Oh Susanna

Every artist rides the switchbacks of direct comparison before they earn the right to step into their own musical shoes and leave a customized footprint. At first, Canadian singer-songwriter Oh Susanna might have been Dylanesque with her stark intense narratives. As she developed, she was sometimes called (Gillian) Welchesque for her mountain-air monologues. With the arrival of a third, full-length, self-titled album, the time for the lazy likening of Suzie Ungerleider to anyone else has passed. With its depth of accomplishment to delight everybody that hears it, the only description from this record on can be Oh Susanna-esque.
This singular artist, born in the USA but raised in Vancouver from early childhood, stood out from the crowd from the moment she released an eponymous seven-song EP in 1997, swiftly graduating to an accomplished 1999 full-length debut, Johnstown. Another two years and another remarkable maturation brought the acclaimed Sleepy Little Sailor set, one of 2001's most delicate and sharply observed song collections.
Now comes Oh Susanna, twelve invigorating new tunes that take Suzie O's stark lyrical observations and taut musicality and bathe them in a new light again. These pieces are rich, resourceful and rewarding, and open the window wider than ever on an artist who has become herself with a rarely seen rapidity. A performer who's kept the folk and country-soaked ingredients of her previous work, yet approached her latest solo album with an invigorating band mentality, adding strings, horns, immediacy and fun.
"Some people like the really dark and moody, heavily blues-influenced wailing on the Johnstown record," says Suzie, "and other people really like the lighter, 'in the sky,' dreamy feeling of Sleepy Little Sailor. This one, I wanted it to be more like a band record. I was tired of being solitary."
So, from 'Carrie Lee' to 'Billy' and ten songs in between, this is Oh Susanna retaining the observational, often bare style that first marked her card, but this time, as a delightful and addictive surprise, steeped more than occasionally in some cask-matured rock spirit. It's the same group that created Sleepy Little Sailor, on a new set recorded last December in Ontario (Canada) with producer Colin Cripps and the same team of musicians augmented by one new player, Travis Good, guitarist with Toronto's alternative country-pop outfit The Sadies.
"I don't know what to call it," she smiles. "Some people say it's more like classic rock. All the people I work with musically, we all have these 70's rock records embedded in our heads, and whenever we do something, we go back to our youth and think of those records as being the pinnacle." They influence tracks like 'Carrie Lee,' 'Right By Your Side' and the positively funky 'Cain is Rising,' but this is no sellout of Suzie's earlier passions, especially with the inclusion of such unvarnished, delicate pieces as 'Little White Lie' and 'The Fall.'
"The really rootsy, Appalachian, Hank Williams-tinged stuff I did at the start, I loved that and it was in my soul. After a while you get tired of your obsessions in a certain way, and it propels you forward to become obsessed with something else. But there's a scary meantime in between those two obsessions, like 'where am I going to go from here?' That's how it was after Sleepy Little Sailor, and I guess I just came up with these songs."
"You don't want it to be a museum piece, you want to take the great things of music history and fuse your own stuff with it, and you hope it comes out. I wanted to have the music be not quite so introverted anymore. Some of the songs, like 'Cain Is Rising,' are about some heavy subjects, but they're dressed up in music that doesn't sound depressing or moody. I didn't deliberately do that, it somehow happened."
Oh Susanna is a worthy addition to an increasingly distinctive body of work that always carried an unusual watermark. Suzie first performed under the name in 1995, and soon after that EP on her own Stella imprint in '97, she was being hailed as Canada's best-unsigned artist. In the UK, the early support of BBC broadcaster Bob Harris started a momentum that has made the UK Susanna's second home.
"I was lucky," she says. "When I started, I wasn't really paying attention to what was current at all. Ever since I was a teenager [even before she studied history and hosted a radio show at Montreal's Concordia University], I would listen to music that people would say 'why are you listening to this old music?' It was an advantage, frankly, because I wasn't necessarily concerned with being trendy or doing what other people were doing at the time. I'm more up to date now than probably I've ever been."
Oh Susanna positively seduces new listeners, but for those who've traveled with her from one album touchstone to the next, there's a continuity here that's fascinating to map. "All the albums are linked, they match my emotional state at the time," she says. "Sleepy Little Sailor was very magical to make, very smooth and easy and it has a certain kind of spell. The music was very much reflecting the heartbroken, soul-searching thing I was going through. I thought, I love that but I can't do that again. I'm not there, I don't feel the same way and it would be false to replicate that."
Thus the downbeat mood has been succeeded by a new spirit, "there's this other thing I've always been drawn to in music," says Suzie, "which is theatricality. The Rolling Stones are like the archetype in my head of what rock stars are, and how exciting that is. I started to play the songs live and not that differently, but just maybe feeling like it's fun to have a bit of rock and roll in there. That was the thing with this record, to have a great band but to have the earthy feel to it."