Suzie Ungerleider talks to Jan Vanderhorst about dropping Oh Susannah and moving home to Vancouver
My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider is the 10th album for the B.C.-based singer-songwriter but the first under her birth name. Suzie established a successful career using the moniker Oh Susanna. It was a persona that gave her the courage to get on stage to perform her songs and helped to inform her audience on the kind of mood those songs would inhabit. But a growing awareness of the original racist lyrics of the Stephen Foster song made it abundantly clear to Suzie that continued use of the Oh Susanna name would be condoning that racism. Given that the songs she has written throughout her career have been created within the Oh Susanna persona, has Suzie’s songwriting now progressed to the point where the persona was holding her back?
“Most of the songs were written before I even really thought I was going to give up that moniker,” she said. “So I wasn’t actually thinking of it as writing from a different point of view or being more authentic. As I’ve made records over the years, I’ve tried to get closer to revealing myself, I think, instead of being in a genre or being in a costume or harkening back to old folk songs, which is what I was trying to do at the beginning. I still love that music. It’s funny ‘cause it kind of creeps in anyway regardless of whether I’m trying to have it there or not. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I do think it will allow me to feel more free and maybe open with people on stage and in the music.”
Suzie also sees the possibility of even more freedom and openness in her personal life, she said.
“Sometimes I feel like when I’m living my daily life, I don’t let the music part get into it,” she said. “It sort of feels like I split it away. So now maybe in my daily life I will allow the musical part to be more there.”
It’s interesting that Suzie is reclaiming her given name at a time when there seems to be an increase in performers using personas to create their music. One only has to look at The Weeknd, Lady Gaga, Vulpes, Slow Leaves or Bahamas for examples.
“I think it’s a really fun way to explore things and to kind of have this private version of yourself and have the musical version of yourself,” she said of the trend. “It also helps the listener to step into another world when they’re thinking about your music. It’s funny with someone like Bahamas, he had that record Bahamas Is Afie, so it’s kind of interesting to play with these different forms of who we are. We all do it in subtle ways. We don’t even know we’re doing it. Honestly, sometimes I’ll be in these roles, and I’ll be like, ‘Why am I suddenly acting so differently than I would normally act in a daily life situation?’ I love those artists, and I think it’s a really cool way to guide your brain into a different kind of zone.”
Growing up in Vancouver as a child of American parents, Suzie never quite felt “at home” in British Columbia. After going to Montreal for university and then living in Toronto for many years, a return to Vancouver was more significant for Suzie than even she realized.
“When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get away from here,” she explained. “I always had this American identification and idea that I wasn’t really from this place. I just happened to be there because my parents moved there. But it’s the prodigal daughter story of you have to leave in order to understand who you really are. It was really through writing A Girl In Teen City, which is a song cycle about growing up in Vancouver, that [it] really made me feel like, ‘Maybe that’s the place I need to be? Maybe that’s who I am?’ When I’m in Ontario, I love the people, but I always kind of feel like an exile, not because of how people treated me, but just how I felt. That was wonderful to be like the stranger in a strange town for a while. Then I wrote that album, and I realized how much [Vancouver] was in my blood.”
Over the years, Suzie would visit parts of Canada and consider moving there until one occasion when she was in Dartmouth, NS.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I should move here. It’s sort of like Vancouver. The light and everything and being on the water,’ she said. And I was, ‘That’s ludicrous! If you want something like Vancouver, just go move there!’”
In fact, over the years of touring all over the country Suzie would encounter people who had done the same thing, moved away from home only to return again.
“I went on this house concert tour in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and a lot of the people had said, ‘Well I lived in Winnipeg for a while, but now I’m back up north and living in my hometown.’ I thought that was so interesting to do that. So that’s always kind of echoed in the back of my mind, that maybe you can go home again.”
Another motivation for moving back to your hometown is the wish to provide your kids with the same upbringing you had growing up.
“You want to recreate what you had,” she said. “Which is interesting to watch because I feel like that’s actually kind of happening right now because my daughter’s about to turn 16. She’s starting to hang out in parks and things like that like we all did.”
My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider was produced by Suzie’s old friend Jim Bryson.
“He was the person who really encouraged me to write [A Girl In Teen City], and he sits a little bit outside of that twangy, early folk music stuff that I gravitate towards. Sometimes I want a bit of indie rock or alternative vibe to what I’m doing,” she said. “I didn’t approach him [saying], ‘Let’s make a record.’ I said, ‘I have a few songs. Let’s make demos.’ Most of the record is me playing the skeleton of the song and then Jim filling it with a lot of really cool textures. I’m the writer and the singer, and he’s the musician. We’re such good friends. We’ve known each other since 2000 and we have this very sibling-like relationship. So I can kind of say to him, ‘I don’t know if we should do that.’ Most of the time I don’t have to. I’m learning, don’t react immediately to something. Allow [Jim] to kind of play with it and find the [sound you’re looking for]. That’s what would happen. [Jim] would start with something, and sometimes it instantly was the thing you wanted. Other times it was not quite right but I didn’t have to say it. He would figure it out and move into something else. That was really cool to watch. If I let him kind of follow his nose, then he would find the right sounds.”
Asked to describe the end result of searching for the right sounds, Suzie said her new album is “very intimate and kind of dreamy.
This one captures the intimacy and the way I’m using my voice. It’s softer and very quiet. It’s sort of like I’m whispering a little story in your ear.”
My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider is released by MVKA Records. For more on Suzie go to: suzieungerleider.com.