearless enough to know when to be loud and know when to be quiet.”
And in that fearlessness, in order to lead a full life according to Sharon, you no doubt need the nuance, whether it’s cooking a curry, dancing interpretatively, or just in having a conversation with the other side.