It is only fitting that Suzie Ungerleider’s songs should be presented to the world under the moniker Oh Susanna. Just like Stephen Foster’s 1848 folk standard from which she draws her name, the Canadian’s own musical escapade covers very similar terrain. Across the course of four albums and one EP, Ungerleider has led her listeners on a musical adventure that includes classic roots orchestration, timeless ballads, and tales from places both near and far.
It might be an old-school approach that Ungerleider embraces on her latest album, Short Stories, but the results truly span the ages. Not only does Stories draw upon tales from the past (“Miss Liberty” is flavored by the endless possibilities offered to her immigrant ancestors), it is also firmly planted in the present; something “Greyhound Bus” (which delves into how instincts play out in the face of adversity) beautifully demonstrates.
“I’m not necessarily writing my life’s story into the songs,” she offered. “But what I am interested in are the stories that I’m writing. You hope that other people can infuse their lives and their feelings into the things that you write. There’s no way to know if that’s going to work, so the best I can do is to use my own self. I then see myself in this story and I can imagine what it would be like to live in this song. If I can do that, then I’ll enjoy the song and sing it. Then the hope is that other people will be able to relate to it also and enjoy it, too.”
It is an intrigue with the world and its myriad of possibilities that provides the greatest inspiration to Ungerleider. Be it a poem that she has read, events she has heard about, fleeting images from a film she has seen, or even places she has visited, each experience offers her a world of musical fodder. And occasionally, these worlds are of her own creation.
“Sometimes it can come just from my mind,” Ungerleider explained of her songwriting. “A melody can trigger an image and then the image blossoms into a narrative, but it’s hard to know where the motivation comes from. Mostly I’m collecting things for songs, but sometimes I’m just collecting things that I’m intrigued by and then they become songs. So is it the song or is it these things I find intriguing? I’m not entirely sure.”
One thing that is certain is the emotional weight that Ungerleider’s songs carry. Oh Susanna is a glorious paradox of razor-sharp lyrics channeled through tender melodies. And no matter where she draws her subjects from, Ungerleider remains true to her original musical intent. That intent harks back to an appreciation for the jazzy folk her parents introduced her to, and the early rock ‘n’ roll she discovered later in life.
“I do think it comes from what was around me when I was growing up,” offered Ungerleider, “from ’70s rock ‘n’ roll and early ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and also folk and jazz songs where there’s this reverence for the instrument itself and what it does. I’m not a Bowie or a Madonna who’s re-inventing to be current. I’m not someone who can be putting on a lot of masks. For me, the masks are the songs themselves and being able to step into character in song.”
En route to the annual South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, Oh Susanna will stop in Santa Barbara to wrap up what has been an amazing-and Canadian-filled-season for the Sings Like Hell series. Following on the heels of Kathleen Edwards, Po’ Girl, Fred Eaglesmith, and Blue Rodeo, Oh Susanna suggests that the Canadian focus is much more than a curatorial quirk.
“The diversity and strength of talent that comes out of Canada is quite amazing,” Ungerleider beamed. “We’re lucky because our government does fund the arts, and that has been really good for Canada. A lot of people are able to think of something in their imagination and then make it happen because they have the money to do it. It’s expensive to do what we do, and without funds you just can’t get it heard. There are tons of people in the U.S. who are doing the same thing on the smaller scale, but you don’t hear it on the national scale. We’re given that chance.”
Sings Like Hell brings Oh Susanna and Martha Scanlan to the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) this Saturday, March 21, at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.com for details.