Oh Susanna ‘Soon the Birds’
Reviews / Folk & Country / Apr 19 2011
By Kerry Doole
It’s interesting that Oh Susanna’s self-titled 2003 album can now be viewed as her most atypical work. It veered into rock terrain, but on the subsequent Short Stories and now Soon the Birds, Suzie Ungerleider returned to her more familiar country-folk path. For that we can be grateful, as few explore the genre this well. Her signature strong, haunting voice is in top shape, as are her poetic, narrative-based songs. Both are framed expertly by producer/engineer David Travers-Smith and the A-list musical cast. Many songs feature eight to ten players and backing singers, but things never sound cluttered. Jim Cuddy is featured on classic-sounding country duet “Lucky Ones,” while harmony vocalists Ruth Moody and Brenley MacEachern are used judiciously (as on “By Rope”). The album’s vivid cast of characters include the jilted young lad of “Your Town” (“you mooned your meat to your town”), the battered wife bidding her abuser “So Long,” the doomed outlaw of the aforementioned “By Rope” and the single mom of “See What Promises Can Bring.” Their stories are told with compassion and aural beauty.
Is there a connecting lyrical theme on Soon The Birds?
My tendency is to write about individuals facing a choice. They are very narrative songs, for the most part. I love those kind of songs myself so I am trying to emulate the songs I love. They are usually about a situation and what the individual does in that situation. I have a thing about the romantic person, and where disappointment and hope go side-by-side, and the tension between those two things.
It has been a long time between albums.
Yes, four years. It usually takes me a while to get back into writing after I’ve recorded stuff; I get lazy then I panic and start writing and it usually takes about a year to get the songs. Now that I’m a mom, there are not the same timelines. After this, it should be easier, as my son will be in school more. I joke around that I have my kindergarten block of time ― two hours to start the song! I realise I can start something in that little window then work on it in my mind throughout the rest of the day ― that was really cool to realise. The recording side took forever; I didn’t have a block of time, but I kind of enjoyed that. I believe in having a gestation period. The three records before this were fairly quick; I think there’s room for regret when you work that way and do things fast: you are rather married to the idea of what you did at that moment. Whereas with this, my producer David Travers-Smith was like, “well, we can re-do anything you’re not happy with.” So we’d mull it over: “is this the right approach to the song?” Or we’d go, “I don’t even know what it’s going to be, but let’s start with this.” We’d layer it, one at a time, and that can take forever. With Sleepy Little Sailor and the self-titled album, it was ten days and they’re done.
Which approach do you prefer?
I like both. The instant results are always exciting. Before, I could afford the time to have a band, get them together; now, my band on those records are all over the place. I enjoy being with a producer, to have this person fiddling with the knobs and I can think about the singing. I love that part ― to be the singer and the writer ― and they can be the producer and we can spend a lot of time together. I always choose people I like to spend a lot of time with. David mixed the last record, Short Stories, so I got a feel for him. I knew him before that, we had hung out a bit and I always enjoyed his company. My husband would joke about us being like two ladies gossiping all the time, as we’d talk on the phone constantly. I don’t normally like talking on the phone, but with him I’d love it. And with Peter Moore [an earlier producer], we’d spend a lot of time sitting around just talking about life. I really enjoyed that too. In making a record, my experience is it is so much about the feeling of the people; it doesn’t necessarily translate into what the listener hears at all.
You have your usual A-list players, plus some new ones here.
Yes, and that is totally great. That was David bringing people to it, plus over the years I’d meet people and have an idea of wanting them to play. Like the guys from the Foggy Hometown Boys: John, Andrew and Chris ― knowing them over the years then having a song and thinking it had that kind of vibe. Then there’s Kevin Breit and Justin Haynes on guitar. They are totally different kinds of guitarists, but brilliant in each of their ways. I’d performed with Kevin at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala, and we have friends in common. Finally, he was interested in doing this. He and David are constantly working together, like the Harry Manx thing. Kevin was really fun, just really positive and versatile. He’ll be there playing something in one room, I’ll be in another, and he’ll go, “wait a sec, I have an idea,” and it’ll be so different, just switching gears. Some people, I know what they are going to do, and that’s why I want them. With Kevin, I wasn’t so familiar and he can be kind of wild. That’s exciting, as he’ll maybe come up with something neither David nor I would have thought of. He is so willing to do anything, and doesn’t get upset, whereas I as a musician can get super-frustrated if it feels like something isn’t working. He’s more like, “let’s get it to the point where we’re happy.”
And you’ve worked so much with people like Bazil Donovan and Cam Giroux, your husband, there must be musical intuition there?
Yes, there is a familiarity there. David will let the musicians do what they want to do at the beginning and then he’ll start to shape it more. There were times when I couldn’t be there, so he’d be the one there with them; he really figured things out with them while I had to do my mommy duty. I was fine with that. Sometimes he’d say, “I want you here for certain things.” What’d happen is he’d go down a certain road and I’d listen and go, “well, that sounds great, but not exactly what I was thinking of.” Or I’d be there part of the time and go, “yes, I’m happy with that, you guys go.” I liked doing that. David worked super-hard. He is so patient; I joke that he likely made about two dollars an hour on this project. Part of that is his fault ’cause he loves experimenting when I am not there. He loves mixing too.
There are some adventurous arrangements and instrumental combinations here, like horns, mandolin and harmony vocals on “Pretty Blue Eyes.”
You’re right ― that’s not common. David would have figured that out. That song really grew from Kevin’s guitar. I had a vocal and my guitar, and then it was like, “where is this going to go?” Kevin came in and did his thing, and David is incredible at adding things; he plays all those horns. That was the other thing: I’d go away, come back and listen, and go, “that bit may be too much like fusion jazz, but this thing is good.” It was fun. I like that David is technical. He can engineer anything, but he is also a musician. That is a great combination, where you get the best of both. We recorded mostly at his studio, which is how we could afford to spend so long making the record [laughs].
Is it a rustic space?
He has been there 20 years; it feels very lived-in. It’s an old factory building. David loves collecting cool things, like misshapen pieces of metal from the Leslie Street Spit, so there’s all this weird stuff in his place. I like studios with interesting things in them, not just be a grey box with a leather couch.
Was the album recorded in analog?
No, it was all digital. David is one of these guys who have figured out how to make digital sound work in a more full sound, and he doesn’t mind editing. As many times as you want to sing the song is fine by him; he’s way more patient than I am.
There are more vocal harmonies on this record.
Yes, it was something of a departure to have so much harmony on it. Sometimes I would do harmonies on the earlier ones. Here, I had Ruth Moody sing a lot. She and David are a couple, but it wasn’t just the convenience of her being there; I love her voice. Then I got Brenley MacEachern from Madison Violet for two songs. She has a scratchy sort of character voice on one tune.
And Jim Cuddy is on there.
Well, he’s not much to look at and his voice is a little rough [laughs]! That was fun. We’ve been singing together for the last few years on different things, on his records and live. So when I wrote that song, I completely thought of him. I love pretending we are in a relationship together that is going bad. That is what that song is about; I like doing that kind of Tammy [Wynette] and George [Jones] duet.
Your songs tend to be less introspective and personal than those of many other singer-songwriters.
I sometimes wish I could write more about my life, not necessarily because it is all that interesting, as it isn’t. I look at people like Sarah Harmer and Joel Plaskett and I think about how they incorporate their neighbourhood and environment into their songs much more. I think that it’s incredible, to do that yet have it be universal and intriguing. Whereas I feel I have to set my stories in another place or time or another character in order for it to be interesting, to me. There are certain songs there that are spawned from my personal experience or environment, but I will change it to a degree where you won’t necessarily recognise it. Or it might be someone I know. I do pilfer other people’s lives quite a bit for material, or I take from things I read in the newspaper. I thought I should perhaps write more from my own experience. To do that and have it be universal or not feel like navel-gazing is a real talent. It’s funny; I was watching a songwriters workshop at a festival led by Mary Gauthier, ’cause I think she’s amazing ― what a life to talk about. It was interesting when she asked people what they thought were their stumbling blocks. A lot said, “I really want to write not from my own perspective.” My problem is the other way around ― not a problem, but my tendency is not to go to the journal of my personal grievances or trials.
You once told me that the dark themes of earlier songs reflected your psyche then. That has changed?
Yes. Those early records came out of something of a depressive state of mind I was in. Then by writing those kind of things and having things change and having music sublimate all those feelings, it created a new me that I could be part of. Those ideas of being lonely and searching don’t really apply so much to my life, luckily, but I am still intrigued by that side of things. But to sing that kind of stuff and embody those feelings as I am singing it, sometimes that is not what I want to do. The other thing Mary Gauthier talked about is that people may not be ready for the kind of things you’re talking about. You need to find the people who are ready for it and you have to accept what the muse gives you. It was interesting to hear her talk about that, especially as she has so much material to work with. I look at someone like Ron Sexsmith on his second record; it’s like he’s writing these short stories and he’s the narrator. There is more of a detachment from what is happening. On this record, I am not so emotionally involved in what the characters are doing. That is nice, if sometimes a bit strange. When I first started, I felt I really had to be living those emotions while I was writing those songs. A friend told me, “you don’t have to be so attached to your work.” That was liberating to hear.
I find it interesting that so many of your reference points are other Canadian singer-songwriters. Are you inspired by the community here?
That’s the cool thing about being part of this Canadian music scene: more and more what I listen to are people I know or those not too far away from where I am. You meet people along the way. The Good Brothers were talking about that; we were singing these Gordon Lightfoot songs [as part of the Junos live tribute series]. One of the great things about doing music for so long is you get to meet these people that make this amazing music and you can feel part of it. From my point of view, the relationships that build from working with people are a lot of it. It’s not just about the art, per se, [as the] friendships and things that happen.
When you head out touring with Hawksley Workman or Justin Rutledge, it’s about more than just sharing a bill?
Yes, you can get to know them more ― get annoyed with their familiarities [laughs]. It’s like you become siblings, and I’ll do something with Matthew Barber. I don’t really know him, so that’ll be interesting ― a Canadian thing, and dates are just being booked. When I do stuff like that, yes, it is about the audience, but also you never know what is going to come out of these experiences.
You’re doing some work with Tom Wilson on the Lee Harvey Osmond record, I hear.
I spent about four hours with him yesterday, singing on three songs. He and Michael Timmins and the drummer Ray Ferrugia. And Josh Finlayson came by. Tom is hilarious.
In your gap between records, your name did stay out there because of this other work.
Yes, I love doing that stuff. I did a bunch over the last few years, singing on other people’s songs. Being a back-up singer is really fun; it’s a skill I feel I’m learning how to get better at.
You sense your audience is pretty loyal? Haven’t given up on you?
I don’t know. We’ll see; it’s hard to tell. I think I’m enjoying it a lot more and that’s helping me connect better with people. I’m not taking it for granted as much as I may have in the past ― more of a mission before. Now I see it as both a vocation and a way of having fun.
How did it go in Austin?
It was fun, just one show. Kendel Carson played violin and Bazil [Donovan] played, and Cam. Quite an unusual band, with no guitar but me, but it was great. Some people said it was the best band they’d seen me with. Kendel and I have done a few “friends” things, where we learn each other’s songs, songwriter circle-type things.
You earned a following in England over the years. That remains?
I haven’t been over for a long time and I’m hoping to go back, maybe do a tour in the fall. There’s a label in the Netherlands that released the last record, so I’ll go over there.
Any distribution in the U.S.?
No, we’re trying to figure that out. You can get it on iTunes there. The other thing you may not know about is that if you get the record on iTunes, you get this bonus track: “1941.” Van Dyke Parks did the arrangement for it; it is quite interesting. I’ve known him since I first started. I went to L.A. and played on a radio show. He was listening and called the station to find out who it was. I didn’t know anything about him, but he didn’t care. He said, “this is what I do.” He’s very eccentric in the way he talks, and very intelligent. Over the years, we’ve been like, “we have to do something together” and finally we did. Steve Dawson put together the Mississippi Sheiks tribute, and that was our first collaboration. He was going to do something on the Oh Susanna record, but he had to do a Robert Altman score instead. He is very kind and warm. Finally, I asked him again. It was very brilliant, unusual and very much him. He sent us the arrangement and then David recorded it all here. I’ve played some shows with him with the Sheiks thing. He’s just a totally interesting, unique human being and he’s very supportive.
Lots of performing coming up?
Yes, and I’m scared about it [laughs]. It has been a while since I’ve done a tour where I’ve had to play every day. I’ll have to leave my son. But I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of it. It means something else now, seeing as I’m a bourgeois housewife [laughs]. No, make that working class! I do a lot of stuff on my own. I’m going to do the Hawksley gigs with Burke Carroll, who’ll play pedal steel. I’ll try to get him to do this June thing with Matt, and maybe one other instrument. It won’t be a full band, but I’ll have a full band at the Horseshoe. I quite like doing different things. I don’t need to have the band. I like to change it and not have it exactly how it is on the record.
The CD artwork is gorgeous. You clearly don’t believe the album format is dead.
Not for me; I prefer to have a CD and the artwork. I’m saddened by the fact that people seem to be doing less and less with their album art, so I chose to do a booklet, three panels. There’s lots of stuff to look at and read, ’cause I always like doing that. I’ve never been one to keep up with the times!