Oh Susanna – Sorry, no banjo on her knee
Every so often an artist appears on Canada’s geographically challenged musical horizon who seems to have been created in a vacuum. Oh Susanna, a.k.a. singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider, has become a musician to be reckoned with — although her marriage of Appalachian vocals to deceptively straight-ahead folk songs has no real constituency, no matter where you look on this side of the border.
The strength and intensity of her voice has an edge that conveys the evil of country blues. She gives certain syllables an inflection that will turn an entire hall of people into enraptured patrons of murder balladry.
“You don’t really think I’m evil, do you?” she asks at the Cordova Cafe before she is to rendezvous for a chat with Much Music, Canada’s pop music video channel. No, I don’t think she’s evil, and it’s easier just to say so than to explain.
Oh Susanna took Stella — her $80 guitar, and also the name of her record label — all over Canada’s festival circuit this summer in support of her self-titled seven-song debut disc. The release has generated plenty of interest among Canadian industry folks, though such attention is a double-edged sword at times.
“It’s hard to keep writing while you’re on tour, but what’s even harder is talking to people about business, and thinking in a businesslike way,” she says. “What’s also difficult is when people who don’t know what it’s like to write songs, or to create something. They don’t understand that you have to have a lot of patience and that a lot of daydreaming and letting your imagination go is part of the creative process.”
The proof of that is evident on songs such as “Deathyard” (“The deathyard’s callin’ me/Ramblin’ ’round the track/So I’ll make the rails my wire/And my pillow iron black”) and “Shame” (“Tried to walk beside me/I beat you to the ground/I strung those reins around your head/I rode you till you drowned”). Oh Susanna’s songs weave patchwork vignettes of mournful restlessness into powerful tapestries.
Born in Northampton, Mass., Suzie has always felt a bit of detachment from her Canadian surroundings. “Growing up knowing that I was born somewhere else, but never knowing the place I was born — in some ways, going to visit my relatives across the border was an escape from reality into a comfort zone. I knew that my family was different because we weren’t from Canada. It wasn’t a distressing thing, it just made me curious as to where I belonged.
“Vancouver is such a new place; it’s trying to be something new and cosmopolitan, but it’s not coming out of any kind of history, which is disturbing to me. I like going to places where there’s a lot of feeling of history, whether it’s marked by a monument or a building. I like that feeling of…depth.”