That professional collaboration evolved into marriage, and Ulrika Bibb has been providing backing vocals on Eric’s recent albums. Now she moves to the forefront and joins him in celebrating life, love and faith on ten new tracks. Mrs. Bibb is, in fact, quite a fine singer in her own right. Her approach is understated, allowing the lyrics and the emotion in each song to speak for themselves. She eschews gaudy vocal tricks and feigned rapture for a more straightforward tack, and it pays off.
Much of her vocal savvy was developed at home, in a family that nurtured her innate talent. “My dad played guitar, harmonica, and organ. He had a gift for lifting people up with his singing and playing. My mom as well, she sang and played accordion. The heart of my home was centered on the Hammond organ,” Ulrika said. Her brother Micki is a drummer and plays organ as well, and brother Daniel is an accomplished guitar, keyboard, and balalaika player. She credits her musical education to her brothers, absorbing the Beatles, the Beach boys, Harry Nilsson, Stevie Wonder, and many more from their record collection. Alone in her room she listened to ABBA and learned their songs by heart.
The album begins with “So Loved,” a simple banjo and fiddle arrangement over which Ulrika layers a mellow jazz vocal. At its core the song is an appreciation of a stable, mature love. It isn’t giddy goosebumps and over-the-moon fireworks, instead it’s about reflecting on the security that love has brought into her life. That theme is underscored by her vocal performance. Ulrika chooses to live inside the song rather than oversell it, the song’s authority coming from a place of resting in the moment rather than forcing a feeling.
She follows this with “Maybe I’ll Hear from You.” The song captures the anticipation in the heart of singer, who has sent a letter and is waiting patiently for a reply. Sung over a simple guitar line and embellished with a gorgeous string arrangement courtesy of Erik Arvinder, the number works to illustrate the tentative nature of emotion, and the risk-taking inherent in reaching out to another when the response is not predictable.
Eric makes his first vocal appearance on track three, “Between Young and Old.” The song features a bluesy duet between guitar and keyboards and would fit easily on any number of Eric Bibb albums. “You Were Made for Me” finds Mr. and Mrs. Bibb trading verses and basking in the joy of their companionship. Ulrika’s voice compliments Eric’s singing, blending nicely and underscoring the fact that their harmony in the studio is a natural result of their home life.
Ulrika sang and played in her brother’s bands over the years. “I have been singing as long as I can remember. I sang in a church choir. Eventually I made a demo cd, jazz and blues covers, and sent it to everyone I knew in the music business. My friend Peeter suggested I send one to a friend of his, Eric Bibb. So I did. I went to the store and bought the only record of his that they had. We got in touch and that was the beginning of When You Smile.”
Pray Sing Love extols the simple daily joys of sharing life with someone you love. Its point of view is that of an older couple, reflecting on what their relationship has meant to them, and where it is headed in the future. At one point Eric wonders where they will be next year, or who will still be in their lives at that time. He acknowledges his own mortality without being overshadowed by it. The whole affair is steeped in gratitude for gifts love has brought them.
That gratitude is never more apparent than in Ulrika’s own story. Shortly before the cd release party for When You Smile she began to feel something wasn’t quite right. “I noticed something strange on my tongue, a little wound that wouldn’t heal. I went to the doctor. I was scared because my father had tongue cancer when he was about the same age as I was. The doctor told me I had nothing to worry about and I threw myself into the release of the cd, all the while denying that it was getting worse. I had to wait six months to see the doctor again, and by that time they found a pretty large tumor inside my tongue.”
“From there everything happened so fast. Radiation, chemo. The most challenging period was after the treatments. I had so much pain that I could barely eat or speak. The doctors said they did not know if I would ever sing again. I didn’t care that at that point, I was just happy to be alive for my two children, aged 10 and 12. “
It is clear that her courage in the face of this trial has provided inspiration for the songs on Pray Sing Love. Eric takes the lead again with “Since I’ve Known You,” singing
Since I’ve known you,
I’ve changed, for the better.
Since I’ve known you
To my heart I’ve been true
The transforming power of love is on display here, a love that motivates and empowers Bibb, and us, if we allow it. It is a trek that is not without risk, but with great reward for the traveler brave enough to take the first step.
“Dive Deep” is most likely the single, and a warm and engaging one at that.
Dive Deep in the river,
Baptize your soul
On and on and on and on
The lyrics speak of encouraging rather than criticizing, lifting up one another. If you ever have the chance to speak with Eric Bibb the first thing you notice is how carefully he chooses his words. He does not toss off comments carelessly and instead chooses to stay on the positive. Pray Sing Love is a life-affirming song cycle that offers new gifts each time you listen. It reminds us there is a deeper life available to us if we want it.
Ulrika’s perspective is especially poignant. “The road to where I am today has been long, but always with small steps forward.” In the beginning she had trouble articulating, and found she didn’t like the sound of her own voice. She recorded herself once a month to gauge her progress. At that point she was not thinking about singing. “I was focusing on everything I thought sounded different instead of on the progress I was making.”
Today she finds herself on the other side of that difficult journey. “When it comes to my singing I can’t begin to tell you how much Eric’s love and support has meant to me on my way back to where I am now. I used to think a lot more about how I sang, now I just sing from my heart.” Isn’t that what love would have us all do?