By Sharon Sheridan
All it took to get comic singer-songwriter Carla Ulbrich comfortably on stage was a near-death experience.
She already had musical ability – she majored in music at North Carolina’s Brevard College – and the songwriter’s bug. “I used to get in trouble with my music professors because I was writing songs in the practice room that weren’t ‘real music.’”
But she didn’t perform. “I had horrible stage fright.”
Then, in 1993, she got sick for the first time. Really sick. She was selling pianos and guitars, but “I got fired from my job because I was sick.”
So much for job security. So she decided to do what she wanted and began teaching guitar. And since stage fright seemed like a dumb malady after facing down kidney failure and almost dying, she began performing her music.
“It was actually the illness that propelled me into getting out there and doing my songs … humorous songs about dating and waffles and Klingons and stuff like that.”
Then, in 2002, she suffered a stroke and congestive heart failure and was so debilitated she couldn’t use her hands to write music. “That’s when the parodies started happening.”
Ulbrich’s performances these days include a mix of songs she wrote and parodies, such as the one she performed at First Night Morris County, addressing holiday disappointments to the tune of Let it Snow:
“You didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas, even with your 10-page wish list. But it’s 25 years ago. Let it go, let it go, let it go!”
Perhaps inevitably, those songs and parodies started chronicling the medical world Ulbrich had been forced to navigate. Billing herself as “the Singing Patient,” she’s recorded a CD of funny medical songs (Sick Humor) and written a humorous book about her experiences (How Can You *Not* Laugh at a Time Like This?). Her entry in the Fifth Annual MorristownGreen.com Film Festival, In the Waiting Room, should resonate with anyone who’s ever cooled heels in a doctor’s office.
During a year of recuperating, Ulbrich spent hours writing song lyrics in a notebook while waiting in medical offices as a Medicaid patient.
“I wrote for hours every day. It was a great escape.” It let her vent, stay in a “positive space” and process what was happening, she said.
Making a film for the festival wasn’t part of a new marketing strategy. “Creative people, we don’t really thing things out strategically like, ‘This would be a good career move,’” she said. The motivation is more: “Hey, that sounds like fun!”
And she didn’t exactly possess a lot of high-tech filmmaking skills. “I started out doing lyrics videos for my songs … kind of like the old Batman TV show: ‘Pow!’ ‘Bam!’”
But, not being skilled in designing computer graphics, she went low-tech. “A lot of that stuff, I actually colored those by hand with highlighters. It is done on the computer, but a lot of those graphics were done by hand. … I don’t know Photoshop or anything like that. Thank God I’m creative, because I’ve had to do something to work around my limitations.”
Ulbricht’s health is good these days as she follows a strict diet avoiding allergens and other no-nos. “I just really like junk food,” she confessed. “Let’s face it: It’s good.”
Having once spent a month during her recuperation unable to navigate a single step in and out of her house, she’s grateful to do aerobics with Richard Simmons (well, his recording) every day. “To be sweating to the oldies is pretty awesome.”
(“I met him last year, by the way,” she said. “He’s really kooky.”)
But, despite her good health, she specializes in “sick humor,” performing songs lampooning her frustrating experiences with the U.S. health-care system. She plays regular gigs at places like The Minstrel in Morris Township, generally limiting the medical songs to three per set, but also does special shows for medical professionals, caregivers and patients.
“The idea is to help people to laugh about something they thought they never laugh about,” she said. After doing a few songs, she’ll “get serious and talk about the power of laughter or alternative medicine or food allergies, things that people can look into as ways to improve their health.”
She recalled playing a benefit for a lupus group. Everyone there either had lupus or a family member with lupus. Afterwards, a woman told her: “You make having lupus fun.”
“I’m like, ‘Wow, that is probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.’
“I’ve been making music since I was 8 years old,” she said. She wanted to be a classical guitarist.
“You do your recitals and your contests … but to have someone who has lupus come up to you and tell you that you just made that experience fun for them – because it’s probably one of the most miserable diseases you can think of – that’s like, wow, this is why you sit there and put the work behind it. … This really means something.”
“I think the longer you do this sort of thing, the more you want to serve people,” she said. “Obviously you have to make money, and you certainly never mind getting applause. But you hope it also means something and that it contributes something so that you’re giving more than you’re taking.”
On Aug. 17, Ulbrich will be on the Green in Morristown for the screening of her film, as well as a MorristownGreen.com video of her performing The Copyright Song for the Folk Project at The Minstrel. Locally, fans can catch her act live again at this year’s First Night Morris.
“I always have a good time in Morristown,” said Ulbrich, who lives in Somerset. “It’s just the warmest, most wonderful crowd at the Folk Project. It’s a neat town; they’ve got nice restaurants.”
The film festival will begin with music from local bands at 6 p.m. Rain location is the Hyatt.
If the forecast is iffy, the Film Fest will move to the Hyatt Morristown’s Terrace Ballroom. Check MorristownGreen.com and Facebook for updates. The Hyatt is offering a special $89 rate to MG readers who want to stay over on Friday night.