Oh Susanna carves her own path
By Jane Stevenson
The Edmonton Sun – Sunday, June 5, 2011
Oh Susanna (PHOTO: Dave Abel, QMI Agency)
Canadian alt-country-folk singer-songwriter Oh Susanna, whose given name is Suzie Ungerleider, has all the makings of a star.
A beautiful, clear voice that recalls Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalies Maines, Emmylou Harris, or Gillian Welch and dark songs of woe seemingly from another time and place where folks get beaten, left, knocked up, drunk, high, sent to jail or killed.
But the 41-year-old Ungerleider, born in the U.S., raised in Vancouver and based in Toronto since 1997, is now on her sixth release, Soon The Birds, with a decent cult following in Canada (and England too apparently), although mainstream success has eluded her.
It seems such a shame given her abundant talent.
Not that she seems to mind.
“(At the beginning), a friend of mine, Fred Eaglesmith, he was like, ‘You gotta go to Nashville! ‘You gotta go down there and write with people!’” says Ungerleider, seated in a park close to her Toronto management offices where Blue Rodeo has their recording studio, The Woodshed, downstairs.
“I was so new at the whole thing I just felt that would be too overwhelming. I was just starting to figure out what the music business was about and it felt maybe too commercial there. And growing up in Vancouver there’s a huge independent punk scene and I grew up in that milieu. Maybe if I went to Nashville now, maybe I’d be able to do that thing because I feel more confident and less defensive about remaining independent or outside. The business part of it is not always my favourite part of it. So, to go to somewhere like Nashville where business is like the main thing there and that you have to go in and do this writing thing, that feels intimidating to me, even still, because I’m very solitary about my writing and to do into a room with someone feels very strange. I did think about it. I didn’t feel like it was for me at the time.”
Hopefully helping to raise her profile, Ungerleider will begin a cross-country tour with Matthew Barber – the so-called He Said, She Said trek – on Monday (June 6) in Winnpeg, before arriving at Toronto’s Great Hall on June 24.
The idea is for them to each do a separate sets and do some songs together. They will also perform Ron Sexsmith’s Gold In Them Hills at the Luminato concert in the Toronto singer-songwriter’s honor on June 15 at Massey Hall.
Ungerleider’s new songs in particular – Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy does guest vocals on Lucky Ones – have little to do with her seemingly happy life, living near Toronto’s High Park with husband/drummer Cam Giroux (they met through Sarah Harmer as they both played in Weeping Tile) and their five-year-old son.
“A lot of that stuff comes from other people who have told me things,” said Ungerleider, who grew up near Vancouver’s University of British Columbia where her father, Charles, is still a professor in sociology of education.
“Some of it’s totally made up. I might come from a phrase that I’ve heard and then it becomes a story. Some things are memories or I take it from a real life situation and then I extrapolate on it or make fictional elements to it or imagining myself in other people’s situations.
“This one (Soon The Birds), I feel much more like a narrator or someone stepping into someone else’s shoes more than the other (albums),” she continued. “Because the other ones I think I was usuing the emotional key of the song to reflect my own feelings but it wasn’t necessarily what I was doing literally but maybe the mood was what I was going through. Whereas these ones it really feels a lot more like I’m an author and I’m writing these things.”
There’s also an iTunes only bonus track, 1941, arranged by music legend Van Dyke Parks, a fan who discovered her singing on a U.S. radio show in L.A. in 1996 before she ever recorded her first EP.
“Van Dyke was listening and he called the station and he’s like, ‘Who is that? I hear strings behind her voice?’ So then the station guy called me and said, ‘Oh, my God Van Dyke Parks called me and he wants to meet you!’ So I met him. And so years have gone by where we tried (to do something). He was supposed to do arrangements for another record but he had to do a Robert Altman score, stuff like that. So this one I was like, ‘Okay, I have this song. I would love you to do it.’ And so I sent it to him and he did his magic. And we recorded the tracks here but he did the arrangment and sent it on. It was pretty amazing and pretty cool. He did all this complicated, intricate, strange, stuff ’cause his arrangments are always super unusual. It’s like a soundtrack.”
PRIVATE LIFE STAYS PRIVATE
Alt-country-folk singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider always wanted to keep her private and professional lives separate which is why she decided to perform and record under the rather unusual name, Oh Susanna.
“I was really into rock stars and rock stars have these fancy names and as a kid I always thought, ‘I’m going to have a different name, cause my name is so long and strange,’” Ungerleider told QMI Agency.
“And then when I got older I really felt like I needed something for myself.”
She also initially wanted to be somewhat theatrical performer although that idea has fallen by the wayside.
“I had this notion, okay I’m going to try and wear these vintage clothes and I play this old Stella guitar, which is like this mail order guitar that blues guys used to play,” added Ungerleider. “So I think I had this idea that I’m going to build up on that whole notion but then as time went on I really didn’t do that. I think I started to feel like my musical life and my daily life kind of merged more. Whereas before it felt very separate.”
Oh Susanna’s He Said, She Said Tour dates with Matthew Barber
June 6 – Winnipeg, MB @ The Park Theatre
June 7 – Saskatoon, SK @ Amigos Cantina
June 8 – Edmonton, AB @ The Pawn Shop
June 9 – Calgary, AB @ The Palomino
June 10 – Kelowna, BC @ East Kelowna Community Hall
June 11 – Vancouver, BC @ The Biltmore Cabaret
June 20-21 – Halifax, NS @ The Carleton
June 24 – Toronto, ON @ The Great Hall
Solo spots on festival bills:
07/15/11 – 07/17/11 Fort Macleod, AB South Country Fair
09/02/11 – 09/04/11 Grafton, ON Shelter Valley Folk Festival