Deciding to be what you’ve always been: Suzie Ungerleider signs her name on newest release
Suzie Ungerleider has been told her name means a couple of different things.
In German, it translates to “unfortunate,” though she’s been told it means “hungry person,” starving even. Still, there’s some uncertainty surrounding its true origins.
“It comes from my dad’s side,” Suzie said. “It’s mysterious and kind of lost, what it actually means and where it’s actually from.”
That might speak to Suzie’s own experience. Born in Massachusetts but raised in Vancouver, the singer-songwriter has always felt split along that line of latitude, something that’s defined her music for the past 25 years.
“Being from the United States, but never really living there, it was really easy to romanticize these stories,” Suzie said. “I really felt moved by this old American music and stories of the adventures of cowboys and hills and hard luck.”
That’s part of the reason Suzie would adopt her long-time moniker Oh Susanna — in reference to the Stephen Foster folk standard — a signature scrawled across the singer-songwriter’s past nine studio albums.
For her, it’s been a way to separate her professional and personal lives.
For us, it’s been her name, until now.
My Name is Suzie Ungerleider — Suzie’s tenth release — came out yesterday, the title reading either as a declaration or an introduction, sonic hand extended to listeners both old and new.
It’s an introduction for Suzie too, a meeting between parts of her life formerly separated.
“I feel like I’ve merged these two parts of myself,” she said. “The music part and my own regular identity. I feel like they got closer together.”
That’s not to say the decision to leave Oh Susanna came entirely from within. Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police last spring, the moniker no longer felt appropriate.
Originally published in 1848, Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna” has roots in minstrelsy, a tradition wherein white actors played black characters, reducing them to demeaning and dehumanizing caricatures. Similarly, Foster originally penned the lyrics in “plantation dialect,” his interpretation of how a black person from the American South would speak.
“That racist past wasn’t something that I was ignorant of, but it was just something that felt like it was in the past,” Suzie said. “But with the events of last year, it started to feel like this just keeps happening in different forms. It started to feel like this is still super present.”
That might have catalyzed the decision to drop the stage name, but Suzie sees this only as the most visible step in a longer artistic evolution, inching away from a name she felt she had long outgrown.
“It’s sort of like when you put on certain clothes when you’re young and, at that point, it makes sense,” she said. “But when it stops fitting, it feels really awkward.”
When it fit, Oh Susanna provided a lens through which Suzie could filter her experience, a buffer reserved for those who tell the stories of others set in distant lands.
But any lens, by definition, has its limits.
“It felt as though maybe this persona was preventing me from exploring things artistically or finding value in my life as a place of inspiration,” she said, joking that the alias might have been a show of allegiance to Canada all along.
“I never considered that maybe something I did would be interesting. It’s kind of a weird idea; like ‘oh, I’m kind of boring,’” she said laughing. “It’s actually kind of a Canadian mentality; like, ‘Oh jeez, don’t mind me!’”
My Name is Suzie Ungerleider is evidence that the singer’s stories are, in fact, worth telling. But for her, stepping out from behind that public persona was not without trepidation.
“I don’t want to say I felt afraid, but just kind of raw,” she said of leaving Oh Susanna behind. “Like I was taking off some protection.”
That might explain the intimate feel of this record, as Suzie turns her ever observant eye inward. Under vivid lyrical landscapes and arresting melodies runs a steady motif of self-realization, of stepping into the limelight.
“Behind your eyes shaded with green / Deciding to be what you’ve always been,” she sings in “Hearts,” a delicate ode to the friction of love in a world of doubt. The chorus features an ensemble of voices under Suzie’s, lending bouncy echoes à-la Leonard Cohen to the end of each line, rippling like ellipses.
The wistful waltz “Pumpkins” offers similar allusions to an uncovering of a true self, revealed when our disguises inevitably melt away.
“April, she laughs at that silly old mask / That you’ve worn all winter long,” Suzie sings. “It’s the promise of spring and the new blush of green / You’re supposed to sing a new kind of song.”
Dropping that old mask seems an appropriate image, a nod to a kind of strength in vulnerability. It’s certainly the source of a new kind of song for Suzie, one that she feels she’s supposed to be singing.
“When you play music, people see the outside of you and a glimpse of who you are inside too. I feel like it’s okay if people see me. It’s okay if I’m going to integrate these parts. I don’t need to necessarily protect anything,” she said. “You just have an intuition or feeling inside about it. It does feel right, and it feels like its creating movement or freedom.”
For Suzie and long-time friend and collaborator Jim Bryson — who produced the new record — the exploration of new musical possibilities was the ultimate goal. Suzie has always jumped between genres — from the dusty outlaw country of Johnstown to the coffeehouse musings of A Girl in Teen City — but Jim saw this album as more than the usual creative wandering.
“He goes, ‘I think we found your sound,’” Suzie recalled. “He said, ‘I feel like this is really you because you’re not trying to fit into some prescribed genre. You’re really expressing the music as it comes out of you’.”
“That was a really special thing to try to do. I think we got there.”
And so, Suzie Ungerleider has found her sound along with her name, lost no more.