Embracing Her Roots

Singer/songwriter Sue Medley comes home to share her love of music.

Sue Medley has come home.   And what a journey it’s been for this Nanaimo-born singer-songwriter.  She left the Comox Valley at just 17, clinic soon after graduating from Vanier High School, try following the call of her heart and the strength of her talent.  Her first stop was Vancouver, pharm where she sang with a top-40 cover band, paying some serious dues before moving on down a road that had her touring around the world, releasing hit singles, and winning a bunch of prestigious awards.

“People haven’t heard the last of me—the best is yet to come,” says Sue Medley, at home in Comox.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Known for her rich, soaring voice, accomplished guitar playing and natural gift of song-writing, Medley resists tidy classification in a single musical category.  Although she’s sometimes been called a country singer, she sees herself in a broader light.

“Instead of defining what I do by a name of a genre, I’d rather say something like… well, let’s say if you take a bit of Melissa Etheridge, a touch of Sheryl Crow and throw in a handful of Bonnie Raitt, you’d get me,” she says, laughing.

“Just put it all in a blender, mix it up, pour it out and shoot it back!” she adds, sounding like the lyric-writer she is.

In classic rock’n’roll style, Medley’s journey has had its up and downs.  The peak, she says, was singing alongside John Mellencamp at the Bob Dylan tribute in New York in the early 1990s.  “To be up there on stage at Madison Square Gardens and look out and see that crowd—that was hands down the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had!”

The lowest point came about 10 years ago in Los Angeles.  She’d moved there in 1998, after signing on with a new manager who was based there.   Things started out promisingly; Medley released an independent CD, her third, called Velvet Morning, and shot a video, but without the promotional power of a major record company (in a time before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube), it had met only a modest response.  The 15-year long whirlwind of touring, recording, and performing had lost its momentum, leaving her somewhere she’d never been—among the crowded ranks of underemployed musicians.

“For the first time ever, there were no venues, no record deals, no tours, no money,” she says.

Medley says she went through “quite a few” dark nights of the soul during this period—but she doesn’t regret a thing.  The tough times pushed her inexorably toward transformation, and she emerged from the dark with a new way to use her talent, and a realization that it was time to go home.

“I did a lot of soul searching and reassessing of what was important to me, and realized that what I wanted most was family and community.

“I’d been based in the States 19 years—in Nashville, in Bloomington, Illinois, and in LA.  But my family was here—my parents and both my sisters.  After those many years, I’m now living within walking distance of all of them,” says Medley.

“And Courtenay is such a great community.  People are so supportive of my music.  I’m connected to old friends, and making new ones, and I’m just loving where I live.”

Sitting across from me on an overstuffed couch, leaning back on a pile of comfy pillows, she gestures toward the big picture-frame window that opens onto a stunning ocean view.   “Look.  This is a far cry from my little apartment in LA.  Can it get better than this?”

I get her point.  Although Medley says her move was tough, she seems to have landed on her feet—in paradise tucked away in Comox.  Just a few hundred metres off Comox Avenue, just past the Filberg Park, is a secret driveway that winds down toward the ocean.  At the end there is a property that feels distinctly rural with sun-dappled meadows, aged fruit trees, grazing fawns, and a handful of charming little seaside cottages.  Known as the old Stubbs farm, this acreage has recently been bought by the Town of Comox to be preserved and eventually made into a park.

One of these cottages is Medley’s home base, where she has not only been connecting to her roots but also spreading her branches—in particular, launching her teaching business, Kids Rock.

During her tough times in Los Angeles, Medley’s passion for music stayed as strong as ever, even as the performance opportunities and record deals were dwindling.  Luckily she was able to find a new outlet.

“Just when I was at the point where I was asking myself, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ a friend suggested teaching.  At first I thought, ‘Who, me?’ but I got one student by word of mouth, then two, then more and more, all by word of mouth, until pretty quickly I had 17 kids,” she says.

“It was an interesting clientele—these were the sons of the rich and famous.  I’d be going to these big estates, being let in past the big gates… I even taught Glenn Frey’s son.  But I quickly came to realize that kids are kids regardless of whether they live in mansions or cabins.”

Sue Medley.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Rather unexpectedly, Medley found she loved teaching.  She enjoys the relationships she forms with the kids and loves helping them to grow both musically and personally.  “I especially enjoy it when I see the growth in their confidence level, especially with the singing.  What I teach is not just technical.  It’s how to connect the voice to the brain; it’s how to put feel and emotion into it.  It can be tricky getting them to get their real voice out.  But it happens!  At first there’s this wispy, shy little voice, and then all of sudden it emerges—their real voice.  When I can help them find that, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

Teaching music allows Medley to make full use of her career skills and experience.  “My only training as a teacher is my experience—and I have plenty of that,” says Medley.  “For instance, I can offer these kids my years spent on stage.  This isn’t something you can learn at university.  I can teach them how to develop stage presence, microphone technique, how to place your body on stage whether you’re in a coffee shop or a big stadium.”

Because Medley knows just how exciting performance is, she makes sure her students experience the challenge and thrill of playing live on stage as part of a band.

“I organize recitals, with me on guitar and a professional bass player, so the kids get first-hand experience, and the parents get to see how much their kids have learned.

“It’s a blast.  At the end we bring everyone up—imagine 17 kids aged eight to 16, all with their electric guitars plugged in playing a rock classic, something like Bachman Turner Overdrive’s Taking Care of Business.

“It’s a fantastic evening for everyone—myself, the parents, and the kids most of all.”

Medley has no problem relating to the kids—after all, she herself started out as a music-crazy pre-teen.  “Music was always my calling,” she says.

She started out with a drum kit at age 11.  In Grade 7, while attending Courtenay Junior School, she took up guitar.  When she was 16, she joined the Comox band Punch.  “That was a great way to start out, because the other band members were 10 years older and really great musicians—they still are; they still live here.  It was a really great catalyst for me,” says Medley.

“Once I graduated from high school, there was no question for me of what to do next.  It was full tilt music.  I played in a few different versions of Punch around the Island, then moved to Vancouver and ended up singing in a top-40 cover band, Renegade.

“That was definitely a harsh dose of reality.  I learned exactly what it was like to be the ‘chick singer’ in the band, dealing with some of those guys… one in particular”  She rolls her eyes and grins with remembered exasperation… “I put up with a lot of crap, boy oh boy!”

Following that she did a 180 degree turn and played with a jazz quartet for a while.  “And after that I joined a Vancouver band doing a country-style thing, but really rockin’ it up.  It was the early days of KD Lang.  It was a fun time to play around with country.”

It was in that period that Medley started writing her own songs.  “It happened pretty simply.  One day I just thought to myself, ‘I’m tired of singing other people’s stuff.’ So I sat down with my guitar and started writing,” she says.

In 1989, Medley released an independent country single called Cryin’ Over You.  “That was way long ago,” she says now with a laugh.  “Back then you sat down with a stack of your 45s, put ‘em in envelopes, stuck some stamps on and mailed then out to the radio stations.  We actually got quite a lot of airplay that way.”

The single garnered her five West Coast Music Awards, including best vocalist of the year and best country vocalist of the year.  It was followed by Angel Tonight a couple years later.  By then she had made an appearance at the Big Valley Jamboree in Saskatchewan and on television on the Tommy Hunter Show.

She describes 1989 as the year she was “discovered.  I was playing live at the Commodore at the West Coast Music Awards.   Afterwards, an A&R guy from Polygram Records came up and gave me his card, and the rest was history, as they say.”

This “history” comprised a busy and varied musical career.  There was a self-titled debut CD in 1990, co-produced by Medley and John Mellencamp producer Michael Wanchic, which yielded two successful singles, the number one hit Maybe the Next Time and Dangerous Times, and was followed by a North American tour, including dates with Bob Dylan.

She also became national spokesperson for Ride For Sight, a charity to raise funds for the blind, and co-wrote the charity’s theme song, Born To Ride, along with Bryan Adams writer Jim Valance.

As well as purely commercial tours, Medley also toured for the military in Bosnia and Israel.  “Someone invited me, and I thought, ‘yeah’.  Wow—it was life changing.  You go to places like that and it puts things in perspective and makes you really appreciate what we have here.”

Medley’s second CD, Inside Out, was released in 1992 and was followed by a support tour with the likes of Tom Cochrane and 54.40.  The single When The Stars Fall became a hit on album radio and reached #2 on music industry magazine The Record’s chart (being locked out of #1 only by U2).

And on it went—more tours, another single, a video, placing songs on the TV show Dawson’s Creek, more awards, including several SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) awards and Junos for Most Promising Vocalist and Album Art, playing at Farm Aid in Louisville, Kentucky, on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno backing up John Mellencamp, and at the Junos.

She lived in Nashville, then Bloomington, Indiana.  The move to LA happened in part because of a relationship that broke up.  “It was one of those things… he was a musician,” she says, with a rueful, memory laden laugh, adding, this time with a more cheerful laugh, that breakups provide the best songwriting material.

In that case, it was the catalyst to change locations.  “I did a tour of Australia and then returned to Vancouver to do a telethon.  I met someone there who offered to manage me.  I moved to LA because she was there.”

But a couple of years later, the wonderful ride had slowed right down.  “It was scary and downright depressing,” she says.  “Music was all I’d done since I was 15.   Imagine what it’s like when everything you’ve known and done you can’t do anymore.

“There were some very tough times.  Looking back, I can feel grateful, because it was all part of getting me back home, it was growth, but at the time it didn’t feel good.”

Difficult though this period was Medley knew she had a deep well of inner strength to connect to. “I’m a survivor; I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles.  There’s something in me that doesn’t give up.  No matter how hard it is, no matter how painful life gets, I don’t give up.  Because I know that somehow it’s going to be okay in the end,” she says.

The “okay” part of this time began when she started teaching, and culminated with her return to her roots.  Going through this challenging transition has also deepened her playing, singing and song writing, she says.

“When I play and sing now, I’m doing it from a deeper place.  You know that place, way, way deep? I feel I’ve got a direct line to it now.  Before, there was so much pressure.  I needed to sell out the show; I needed to write a certain quota of songs… now when I play, sing or write, I’m doing it because I love it.”

While the decision to move home was liberating, the move itself was challenging.  “The details of it were overwhelming.  And I’d been in the States for 19 years.  It was huge!”

And once she got home, she faced a big shock: for the first time in her life (she’s in her mid-40s) she had to get a day job.

“I’d sure worked hard before, but I’d never had a job.  A job interview?  A resume?  I’d never done any of that.  Never sat behind a desk, or stood behind a counter… no, never done anything like that in my life, ever,” she says.  “But you do what you’ve gotta do, and there’s no shame in that.”

Medley worked in catering for a while and then as administrative assistant at the Filberg Lodge.  “Those were such learning curves,” she says.

Lately, Medley has felt settled enough to put more energy into Kids Rock.  She’s already got a handful of students and recently put up a website.  She finds that in the Comox Valley, as in LA, word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, and looks forward to a growing roster of students.

“I taught for eight years in LA and it became really clear that this is what I am supposed to be doing now,” she says.  “It was a real transformation.”

However, although Medley did become something new—a music teacher—she never stopped being what she always was—a musician.  Last December she did a three-week cross-Canada Tour, her first in a long time, as part of show called Canadian Country Christmas.  This July she attended and performed at the Vancouver Island Music Conference and then sang a few songs on the big stage at MusicFest.

She’s been writing new music and has plans to release a new CD sometime this year.  She won’t say much about the new material except that it will be more acoustic than most of her previous work, and that the songs reflect the transformation she’s been through.  And that some of what might be the strongest work on it reflects a recent break-up.

“Once I have a new CD I’ll get out there and perform more,” she says.  ”People haven’t heard the last of me—the best is yet to come!”

Her new work also reflects her joy at being home.  Soon after returning she wrote a song called My Town about the Comox Valley.  The video, accessible on YouTube, produced by local company Blue Bamboo, shows beautiful image after beautiful image of the area—eagles soaring over the tree tops, the moon rising over the mountains, the sun setting behind the ocean, children dancing at a festival, snowboarders on the mountain and more.

The song and video speak eloquently: clearly, Sue Medley has come home, and is thrilled about it.

For more information about Sue Medley and the Kids Rock program, go to