Oh Susanna follows the ‘Birds’ back homeMany musicians leave and never look back, but Suzie Ungerleider can’t quite quit Vancouver. The alt-country singer-songwriter, better known by her moniker Oh Susanna, was raised here, then moved to Montreal, came back for a few years, and left again for Toronto in 1997. Now she’s back for a quick visit in support of her gorgeous new album, Soon the Birds, on a co-headlining tour with singer-songwriter Matthew Barber (brother of Vancouver-based chanteuse Jill Barber). Ungerleider spoke with WE about being at the forefront of the alt-country revival, her Vancouver baggage and drunk cycling.
WE: This is your sixth album in 10 years. What’s changed for you on this record?
Suzie Ungerleider: Well, I was listening to a couple of records that I was thinking about their vocal delivery. One was by Amelia Curran and the other was Sarah Harmer. Not a specific record, but I was thinking about how she sings. And, this other woman, Martha Scanlon who is from Montana, all three of them have this way of singing that is very relaxed, not a lot of ornamentation, very understated. I don’t necessarily sing that way, but I was thinking about how that made it so that you thought less about — like, the voice allows you to enter into the song, but it doesn’t distract you from what is being said or sung.
Do you consider yourself a more narrative songwriter?
Absolutely. I write as a first person, but I pretend it’s not me.
So you’re not “drunk as a sailor”?
No, although I was riding my bicycle home drunk one night and I was like, “Oh, this is so fun!” So not responsible... But one night I was riding my bike a bit drunk and I swear that kind of feeling, I brought it into the song. I didn’t write it that day, but I think that kind of feeling of abandonment riding my bike around, I wanted to get that mood in the song. I don’t think about taking things so literally from my life. Some people can do that amazingly well and make it poetic, but I’m a little bit too guarded, maybe, to do that. Also, I like being a voyeur and I like to step into peoples’ shoes. Music lets me do that.
Well, if voyeurism is part of your personality, music’s the safest way to express that. Otherwise it’s prison.
Yeah, and I’m a creep! (Laughs) Or, I’m a gossip.
You were raised in Vancouver but you relocated to Toronto. Why?
Well, I had some really amazing experiences when I came here [to Toronto]. I hadn’t done a lot of music, just a little recording, and people wanted to help me out here. It felt like there were less opportunities in Vancouver. A lot of people were playing the music I loved out here. When I first began, it was right before there was that big alt-country resurgence. To me it felt like I was really into this music that was rooted in the past and that, yes, there were people doing it, but it was behind the scenes. Then I started hearing about all these bands, like Wilco, doing these same things. In Toronto there was more of that happening and people understood what I was doing. In Vancouver — I didn’t have a lot of musical experiences to be fair — it felt like it was a very small pocket of what was going on in Vancouver. Vancouver was really, like, a DJ town... And, I love Vancouver, but I was a teenager there. I’ve got all this baggage.
Do you feel like one of the forefathers, as it were, of this alt-country genre?
Ahh, I don’t know. It’s sort of a passé thing now. Even when it was happening, people were like, “Oh, no, don’t do that. It’s going to be this phase that’s so late-’90s.” It’s funny. I didn’t really think about it, but someone in Halifax was saying... “She was doing this before I even heard of alt-country.” And, I thought, “Oh, I guess that’s right.” I didn’t really think about it all that much, but yeah, I’m old enough now to be considered someone who was there in the past doing something that was old but new again. It would be way better if I was world-famous and could say that, but now it just sounds bad. Like, I was doing that and I’m still doing it! (Laughs) And, then it sounds a little bit pathetic if you’re going, “Yeah, me too! I was doing that too! Give me recognition!”