Ndidi Onukwulu is somewhere in eastern Ontario, talking on her Vancouver cellphone while driving to a gig in Montreal. She has a bubbly, open spirit, even while thinking about gravestones.
The subject comes up because most of the songs on her just-released second album, The Contradictor, were inspired by cemeteries she visited across Canada. Tunes like "Goodnight JF" and "The Lady & E" bear the initials of the long-departed-or at least imaginary characters to whom she was drawn.
"You can learn a lot in cemeteries," says the singer-songwriter, adding with a laugh, "They are almost like chat rooms for dead people."
So feel free to download her music from iTombs.
"The tone of each song is quite dark," Onukwulu continues. "There’s a lot of heartbreak, and the world is falling apart. At the same time, the music is pretty upbeat."
Gathering inspiration on the road must be second nature by now. Originally from remote Burns Lake, B.C., this daughter of a Nigerian father (fellow jazz-fest performer Ezeadi Onukwulu) and a German mother moved to Vancouver in her teens before heading to Toronto, where she wedged herself into different musical outfits, including a band with the memorable name of Stop Die Resuscitate.
Her offbeat eclecticism didn’t stop there. Her 2006 solo debut, No, I Never, had a patchouli-scented Commercial Drive vibe and built a minor buzz in the Canadian blues community. But The Contradictor, produced by local string wizard Steve Dawson, manages to meld country, gospel, New Orleans jazz, reggae, John Lee Hooker boogie, and even surf music (not to mention a cover of Harry Nilsson’s "He Needs Me") into a manageable vehicle for a voice that ranges as widely as Onukwulu’s tastes.
Surprising instrumental touches are provided by the likes of guitarist Paul Pigat and fiddler Jesse Zubot, both of whom are touring with the singer. Whatever this tasty stuff is, it can’t simply be called the blues.
"The blues is my soul," Onukwulu says. "That’s where I come from. But I was never a self-proclaimed blues artist. When I think of what I’m doing today, it’s organic music that steps outside of any boundaries. I embrace the idea of cabaret. There’s an excess of emotion, almost to a comical point."
Onukwulu admits that it’s part of her contrarian personality to overdo things at times-as heard in some relatively melodramatic readings on both of her albums.
"My mind changes quickly, and I’m prone to following the best argument I’ve heard most recently," she says. "But then I just dig into it, you know? I only have one shot, so even if I make some people uncomfortable, I have to go for it."
Ndidi Onukwulu plays the Commodore Ballroom on Wednesday (June 25).