Oh Susanna finds spark with character-driven album
By Mike Bell – Calgary Herald – June 7, 2011
Canadian roots artist Oh Susanna (a.k.a. Suzie Ungerleider) is back with a new album and will be performing Thursday at The Palomino.
Photograph by: Heather Pollock
There’s a lot of character on Suzie Ungerleider’s latest recording — both literally and figuratively.
It can be felt in the warm Americana sound of the album’s songs, it can be found in the artists who lend their talents to Soon the Birds, it can be heard in the stories of those who populate the material, and it can even be gauged in the tone of the duet she recorded with Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy.
“We kind of have a little Sonny and Cher thing going on,” Ungerleider (a.k.a. Oh Susanna) says of the track Lucky Ones before laughing brightly. “Which I’m thankful for his wife’s sense of humour, because we play that up sometimes — it’s very fun. But when I wrote that song I was thinking a lot about having Jim sing it with me, so it was nice. He’s very generous in that way.”
Soon the Birds is the Canadian artist’s sixth album and it marks her return to the scene after a three-year absence (her last album, Short Stories dropped in 2007), time in which, among other things, she became a mother. The album, produced by David Travers-Smith, also took up a good chunk of that period, with Ungerleider working on an off in the studio over the course of 12 months — something that seems incongruous in the face of how singular a collection it seems. Pure and clear, the 11 roots tracks seem eked out with their seeming sparseness, but still manage to deliver something full and textured and astoundingly complete on a sonic and emotional level.
Ungerleider says she provided some guidance, but gives much of the credit for the natural, easygoing beauty of the album’s sound to Travers-Smith, noting, “I let that technical side go to him, and his vision.
“But when I was first started to make the record, I was like, ‘Oh, I love those Levon Helm records, there’s a certain warmth and rawness to what they’re doing.’ I don’t think we necessarily ended up doing something that was like that, but that was kind of a starting point — where I wanted it to kind of have this rich acoustic sound. So David had that in mind when he was putting stuff together.
“I wanted it to sound like people playing songs together. And, I don’t know, it kind of evolved into something that I wasn’t necessarily knowing what it was going to be. But I do believe in having natural sounding music — that’s what I like to hear. . .
“I’m kind of conservative that way.”
There’s nothing conservative about the musical support she received on the disc, as the list of more than 30 players features an all-star cast of Canadian talent — which says a great deal about Ungerleider’s place in the national scene — with Cuddy just being the tip of the northern ice cap. Other artists and collaborators include: guitarist Kevin Breit, who has worked with everyone from Celine Dion and Norah Jones to Ian Tyson and Rosanne Cash; Wailin’ Jennys vocalist Ruth Moody; Blue Rodeo bassist Bazil Donovan; and Ungerleider’s husband/drummer Cam Giroux.
The songwriter says the idea of surrounding herself with such a diverse crew of musicians was almost as important to the final outcome as the material itself.
“They have a spark to them and what they do,” she says. “I like that. I like having people who have a certain kind of character to their playing, so that their unique quality gets recorded onto what we’re doing.”
And as for those timeless-sounding songs, much of them cast the listener as voyeur, with Ungerleider and her lovely vox holding the telescope and pointing it at a motley collection of personalities that populate the material. This includes the despondent rural Romeo in Your Town, the unwed momma Juliet in See What Promises Can Bring and a stagecoach robber in By Rope.
Ungerleider says an ability to fictionalize in music is something she is drawn to and considers it a unique and invaluable way to explore feelings, emotions and, yes, characters that provide a more universal view into the human experience.
“Those are the songs that I love, when other people write them. I guess I’m trying to copy my heroes or . . . the style I get drawn in by, which are those sorts of soul-searching situations where you fill in the gaps in your own brain and put yourself in that person’s position. And somehow it feels like a good thing to do, that it somehow it encourages empathy when I hear songs like that — trying to make a connection with someone else even if it’s just a character in a song.
“Those are the songs that I love most, I think. So when I do that, I’m just trying to,” she pauses, “I guess it’s like someone trying to paint a picture … trying to become something that they admire, I suppose.”
She continues. “But sometimes I do think that I need a little bit of a kick in the butt in trying something else. It’s funny because I think a lot of people have a trap of being autobiographical and my challenge is to maybe be a little bit more vulnerable, and maybe writing myself more into the songs, maybe not try and put it in a fictionalized place or a place somewhere else — maybe I should write more about where I am.”
Oh Susanna performs with Matthew Barber Thursday at The Palomino.
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