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Oh Susanna - Dreams To Remember
Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider (aka Oh Susanna) analyses identity, will and the Johnstown Flood, and tells how she drifted into making music
The final note of her last song "Roll Me On Home" dies away to silence in a crowded, but spellbound, theatre. Before the audience can compose themselves and start to applaud, Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider (better known by her stage name of Oh Susanna), has turned away from the microphone and has briskly left the stage. There are no words of farewell or gratitude. No tacky reminders to "visit the merch store" - she just leaves. "Now that's what I really call rock and roll," says the man sitting next to me and I have to agree.
As the applause rings out around the hall the feeling of release is palpable. For what seemed like hours, but is probably only 45 minutes, the Newcastle Live Theatre audience has held its breath as the woman with the sweet, golden voice and acoustic guitar beguiled them with songs that demanded your full attention. Someone once told me that the best way to get people to really listen to you is to talk softly. Oh Susanna applies this philosophy in performance. Her voice is a powerful and emotional instrument, but her minimalist guitar accompaniment grows quieter and quieter throughout her set as the sound man battles vainly to increase the volume by turning up the gain. But there's really no need for him to try; the audience are attentively leaning forward to listen. At first it appears as if she is on edge, nervous even, and you find yourself waiting to see if she'll fall - but she doesn't. She's put the time in on the road and knows the best way to perform her songs. Quietly and with deceptive authority she convinces the audience with her songs of gently controlled passion.
Some people have a burning desire to achieve, while others rely more heavily on the hand of fate to guide them. In Vancouver, British Columbia, the young Suzie Ungerleider had no aspirations of being a musician. "At school I didn't really want to specialise in anything because I just wanted to have general education in liberal arts" she tells me as we chat in her dressing room before the Newcastle show. Although she enjoyed school she often felt frustrated by the inertia caused by her lack of direction. Fear of commitment, with the possibility that the wrong choice may see you heading at 90 miles an hour down a dead end street, can often lead to making no choice at all. Oh Susanna agrees: "I guess I'm afraid of being contained, and afraid of self-consciousness guiding every single thing I do".
But if her music talent was lying dormant, the environment around her was musically quite fertile. As a child she had soaked up her parents' taste in jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, while her aunt and uncle were old folkies with a collection of Folkways Records and a pile of old Sing Out! magazines in the basement. At school Oh Susanna, like many millions of other pupils worldwide, had mimed along to records in front of the mirror, but her tastes were broader than many of her contemporaries and stretched to punk and new wave acts, which were then belatedly breaking in Canada. Her time slam dancing at all-ages punk shows and cultivating a rebellious haircut are indirectly recalled with affection in her song "The King's Road" which features on her latest album Sleepy Little Sailor.
At this time her musical interests were still passive, but she was hanging around with some friends, who played and sang a little. When Oh Susanna joined in they tried encouraging her to develop her ability. "They just saw that I had musical talent because I was singing along with them when they were playing and they felt that I should too". She first decided to take up the guitar in 1989 when she started taking some lessons from a jazz player, but without really having any clear goal: "Looking back on it now I wanted to be around someone who played music because I wanted to do that too, although I couldn't admit that to myself then. I knew lots of teenage boys who kind of hacked around and had bands and got gigs. I was too shy to do that and it was only later on that I got the courage to actually sing in front of people and try and write songs."
Her first performance on stage was at a cabaret night at the college where she was studying. She performed three songs with a friend providing guitar accompaniment, as she was too nervous to play and sing at the same time, and was amazed at the response from the audience: "The people in my class went crazy for it, which was amazing, and they thought I'd been doing it all the time, but I had only been doing it at home with the people I knew". The success of this show encouraged her to push on further.
From quite early on in her performing career Suzie Ungerleider adopted the stage name Oh Susanna. The reasons for using Stephen Foster's song title (and incidentally a friend's pet-name for Suzie) rather than Suzie Ungerleider, in all its glory, were more than simply avoiding a crowded billboard! Oh Susanna explains: "Actually it's always made sense to me that if you're going to be a performer that you have a name or a persona; it's about exploring character. It's about entering a different world. It's not about me, as in 'me' in my daily life, it's about 'me' who goes into some other realm while I'm on stage through the music. That's why I wanted to use another name. When people put on a costume they are liberated to do things they are not normally able to do. This liberates something else so you can unite with people in another way than you normally would - which I think is what music does and the idea of having Oh Susanna facilitates that".
At this stage of her career she'd got a name, she was playing live and the next step was to make a demo recording. Oh Susanna and a few musician friends borrowed an ADAT machine for a day and put down a handful of songs recorded quickly. About 10 cassettes copies were dubbed at home for friends and family with the intention of getting a proper run later. One of these cassettes found its way to her sister in LA. A short while later she told Oh Susanna that she hoped she wouldn't mind, but she had given the tape to a radio DJ. "A couple months later she called me and said 'Oh my God! I can't believe it. He's listened to it and he wants to call you'. That seemed bizarre. After that he said, 'I want to get you into this music conference and I'm going to see you and talk to you about what you're doing'!" It was at this stage that she finally made the trip out to the suburbs to the duplicating plant to get a reasonable number of copies made. This was later cleaned up a little on computer and issued as Oh Susanna, her first 7 track CD. From these early songs onwards Oh Susanna wrote songs with a clear, strong style which almost amounted to a modern take on the old Appalachian songs and the murder ballads of her aunt and uncle's record collection. Was that a conscious decision? "I was obsessed with that music, and by old blues too. I wanted to create that intensity and play acoustically in this raw kind of way". She also found that the common stock of images and vocabulary helped focus her writing too.
Over the next few years she did indeed play acoustically, but she also played live in a variety of formats. Sometimes she performed solo, sometimes backed by the Vancouver band Veal, and other times playing and singing with her friends Veda Hille and Kinnie Starr as the Scrappy Bitches. She found playing with other musicians an exhilarating experience, but a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. The contacts she made would come in useful on her next project however: the album Johnstown.
On May 31st 1889 at 4.09pm after a night of heavy rain, the South Fork Dam, holding back Lake Conemaugh, finally broke. A short while later, 14 miles downstream, the steel town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and its 30,000 inhabitants, were hit by 20 million tons of roaring water. 2,200 people died in the flood and its aftermath causing a scandal and a source of folk myth for years to come.
Just over a century later, in 1999, "Johnstown" was the title track of Oh Susanna's second album. Produced by Peter Moore, best-known for his work with the Cowboy Junkies, and with a musical line up consisting of old friends from the Scrappy Bitches and Blue Rodeo, the album marked a maturing of Oh Susanna's gothic neo-Appalachian storytelling. The song "Johnstown" itself outlined the story of a murderer's soul-searching in the shadow of the flood, but the rest of the album, although not explicitly about the disaster, seems to share the same feelings of fateful inevitability. Respected US critic Greil Marcus was later to claim that Johnstown's other stand-out track, "The Bridge", was: ""Barbara Allen" without love, with a graphic bluntness that's absolutely modern and a dream logic that's absolutely Brontean". He also admitted that he'd played the song over and over again trying to make it come out differently. This particularly pleased Oh Susanna as she had always admired how Marcus' way of writing about music had come from a more cultural perspective "That's really important to me," she says. "To look at music more culturally rather than as a segment or something isolated".
The feelings of darkness and predestination are so prevalent that it suggests the album was conceived as a coherent collection of songs. Was that a deliberate choice I wonder? Oh Susanna disagrees: "It's not really about choice a lot of times, but it is about will. You will yourself towards certain things, so that's where you go. It's not like a smorgasbord where you choose these different things. I just gravitate towards something that moves me and I think most people do. So the music is thematically tied together, because those were the questions I wanted asking at that time. It's just a reflection of the things that go on in my head."
But the title track is written from the male murderer's point of view. How did that arise? "I didn't start out writing that song knowing I was going to write a song about a murder,"she replies. "In fact, at first, I didn't know whether I was going to be the prostitute or the murderer, but I chose to take on the murderer's point of view. Part of it is about self-destruction, so this person acts out and destroys someone else, but it kills his own humanity. You don't hear a lot about women killing at all - they do, but it's not as common, so it made more sense to have the standard film-noir guy in a trench coat and cigarette confessing." She admits that she knew nothing of the historic flood before she started writing the song: "I wanted a town to be a place that people go to mentally and it doesn't have to be Johnstown. I wrote the song "Johnstown" before I knew where it was set." In fact the song was based in a generic 'any-town' setting at first and only later did serendipity take a hand when she was told about the historic disaster in Johnstown. I suggest the flood in the song is more metaphoric than historic, with its biblical resonance of a deluge cleansing and sweeping sin away. Oh Susanna agrees: "I mentioned the flood, but it is more about a kind of self-destructive willing on of divine justice because the person has such remorse that he's waiting to die in the flood. It was a friend of mind who later said I was talking about Johnstown because I was talking about the flood. So I said, 'Thank you very much' and put it in the song. And then I wanted to name that album after that because I had the idea that it would be brown and rusty and lots of mud and earth and that's where the music is on that record."
A lot of the album is equally intense - sometimes almost on the brink of hysteria - with tales of domestic violence, mad, passionate love and even an account of the Pueblo Indians' uprising in Taos in 1680. I wonder how easy it is for her to put herself in those characters' frame of mind. "It's that thing of being able to talk about things that are there, but you can't always do it" she says. "It's not about personal _expression. It's this thing of where can you express yourself honestly and when is it appropriate? It's like when you see a play or a movie, you know it's a fiction, but you believe it. Or you listen to a song and it stirs up emotions and feelings that feel more true than when you're waiting for the bus. So you're distilling an experience so that people can plug into it. In a way it's not really for me to tell you what the songs are about."
Oh Susanna's Latest Album Sleepy Little Sailor was released in Spring 2001. This time Colin Cripps was the producer for the album in Bath, Ontario, at The Tragically Hip's studio and insisted on recording with an emphasis on capturing live performances. The album also marks a break in style from the previous two records with a warmer, more feminine feel and a reduction in violent themes and harshness in the lyrics. The opening title track sets the mood of dreaminess which seems to pervade most of the record. The album also includes her first cover song in her slow-burning, controlled take on Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams To Remember" But Oh Susanna hadn't necessarily planned to make the album a self-conscious contrast in that way. "I think it came out because you don't know what kind of songs you're going to write," she says. "But I didn't want to fall into the trap of writing the same thing again. Sometimes things just happen and you have to accept that. It's not like I think 'I must change', it's more accepting that I am going to change, because that's just how people are. That's reflected in the songs, but then later you think, 'Am I really interested in this anymore and how can I take it to a new level? How do I make it my own and not an imitation?'"
From the recorded evidence so far, and the performance witnessed at the Newcastle Live Theatre, Oh Susanna can rest assured that her music is definitely her own and far removed from the realms of mere imitation.
Written by Steve Wilcock - Originally published in Triste 4