The songwriter profile is a regular series on Roots Music Canada that sees Howard Gladstone introducing us to some of the songwriters who will be appearing at his Songwriter Sessions at Hugh’s Room Live in Toronto. Whether or not you’re in Toronto, Howard’s profiles will be a great opportunity to learn more about some one-of-a-kind song-writers.
Soozi Schlanger is a self-proclaimed “accidental musician.”
A well-established painter, she didn’t play music for the first time until age thirty-nine, though Soozi – the founder of the Cajun/zydeco band Swamperella and an emerging solo singer-songwriter – grew up with diverse musical influences.
The Schlanger family lived in her Dad’s fish store on colourful Bloor Street West in Toronto. They were Holocaust survivors and embarked on a new immigrant life in Canada. Soozi was the second youngest of four sisters. Her busy and hard-working parents could not afford the luxury of music lessons for their children.
But Soozi remembers hearing her mother (now 100 years old) singing terrifying and fascinating songs of the war in Yiddish. That early exposure to songs that tell real stories and carry a darker side made a lasting imprint on Soozi and is evident in the music she writes and performs now. Soozi credits her late older sister with helping her learn the importance of editing her work.
To Soozi’s horror, her family moved from the vibrant inner Toronto core to the suburbs when she was nine years old. She describes her childhood as a fight to find her identity.
Music that made an impact on Soozi in her formative years included songs that told stories, such as “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Mr. Bojangles,” and “Eleanor Rigby,” and bands and artists with quirky sounds and styles, such as Billie Holiday, the Beatles, the Animals, Fred Neil, and the Kinks. There was “no place for an introspective Jewish chick in the music of the Beach Boys with their contrived harmonies and empty lyrical ethos,” she said. Later, bands like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello influenced her.
Soozi credits this influences with helping her develop a musical style that concentrates on crafting a well-rounded story with revealing characters that are human and relatable and situations that are personal and unique but accessible. Equally important to Soozi was finding a voice that allowed her to sing from the “centre of myself”.
Soozi did not know her calling was to be an artist “until the universe provided.” She escaped the Toronto suburb of Downview, which she calls Downsvoid, by moving to New York with a boyfriend. She recalls having to step over sex trade workers and drug addicts to enter the room in a hotel they lived in. On a hot Manhattan day, she said, a transient resident, who she’d never seen before, ran into her room and dropped a box on her lap. He told her, “You take this. I don’t know what to do with it anymore.” It was a box of paints.
When she took up the paints, Soozi said, it allowed her to understand her feelings and ideas. When she started putting colours on paper, she said, she felt both grounded and elevated. She had that same feeling of validation when she picked up the fiddle for the first time at age thirty-nine.
It happened after Soozi moved back to Toronto. (She now inhabits a colourful studio on Bloor Street West, the same area where her family’s fish store was located.) Soozi recalls being at a party where people were playing music and singing. She was jealous and frustrated, because she wanted to play but couldn’t. She wandered into a bedroom, where she saw a “squiggly thing” on top of a cupboard. She climbed up on a stool and took down what turned out to be a fiddle with three strings and a bow. She took the instrument into the party and began “sawing away.” When people commented that they didn’t know she played the fiddle, Soozi replied that she didn’t know either. She recalls that she could find some of the notes, particularly the open strings, but mostly she had “the groove and the rhythm.”
Soozi had a cousin who was a violinist in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and she asked him if he had a spare fiddle. He asked her (in a Russian accent that she convincingly imitates), “Why do you vant to play at your age? You will never play in tune.” Soozi’s answer was, “Have you ever heard of the word fun?” She promptly named the fiddle he sent her Agnes.
Soozi spent a year in private teaching herself a single song, “The Tennessee Waltz.” She knew that “somewhere on this thing there are some notes,” she said.
Someone told her about Ashokan, a music camp in upstate New York. At random (again that word), she decided to attend the camp’s Southern Music Week, because it sounded like the “Tennessee Waltz.” When she heard the music at camp, she “felt recognition trickle up my back and make my spine tingle,” she said. When asked how long she had been playing Cajun music, she replied, “five minutes.”
“The music I heard at camp resonated with me,” she said. “I didn’t know where it came from. I just could feel it in my very bones. Within a very short time, I was able to sing it and play. It was my first singing experience. Even though I didn’t understand what they were singing, I could tell it came from deep down, just like my mother’s songs. It’s the music of people in exodus, although I didn’t know any of this. I could just feel it.”
Soozi went to Louisiana several times to put her doubts to rest as to whether a “chick from Canada” could play Cajun/zydeco music. She considers the thumbs-up she got from the Balfa Family, musical royalty in Louisiana traditional music, to be the approval she needed. The family of Dewey Balfa gave a bow to Soozi, one that had belonged to their late legendary father.
Two years after music camp, in the mid 1990’s, the high-energy band Swamperella was formed around Soozi on vocals, lead fiddle, and washboard. The band performs authentic Cajun music, has played festivals and gigs across Canada, and has released several albums. Swamperella gigs typically occur around Mardi Gras time and require the audience to be prepared to party. The other members of Swamperella are Conny Nowe, Peter Jellard, Rachel Melas and Dave MacDougall.
When Soozi met famed violinist Oliver Schroer, she begged him to show her how to play the fiddle. But Oliver was absorbed in his own projects. Instead of teaching her the Cajun songs she wanted to learn, he preferred to have her play back-up parts on tunes he was writing. At the time, Soozi said, she wasn’t “evolved or interested enough to play them.” All she wanted was her Cajun music, she said. In the end Soozi learned much about music and how to play the fiddle by watching Oliver’s bowing patterns. Soozi now teaches fiddle.
“Face it,” she said. “The fiddle is annoying. It is not about the notes. It is always about the groove, the vibe, the emotion, the tone, and the soul. If you can play open strings on the fiddle and make it sound beautiful, it’s better than playing fifteen or fifty notes without feeling.”
Soozi and Oliver were in a relationship for eight years, until what she called her personal Y2K in the year 2000. She broke up with Oliver, and her father died two days later. It put her into a crisis state and led her, again by accident, to her own songwriting.
“My art world had fallen,” she said. “I could not express myself in abstract terms like that. I couldn’t find my colours. The portraits had no features. I needed to find something more direct. I always liked stories and writing, so I started writing songs, and they were pouring out of me. And I could not squish my songs into Cajun sausage casings, so I couldn’t bring them to Swamperella.”
“When I started writing my own songs, in my 50s, I was horrified. Now what am I supposed to do? I am an established artist. I am in Swamperella. Now I have to learn to sing my own songs, learn to play guitar. I just can’t let them sit there.”
It took her years, Soozi said, to be able to sing and find her own voice in her own songs.
Her solo album, Soozimusic, was released in 2013. The words used to describe the songs include, “witty,” “gutsy,” “vulnerable,” and “true.”
The songs on Soozimusic paint a portrait of vulnerability and strength. Most songs feel like they have been wrenched from a deep and honest place. The raw edges of emotion are polished, but not too much. How could it be otherwise? After all, Soozi is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, someone who found a mysterious affinity for Cajun music – the music of a people who also survived an exodus. Coming through personal crisis, Soozi turned to songwriting, bringing a painterly approach, focusing on story-telling, portraiture, colour, and composition. Soozi’s music is not casual; it compels the listener to engage, completing the artist co-creation process.
Yet to Soozi, it is not just about raw emotion. Songwriting is an art and a craft, and the elements need to be balanced. Soozi has definite opinions about songwriting, and what makes a good song.
“People have a need to express themselves creatively, but not everybody who writes a song is necessarily a songwriter. You need to have something to say,” she said.
“Songwriting is more than just talking about something in rhyme set to music. It is both an art and a craft. … Honesty is the most important thing in songwriting – it’s about being human. Being human is how to reach other people.
“Songwriting is not about being clever – it is about unwrapping a truth, and being honorable,” she added.
Speaking of the songwriting process, Soozi said, “Do not be afraid to kill your darlings – meaning get rid of the rhymes that are obvious or contrived, or the clichés. … Craft your song. But it is not an intellectual intention. Feelings are what drive you, but you need to analyze and observe the literary merits of how you express your feelings in text.
“Open the floodgates of activity and trust you have something to say,” she continued. “For me, it usually starts with a feeling. A rhythm. Or it is a little line of music that leads you to the song. The music and the lyric always come together. I usually throw down a lot of lines, all the colours, then edit it down.”
Jaron Freeman-Fox, a protégé of Oliver Schroer’s, now plays Soozi’s song “Burning Sun,” calling her one of his favorite fiddle players and songwriters.
Lynn Harrison, a Toronto singer-songwriter, had this to say about Soozi: “Soozi is a national treasure, one of those absolute brilliant and genuine souls who has an original voice and artistic work that everyone should know about. I am awed by the honesty of her expression, the originality of her work, and the fact that she absolutely gives herself to the audience. She is totally present. I just think she is amazing.”
Another musical adventure Soozi is involved in is Betty and The Bobs, featuring some very accomplished musicians: David Woodhead, Suzie Vinnick, Wendell Ferguson, Rich Greenspoon, Katherine Wheatley, and David Matheson. Originally conceived (by Soozi) as a fun extracurricular project, allowing members to perform songs they would otherwise not get around to doing in their own bands, the band now also plays originals by the members.
Soozi is also enthusiastic about her recent collaboration with Barbara Lynch, a blues pianist, singer and songwriter, whose music she finds dark, intense and highly satisfying.
In Soozi’s case, nothing was planned to put her on the path she is on.
“Things come to me. I was not deliberate,” she said. “I never had a hobby. I throw myself headfirst into everything. If somebody came to the door now and offered something exciting … I’d probably go.”
What are the next steps for Soozi Schlanger?
Can an artist who became an accidental musician actually even plan next steps?
Here is what Soozi said about it:
She is looking for an angel to step in and help her navigate through a digital and social media world in which she is not comfortable. She would like to find a music publisher to help place her songs with other artists. She is seeking solo performance opportunities now that she is finally able to accompany herself on guitar. (Soozi, ironically, points out that it took her until five years after her album was released to be able to do that.)
“When people listen to my songs I feel it completes the creative process,” she said. “The listener is the co-creator. The communication becomes complete. “
Soozi Schlanger appears at Hugh’s Room Live “Songwriter Sessions” on Nov. 13, along with Rob Lutes, Dayna Manning and Wendell Ferguson.
Link to tickets:
“Hair Like the Burning Sun”