Oh Susanna Secrets and Sins

Oh Susanna Secrets and Sins
In the lobby of the opulent King Edward hotel in downtown Toronto, the ceilings stretch for miles, and Oh Susanna's booming vocal pipes could really rattle the tea cups of the dying breed of upper crust gathered here for afternoon tea. But the gold-laced engravings and antique furniture put a white-gloved hush on these fantasies of acoustic potential. Mud on your boots and grit under your nails is unacceptable here; many of the rough and tumble characters that populate Oh Susanna's world would be given an unceremonious shove out the door.
But sitting down for the ritual of tea — all delicate pastries and crust-free finger sandwiches, bone china cups and sterling silver tea strainers — Suzie Ungerleider looks at home, like one of her hardscrabble creations who snagged a good tavern seat with his back to the wall and an eye on the door. We share an easy laugh about our environment, not your typical location for a rock'n'roll interview, especially since we both live in the city. But Oh Susanna may feel more at home in hotels, bars and other transitory environments these days; since relocating to Toronto from her native Vancouver a few years ago, she's spent much of her time on the road.

The environment mirrors the occasion in two revealing ways. We're here to discuss Sleepy Little Sailor, Oh Susanna's second full-length album following 1999's acclaimed Johnstown, and the home-recorded demo EP that first brought her attention in 1997. As the title suggests, Sleepy Little Sailor is an album of transition, populated by characters both left and leaving, and the unsettled environs of a hotel seem a perfect metaphor for some of these home/not-home dichotomies.

The other parallel is the hushed nature of our surroundings. Sleepy Little Sailor has polished some of the twang from Oh Susanna's belting delivery, and the rougher edges of the rock band that accompanied her on Johnstown have been smoothed over into a slicker, more produced sounding album. It's quieter, a "come closer and I'll tell you a secret" record that matches a more personal perspective that suffuses the songwriting, a marked change from the tragedy-oriented third person narratives that Oh Susanna has favoured to this point.

Now thirty years old, Suzie Ungerleider came relatively late to the music business; despite the fact that she attended a very arts-oriented high school in Vancouver, BC, where classmates included Veda Hille, Twilight Circus Dub Sound System's Ryan Moore and a host of dancers, writers and photographers, she played in no high school bands, and didn't record her first demo tapes until well into her 20s. Those first recordings, eventually released as a self-titled EP, showcased a woman with remarkable vocal skills, and a penchant for telling tales of another age, that have to dust themselves off at the door.

Taking a page from the book of Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, George Jones and other hard school country types, Oh Susanna sang of death and tragedy with a sombre air that was startling for a debut recording. ("Tried to walk beside me / I beat you to the ground / I strung these reigns around your head / I rode you till you drowned" is one early example.) She sang with a wisdom beyond her years, appearing from the outset to be channelling a different era.

"I was more serious when I was younger, actually," she says. "I was a student, and I did a lot of stuff then that songwriters do — you're surrounded by ideas, people discussed books and music and art and tried to figure out what that art was saying about the human condition. Being a songwriter is almost the same — you get to write and express and explore the human condition, throw your own personal take on it in there and share it with a lot of people. The hard thing is your own psychology, to try to give yourself the confidence or the guts to do it and not feel like a fake. When I first started, it felt weird or wrong, like you shouldn't call attention to yourself, it's self-indulgent. I realise now that I told myself that because it was a scary thing to do."

From the first 50 copies of a seven-song cassette to a CD pressing less than a year later, 1997 announced Oh Susanna to a music community anxious for authentic sounds, and before she could record a proper full-length, she was criss-crossing the country to critical acclaim; in 1998, Shift magazine named her one of the 25 most important people in new music.

The release of Johnstown at the end of 1998 confirmed Oh Susanna's place as a notable songwriter, and a voice to be reckoned with. A stronger, and more powerful collection of murder ballads, it fleshed out the sparseness of her early recordings. Backed by a country-rock band that featured Bazil Donovan (Blue Rodeo) and Bob Egan (Wilco, Blue Rodeo), it seemed the logical step in Oh Susanna's development as a country artist, however out of step she seemed to a contemporary country scene that has all but forgotten its roots.

Life on the road will harden you, the accepted wisdom goes, but when Suzie Ungerleider and I meet at the King Edward Hotel on a snowy December afternoon, it's to talk about her quietest, most intimate work to date, on the just-released Sleepy Little Sailor. Gone for the most part is the twang in her sound, replaced by a quiet, lonely longing.

The album's second track is "River Blue," a song she wrote in 1998 for a Canadian independent film called The Fishing Trip. Intimate and spare, hauntingly person, it chronicled the dark aftermath of childhood abuse. It's a perfect fit with the sound and spirit of Sleepy Little Sailor, though it was written before Johnstown was released; in 1998, it won Oh Susanna a Genie Award for Best Original Song. It's certainly a "character" piece, written by cribbing some lines from the movie's script, yet its first person narrative is close and sometimes uncomfortable, like overhearing secrets you shouldn't. That feeling suffuses the new album; it feels much closer to home than anything she's done to date.

"The songs relate much more to actual events that happened to me," she says, "things that people have said to me, memories I have of true events. On [earlier] songs, there was a lot more use of character and story and narrative, that on the surface seem to be set in a different place and time — nothing really ties them to any place and time, but the vibe seems to be somewhere else, about other people."

The death count on the new record is also a lot lower. No doubt tragedy still abounds, but these new songs are more about consequence than the event itself. "[Johnstown] was about vulnerability and despair and anger; this one is more vulnerability and maybe tenderness and sadness or poignancy, or nostalgia. This is more internal. In Johnstown, I'm describing the tragic feeling with events. There's a lot of death, or implication of death on the last two records, whereas this one is more ‘You're still alive, what are you going to do with that?' That's worse," she laughs.

The sound of Sleepy Little Sailor matches its quieter lyrical content. Absent the more rock-oriented band she had on Johnstown, this sounds like the most commercial music Oh Susanna has ever made. The slick touch of producer Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas, Junkhouse, Jim Cuddy) certainly contributes. It lacks the immediate impact, the punch, of Johnstown; instead, its rewards unspool more slowly, repeatedly drawing you back to rediscover new layers.

"I sing differently than I did before," Oh Susanna offers as a way of explanation. "Two hundred gigs later makes you sing differently. When [Colin] asked me what I wanted to do, I said ‘I don't want to scream as much.' Your voice changes and that's the beauty of it — it stretches and gets deeper, just because you sing and sing and sing. You learn how to make your voice do different things, to say things with a certain tone and it changes the whole song. It's like learning how to tell a story with your voice as well."

With this subtler, more supple weapon at her disposal, songs evolved first from the melodies and music, rather than from the lyrical subject matter. "The melody always tells me," she says. "It triggers an imagination process, a landscape or feeling. Then I start brainstorming about lyrics. Bazil [Donovan] and I wrote three songs together — he provided the melody for me, and it can take me in a different direction or mood. Sometimes an outside influence can be a weird liberating thing from your own patterns. I don't think ‘I've gotta change!' but sometimes I see that I've exhausted a theme."

From this more intimate, more internal material sprung the sound of the record itself. "You're supposed to forget that there are people making this record. Colin [Cripps] wanted to have this feeling where you weren't supposed to be able to tell what the instruments were, you would just have them subliminally tell you things. I don't want anybody to think of a guitar player or a drummer. This is supposed to be a painting or a film, and it's supposed to transcend from being a song into something else. When I knew that's what [Colin] was working towards, I knew that's what I wanted this album to be. That's why I wanted to work with him."

Sometimes Suzie Ungerleider doesn't like to be the centre of attention. Fortunately, Oh Susanna is there to help pick up the slack. "My cousin worked on a video for Sheena Easton," she offers, "and he said she always talked about Sheena Easton in the third person — ‘Sheena Easton wants that moved, Sheena Easton's ready to go.' He always told me not to let that happen, but it can really help you."

Oh Susanna almost never refers to herself in the third person, but the persona she's created helps her through some of the less savoury aspects of her daily life — the constant requirement that she talk about herself, performing a solo show with no band, no compatriots to take up the slack musically, or on the business side. "Sometimes you have to make decisions that discount the well being of everyone," she says, "and sometimes it's fun to be a shark. Other times, that's not at all what I want to be — I just want to make people feel good. You can get lost in the fun, creative aspects of it, like designing a poster or the record cover, but it coincides with the calculated aspects. Living in a market economy, you have to sell yourself and you have to worry about making money."

Like many aspects of her job, Oh Susanna feels conflicted about the spotlight. On one hand, obviously, she enjoys it — she couldn't step on stage night after night if she didn't. ("There's a certain sexiness to being on stage and having everyone look at you.") At the same time, she wants, in her writing and performance, to speak to human nature and the human condition. "I relate more to writers than I do to musicians. I don't think of myself as a musician. That's a bit weird, because my job is that I'm gonna be around musicians."

Being a performer lends itself to monologue, not dialogue. "When you're on stage, you can't have a discussion with the audience — that's lacking. And the music business is not a philosophical thing. It's hard to find people who are willing to have and enjoy a deeper kind of conversation. It depends on the interview, and the way the question's asked, but most people ask a question, and you're just doing your job. You give them the Coles Notes version for them to print in a newspaper because that's what this person needs — they don't want a long explanation. I like to explore the deeper motivation. It's a more satisfying discussion."

Oddly enough, it's Suzie Ungerleider's creation of Oh Susanna that has, in many ways, allowed her the public forum and opportunity to explore and pursue these ideas. "In some ways, part of me is more Oh Susanna than it is Suzie Ungerleider," she says. Oh Susanna is more serious, for one — when the tape recorder is on, her demeanour undergoes a marked change. "You don't ask me these questions when we're just sitting around," she laughs. "It is weird, though, that we can get to subjects that are very powerful and private when it becomes this public service that we're providing. You as a journalist can ask me these questions, and I, as the creator, can answer you. We might otherwise never say these things."

A transitory life can be alternately lonely and fulfilling; and to borrow a phrase, Oh Susanna has a friend in every port. "I come and go a lot, in my own life and with other people. I try to think that when I leave, there's a continuum and a bond that transcends the physical presence, but sometimes it's hard to feel like the actual physical distance doesn't break it a little bit. Sometimes it makes it stronger to leave and then come back. Because I'm on the road so much – not that these songs are a response to that, necessarily – but I have a chance to visit lots of people, and I feel like I have friendships that develop because I travel, but that's something that I lament, that I know people everywhere, but they're all over the place. I miss them.

"When you're on the road, it's new, there are lots of people, you get lots of attention, and you're able to balance that superficial attention with seeing friends and spending time with them. You drive, you see the landscape moving past you, you listen to music and dream all day long. You get there, put on the show and there's kind of a release afterwards. Sleep, get up again, drive all day, dream all day, see the world from the highway.
"Being at home, you have bills to deal with, laundry to do, all the logistical things. You don't have as much structure. I find it's more lonely being at home, to be absolutely truthful about it — I just leave again, leave again, leave again."