At one time or another, either my booker, promotion company, fans, promotors or journalists have all asked me for an information leaflet that not only addresses my latest release but also provides a little background on me. Even though a professional writer would undoubtedly do a better job, I have decided to write the Biography myself. After all, who knows more about my journey than I do?
My name is Shirley Ann Grimes. I was born on October 11th, 1972 in a small town in the South-West of Ireland, called Killaloe. I grew up there with my parents and twin sisters. We were, by Irish standards, a small family but were (often to my dismay) related to half the village, which didn’t make life easy for the wayward child I was. I couldn’t get away with anything. There were ears and eyes all over the place.
I don’t have a lot of fond memories from my childhood. When I look back, the most prevailing memory I can conjure up is one of confusion. I just never really fit in. But that story is for another time….
I borrowed my first guitar when I was 15. I went to a couple of classes where I learned a few chords but most of my learning was done amongst friends, some of which had started to play the guitar around the same time as me. Jesus, we practiced until the tips of our fingers were raw. We learned every folk song known to man. We played Bowie, Dylan, Donovan, Led Zepplin, Christy Moore, Chart toppers, anything we could get our untrained fingers around and as soon as we had enough songs in our repertoire, we formed a band, got a regular gig in the smallest pub in the village and filled it every week. We were a trio, Hyper, Chris and myself and we called ourselves ‘Everything but the gear’. We were great! Not because we were exceptional performers or cover artists but because we let the music ignite us, get inside us and let it do its thing. When you are sixteen and the walls of your hometown begin closing in around you, making music can be a lifesaver.
I had always sung for myself and for friends of the family who came over to our house after an evening in the pub but playing the guitar opened an entire new world to me. Shortly after our first few gigs with “Everything but the gear”, during the summer of 1989, I met two great traditional musicians, Martin (Murt) and Bríd Ryan from Newport, Co. Tipperary. Murt was a magician on the box accordion and Bríd, a relentless lover of traditional music and the craic, played Banjo. They were always up for a session and as soon as they heard me sing, they made room in the car for me and brought me everywhere they went. I played with them and manys the great traditional musician for the following two years, right up until I boarded the boat that was to take me away from Ireland in the summer of 1991.
Like many young people, I wanted to travel and see a bit of the world but above all else, I had a real urge to leave Ireland. Bar on a school trip, I had never left the Island before. I was a gullible 18-year-old, had very little money in my pocket but I had my friend Sylvia with me, a guitar on my back and knew, that if all came to all, I could busk for my keep. The boat brought us to Le Havre where we hitched a ride on a cattle transporter that brought us to Rennes. From there we hitched to Paris before taking a bus to Amsterdam. When I look back and think of some of the things we got up to. Our guardian Angels must have been on full alert 24/7.
Before leaving Ireland, I had met a Swiss girl who had invited me to make a stop-over in Bern, should I be passing through Switzerland. She told me Bern was a great busking town and because her ex- boyfriend was a bass player, she knew a lot of musicians and could maybe hook me up with a few of them. On the night of my arrival in Bern, I went to the ‘Altstadt Sommer’, a summer concert series in the city center where I met the two musicians who were to become my co-conspirators for the following couple of years: Bänz Oester and Gilbert Paeffgen. We immediately began playing concerts together and within a year, were invited to play the main stage at the renowned ‘Gurten Festival’, a next to impossible gig to land. Things took off, gigs were coming in left, right and center and by the end of 1992 we had recorded our first CD “Songs of Seas and Ferries”. It was a roaring success.
I was 20 at the time and I wasn’t really enjoying what was happening. I had always wanted to live a life around making music but hadn’t expected it to actually happen! I wasn’t ready for all the buzz so I quit and stopped playing music completely for over 2 years, publicly for 4. Instead, I got involved in a government funded Youth Project called “Via Felsenau”. The origins of this project lay in the youth movement that took Bern by storm in the mid 80`s. Thousands of young people had taken to the streets to voice their anger towards a society that was too set in its ways and was unwilling to cater for or support what young people might envision for their future. Thanks to the relentless protests that went on for quite some time, several projects were initiated by local government. One of them was a project where young people were provided with land on which they could build a communal living space. As a result, Europe’s largest clay house with six apartments was built. Each apartment had five bedrooms and a communal living space. I joined the crew when the project was well underway. The clay house was built on a 220 meters squared, concrete Basement. The Basement lay empty after the completion of the house. Money was tight and we knew that we had to somehow make use of that space. A large group of us decided to open a club. Within six months, that large group had shrank to five. That club went on to become Bern’s first “Techno” club. I spent four years as a part of this team. They were exciting times, wild times and full of learning experiences.
In 1996, I started work on my second album. Gilbert Paeffgen and Joe McHugh brought me out of hibernation by inviting me to sing on their 1996 Album “Offshore”. Gilbert told me he had met a bass player called Wolfgang Zwiauer, whom he thought would be perfect for my songs. Little did he know that Wolfgang would not only go on to become a long standing musical partner of mine but also my life partner and father to both my children. I scraped together the money I needed to fly Wolfgang, Joe, Gilbert and myself over to Ireland to record my second Album ‘ode’. I released ‘Ode’ on my own label. ‘Ode’ was my debut as a songwriter. I was very nervous at its release. I had no idea how people would react to it. At the time that still really mattered. I was 24, still young and newly convinced I could and should conquer the musical world! ‘Ode’ was given the title ‘a small masterpiece’ and I was given the title ‘the Queen of Melancholy’. It was an important album on every level.
Wolfgang was a young and upcoming talent. Extremely musical and completely flexible, he could play equally brilliant no matter what the genre. He introduced me to Fabian Kuratli, who went on to become my first drummer and Oli Hartung, who went on to become my first electric guitarist. Folk Shirley, went electric! I was drawn away from acoustic music towards a rockier, poppy kind of sound. In hindsight, I know I just felt this was the way I had to go, it was what I thought people wanted to hear. I had no experience in this area of music, so I went and got myself experience in the form of Mat Callahan, a Californian producer who had just moved to Switzerland. Mat guided me on my path away from what I had done up until then. He gave me extreme confidence in my writing and supported all the changes I felt I had to make. In 2001, ‘New Waters’ was released and in that same year, my first child Sophie was born. Life as a female musician and mother was extremely challenging. I can remember walking on stage at the release party and wondering if the crowd would mind if I just lay down on stage and took a short nap before starting. Late nights and early mornings would take their toll…
As I said previously, New Waters marked the beginning of my journey away from folk music. I continued that path with the follow up album ‘Inside’. Inside was a turning point for me. It took me farther away from folk than I had ever been. It was on the strength of ‘Inside’ that I was invited to play support for Bonnie Raitt and Van Morrison, for the first time. ‘Inside’ was probably the most important Album for me because it took me so far away from my roots that I eventually began to miss them. After touring extensively with ‘Inside’ for almost two years, I had a longing, like never before, to return to where it had all began. With me singing and me playing the guitar.
After “Inside”, the invitations to join others as a “side-woman” came flooding in. I started to tour with Simon Ho’s “Winterreise” and continued to perform duo shows with Simon for several years. I toured with “Mich Gerber” for nearly a year, did trio shows with “Yvonne Moore and Mat Callahan”, was soloist on several different choir projects, sang backing vocals on lots of albums, performed with the “Lovebugs”, toured with “The Song Circus” and continued touring with my own band. And in my spare time, I gave birth to my second child Dylan. Performing and working with all these wonderful people was a huge inspiration to me and much of what can be heard on ‘Sweet Rain’, my fifth album, was inspired by many of these people. Even though ‘Sweet Rain’ was a success, even though we, as a band, were tight and secure, I knew that our time together was coming to an end. It was during the release Tour that I informed my band members that I no longer wanted to continue with them. It took me the bones of a year to find out where I wanted to go from there. I had to sit in the dark for a while. All sounds very centered and spiritual, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. Sitting in the dark stinks but is a necessary evil…..
In 2011 I released ‘ The long road home’ which turned out to be the biggest success I have had since ‘Songs of seas and Ferries’. I had found some old and some new musicians I wanted to work with. I travelled back to my Irish roots and doing so felt so right. I don’t know why I had to leave them for so long.
Well, I do, but there is only so much you can admit to on the internet….
My 2011 release was toured extensively. So extensively that I ended up sick in bed for over two months after the Tour ended. It was a good but harrowing time. It was enlightening, in every sense of the word. I learned a lot about band dynamics, about what it means to be a band leader, about what it means to have two small children and tour extensively, about how important it is to remain true to who you are, about how important it is to look at your weaknesses and accept your strengths. “The Long Road Home” was the album that forced me to grow up. I was 39 when it was released. It was about time.
In the Summer of 2013 and slowly started work on my seventh Album “Lovesongs”. I can remember sitting at the computer waiting for the mixes to arrive. I can remember that all too familiar feeling of uncertainty. That is something people maybe don’t know. Every time you put a collection of songs together, you are exposing yourself. I am often tempted to bring the whole production to a halt, forget it, get a real job where nobody will see me. But the thing is, when a song comes to me, it wants to be written, don’t you think? With “Lovesongs” I finally stopped fighting the inevitable. It was my first grown up album where I no longer felt I had to prove something. I no longer felt the need I had to fulfill something. I recognized writing songs and singing as the most natural thing in the world. I always feel uncertain before a release. This is the last point in the production process where you can actually say no and bring everything to a halt. The temptation is big, it always is. But I didn’t. I went ahead and toured with Samuel Baur, Stefanie Aeschlimann and Wolfgang Zwiauer. What a great bunch of people! What musicality!
Drums. How I love them and how I hate them. They can hold a song together but they can also dictate the dynamics and the flow of a song. In 2017 I decided it was time to go totally acoustic. Just strings. Doing so was a good decision. “Hold on…” was released in the autumn of 2018 and is probably my favorite Album to date. It is mature, musical and it is full of songs that I still feel good about. Tom Etter, Wolfgang Zwiauer and myself toured this album for over two years. It was with these two musicians that I finally found the courage to do my first tour in Ireland. I hadn’t played in Ireland for close to 30 years (This too is another story….). Going home was one of the most important steps I could have taken. I still remember, still feel the sensation I had when I entered that pub in my home town to see it filled with faces I remembered from my youth. I am very grateful I got the chance to experience that feeling. It was important to me.
And then Covid happened. What lays ahead is uncertain but life is uncertain, full of uncertainties. I am looking forward to what comes next.
I have lived here in Switzerland for the past 30 years. 30 years, my God!! I visit Ireland regularly and harbor the dream that I will go back and make music there again at one point in my life. I have two kids, one who is nearly twenty, one a teenager in full bloom. I have a partner that inspires me and challenges me. I have two eyes that I am trying to keep open and try to make honest music. I really do.
I have spent the past few minutes looking for a way to end this biography. But I don’t have to. The story is not over. With a bit of luck and self-care, I may just have hit the middle of this journey. There is plenty more to come.