Oh Susanna is 32 year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter Suzie Ungerleider.The Toronto based artist first came to prominence in Europe with the release of her second album, ‘Johnstown’, which was greeted with outstanding critical acclaim when it came out last year. Inspired by the events surrounding the devastating flood that destroyed Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889, the album was, quite frankly, like no other released in 2000. Produced by Peter Moore who worked with The Cowboy Junkies on their ‘The Trinity Sessions’ album, the echoes of old Appalachian ballads and songs dealing with personal loss and helplessness was, although dark and bleak, never less than fascinating.

When the follow up, ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’, was released earlier this year I was almost afraid to play it. 'Johnstown' had become an almost permanent fixture in the C.D. player and I wondered if Suzie would be able to match the intensity, originality and passion, which made 'Johnstown' so special. Any doubts were dismissed from the first track on ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’. 'Johnstown' was no one-off. 'Sleepy Little Sailor' is more immediate than ‘Johnstown’ and has a warm and dreamy feel to it. In some ways the opposite musically of 'Johnstown', Suzie should be applauded for having the courage to try something different on this follow-up. After the praise ‘Johnstown’ received it was a brave move.

On behalf of Pennyblackmusic I had the opportunity to talk to Suzie about the work she does under the name of Oh Susanna earlier this year. Six o’clock in Europe means noon in Toronto and we found Suzie to be a cheerful interviewee and although probably having been asked what made her decide to perform under the name Oh Susanna numerous times, she still had the good grace to laugh and explain that “It’s a song, first of all, written by Steven Foster, who wrote songs probably, I think, in the 1800s. He wrote a bunch of songs that are now considered folk songs in the United States, actually most people don’t even know that there was an author, alright, they don’t know who the author is, but it’s just a song that is sort of a part of American cultural history. But the reason I chose that was that a friend of mind had actually called me that and I decided that I wanted to have a name that was different than my own and to signify that there was something that’s separate from me. It’s not autobiography”.

Oh Susanna’s music, especially on the new album, sounds like it was made by someone who grew up absorbing a wide range of music rather than just listening to just country, soul or pop. Suzie explains that in her teens, for example, she was listening mostly to the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and The Who.

“When I was a little older, but not much older, I started listening to The Sex Pistols and The Clash as well as local punk bands that were in Vancouver because that’s where I was living, on the west coast”. “Then people like The Eurythmics and Kate Bush, an eclectic mix, Elvis Costello, that kind of thing”.

Suzie told us that she has been performing on stage for about six years now.

“I started to play in front of people, but not very regularly, but I was doing covers and then I thought I really want to have a band. A friend of mine and I were going to have this band together but we fought so much I said forget it! I had started to write my own songs so I had a few songs and a friend of mine, who is a dancer, said she wanted to have this kind of cabaret night so she said why don’t you play some of your songs. That’s really what it was, people inviting me to come and play these songs. That night I met the person who recorded the first E.P., his name is Dan O’Connell, he was a friend of hers and said he’d like to record a simple, demo kind of thing and that’s how it started”.

Oh Susanna’s music has drawn comparisons with a wide range of artists ranging from Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan to Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Suzie says the artists she listened to while growing up influenced her music.

“So much of what’s influenced you has to do with where you live and what you’ve been exposed to but the things that influence you actually are not necessarily the things you like sometimes! But the things that I like that I think I was inspired by was, well, when I first started to write songs it was very much about old-time country music, even pre-country music, just sort of Appalachian ballads or old blues songs that are very traditional. I think I used Tom Waits and Hank Williams as kind of models for writing songs”.

Most artists, understandably, don’t like to pigeon hole their music or have it classed in any particular category. Realising this, I asked Suzie, if she was pushed into describing the music she makes how would she classify it? Laughing she replied, “ If I have to?” “At gunpoint!?” Suzie then explained, “When people ask me I say it’s very slow, it’s dreamy, but I mean, different albums are different, but it’s moody, lamenting songs which focus on a single voice and tell you a story. But I try to avoid using categories because these categories mean something different to me than they do to somebody else.

The songs on the 'Johnstown 'album were so strong and thought provoking that it made you want to seek out more information about the flood. That’s a powerful effect for music to have – to move people so much that they actually make the effort to get more information about the subject matter.

“I like that” explained Suzie. “I mean the songs weren’t written necessarily to tell the story of the flood, the songs were kind of written to tell their own little stories. However, I wanted to unify them and I wanted to have them be set in a place and I picked Johnstown. For the people who really like to seek out history and stories I think that was half the reason that I put that in there. Then I also put the note in the liner notes that if anybody wanted to figure out what Johnstown was all about that they could go and check out the website. But I think the most important thing was that I wanted people to; it’s not like the songs serve a purpose necessarily, but for me writing them is very cathartic and it’s creative and I get drawn in by the stories while I’m making them up. So when someone listens to it I hope that they will also be drawn in by it and be affected by it and feel like they are taken to another place. So if that means that they want to go and seek out information then I’m honoured that they want to do that”.

The only song not that was not written by Suzie on Sleepy Little Sailor is Otis Redding’s ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’. Not an obvious choice but Suzie has done the impossible and made it her own. No easy feat when covering an Otis Redding song. What made Suzie choose that particular song?

“I was just obsessed with that song for a couple of months and it was almost the only thing that I listened to and I wanted to sing it but I also thought it’s kind of impossible to sing Otis because he’s amazing and it’s like when you do a cover are you trying to match the original or what?” “In a way I always feel like why bother covering something that’s so good. I was just singing it around the studio and Colin (Cripps) who produced the record was like, okay, we’re going to do that one because he thought it was really beautiful. I was nervous about it but everyone said that the song really means so much to you that you should really do it and see how it goes”. It actually went incredibly well. The performance from all concerned on this track is outstanding.

The raw sound of 'Johnstown' is abandoned for a smoother production on 'Sleepy Little Sailor'. “Yes the production is different, a different producer and also I think that the nature of the songs; the Johnstown subject matter and the tone and the way I felt, I think, when I was recording was about being raw and extreme and then with 'Sleepy Little Sailor' the songs that I had written were much more soft and gentle and almost lullaby like and I think that Colin just took that as a cue and also he is very much into subtlety, that instruments should be played in such a way that it’s very subtle. So I think it’s a number of different things; that the songs themselves are gentler and then I chose a producer that would produce in a more gentle way”.

Some of the songs on 'Sleepy Little Sailor' deal with childhood reminisces. There is an interesting story on the cover of the album about a child wearing her dead uncle’s toupee and pretending to be him. Suzie was non-committal as to if this story is true.

“Some of it’s true” she laughed.” “As to wearing the toupee, I’m not going to say! I don’t want to tell people because I don’t think they want to know- I think they want to know but then they don’t want to know. I’ve had people ask me about it and when I start to tell them what in reality how much is fiction and how much is ‘real’ they start to get upset! So I don’t really want to spoil it. It’s not the point if it’s real it’s almost like it’s a fairy tale in a way”.

Apart from the cover version Suzie wrote all the lyrics for the other tracks on Sleepy Little Sailor but Bazil Donovan and Colin Cripps collaborated on the music for three of the songs.

“They helped with the music and I am quite solitary about writing so it is a bit strange sometimes to think I am going to collaborate. The way I collaborated with them was very much like, well, I played a song for Colin, the Kings Road song, and he suggested that I added a different chord progression and so he was kind of modifying what was already there. But he did make the song better so I wanted to put his name on it”

“That’s kind of what Bazil did with Tangled And Wild on Johnstown, he did the same thing, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ and it made the song better. But with Sleepy Little Sailor and Forever At Your Feet, those songs really started with Bazil’s music because he had composed the melodies and he played them for me and then I went home and, by myself, wrote the lyrics. I think that works really well for me to be able to take something and then add my stuff to it instead of actually sitting down in the room and trying to write it completely together. I think that suited Bazil too, because I think he works in the same way that he kind of daydreams and writes something and then it’s done. He says you can change it a little bit and we did change it slightly but he sort of does it on his own and then gives it to me and I do it on my own”

Writing songs of the calibre of 'The Bridge' or 'Alabaster' or, pick any track really from the last two releases, can’t come easily even to someone with Suzie’s talents, and must take time to compose. Suzie feels that, “They usually flow over time. I don’t write that much. I question that, I think I should be writing more. Partly because I don’t write so much I’m able to concentrate a lot on each song so I can write in such a way that I can infuse each song with it’s own story and character”. Suzie allows herself more time to build on each song “Instead of worrying about rushing them”.

'River Blue was chosen as the single from 'Sleepy Little Sailor'. It won an award in Canada and was probably chosen as the single because, as Suzie says, “People connect with that song quite immediately, everybody thought it was the natural choice”.

Suzie sings some of the songs on 'Johnstown' from a male point of view. Even the Otis Redding cover has not had the words changed to suit a woman singing it which is a little unusual but as Suzie explains: “It was funny because I started to sing the song, we were literally about to start recording the song and we were all ready with our instruments and I was about to sing. This is one of the rare tunes that Colin played guitar on, he’s a very good guitarist but most of the time he wasn’t playing guitar, and he was in the studio with us, and the engineer went on the talkback and said ‘What about the lyrics?’ We said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said. ‘I saw you in another man’s arms!’ I laughed because I didn’t even think about it. I never even considered changing the words, I guess because with that song I always felt it was Otis singing. I felt like I was Otis singing it! With the other songs they are specifically from a male character. Not necessarily a male point of view but it’s a male character. When I’m writing I just imagine who is talking. It’s not always going to be a woman simply because I am and, in fact, it means a different thing if it’s a man speaking sometimes, especially with the song Johnstown. That is specifically a man violent against this woman and his despair and guilt because of it. First of all it makes a difference that it’s a woman singing from a male point of view. If it were Eminem or somebody singing that you’d just go ‘Wow’ obviously he’s advocating or something. There’s no kind of irony or distance whereas for this it makes someone listen and ask what is the song really saying. It means that there are different levels of it and different meanings and layers. I enjoy stepping into someone else’s skin while I’m singing."

Oh Susanna’s U.K. tour earlier this year was the first time Suzie had played there. “The reaction in England was fantastic,”she said. “In the fall we are going to do more shows in England and also go to France and other countries in Europe”.

On that note I thanked Suzie for allowing me the time to answer my questions for Pennyblack music and on a more personal note asked her if she would kindly consider adding Sweden to the list of European dates at some point as I currently reside there. I don’t want to miss out on what I’m sure is a powerful show!

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