Photo by Cam Giroux
Suzie Ungerleider began her career singing of death, despair, dissipation, and occasionally other D words like desire, though even then those songs tended to end badly. The songs were classically folk in style: spare and compelling, tender and attractive in their way, but also stern. A bit like the woman singing them.
Explicitly or implicitly these songs existed in a time before “now”, in a world where all the Ds were close to the bone and storytellers were telling truths not looking to soothe. No hiding there.
Except for one thing: Ungerleider sang them all – and toured them to Australia several times - as Oh Susanna, a name that nodded to the past while allowing for her expansion into more layered folk rock and country, with songs that felt very real while keeping the material and the truths a step away from her.
Now, two decades and ten albums in; a move completed from Canada’s east to the west coast she left 30 years ago, this time with a teenage daughter; that folk further blended with more forgiving, melodic shades of Americana; and her lyrics frequently dipping into her own life ... Oh Susanna is no more.
But Suzie Ungerleider remains. Reclaims even, as the new record boldly declares in its title, My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider. Yet even amid all these changes, this evolution, one thing remains true still: the past never leaves you; you just learn to accommodate it differently.
“I think I’m always someone who is quite nostalgic, looking back and thinking about history, even history that is not my own,” says Ungerleider (pronounced un-ger-lie-der). “My inspiration at the beginning was looking back to early American folk music: this idea of narrative and going to the beginning and telling the story through in a chronological way. I was inspired by ballads that tell a story, so the idea of history is embedded in the present in my mind. I’m always thinking about, how did this thing become something?”
But she’s made her life fit into this storytelling pattern.
“Most obviously on the last record, where it was about my youth, coming-of-age, and hating where I came from [in Vancouver] in a way. It was troubling, it was difficult and I had to move away from it and then realise it wasn’t as great as I thought,” says Ungerleider today from a sunny room in a new house in her old home. “It wasn’t established as a city, it was an adolescent city, a rough-and-tumble place that was trying to be world-class and we were not fooled: ‘no, this is a backwater, don’t try and fool yourself’.
“It still has that and I kind of love that about it now. I love the glimpses of the old and provincial things about it. I think of things as a good, long chain, or maybe there’s an arc and narrative that’s unfolding and part of it is looking back, reflecting on where things began.”
The shift from Toronto back to Vancouver almost reverses her first move as a teenager, from Vancouver to Montreal on her own, when she landed in a strange old city where possibilities, like the European-like sophistication of people around her, seemed endless. You can hear those stories in new songs such as Baby Blues and Mount Royal which don’t hide the young woman’s gaucheness any more than they hide her excitement.
These songs also reflect the older Suzie’s sometimes hard-won wisdom, as in North Star Sneakers a familiar story in popular song of a girl who walked between the cool and the in crowds at school, knew the losers were much more fun, rebelled with an eye on escape, but now finds herself repeating history, at home with a couple of kids.
We know the story and have seen the films. However, Ungerleider doesn’t settle for the obvious line that this result reflects a failure of imagination or of life for the character. She is more nuanced and understanding than that, positing that “we all end up in places that we don’t expect. Nothing ever goes according to plan.” And she is no different.
“That song, some of that stuff is based on mothers of my friends, who were really rebelling against the ‘50s and living a wild life and they were getting away from the constraints of society, but then they ended up with kids and had to manage within their choices,” she says. “When I was meeting other mothers we were feeling like what are we doing, are we able to break away from the internalised patriarchy that we are facing? It felt that a lot of us were going through the same bullshit that we had been trying to get away from. And it wasn’t the kids’ fault, it was more that what we witnessed was working itself subconsciously on us.
“The messages from outside of us are very hard to rebel against, especially when you have a kid and you are full of hormones and exhaustion. For me that’s really emotional that song and I can’t speak super openly about it because I feel like it will hurt people’s feelings.”
Maybe that earlier suggestion of a reclamation in the return to her own name wasn’t too far wrong, with the knowledge that you can only truly declare “this is who I am/my name is…” when you finally are who you have been trying to be.
From the deliberately retro cover (placing Ungerleider as a cheekily half-smiling ‘60s folk singer wrapped confidently around her guitar) and music that isn’t tied to time or tide, to stories of old and new, what is she trying to say with the declaration, My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider?
“I think it’s a way of saying I’m going to try to show you more of who I am. Or I am going to show myself that. Instead of putting on a costume I’m going to be comfortable with opening up more,” Ungerleider says. “The other thing is I really wanted to be cheeky because I love those early Barbra Streisand records and that was her thing, she was like ‘my name is Barbra’, and I just love that. Let’s take that retro-kind of stylings and use it for this purpose.
“There’s this earnestness on the one hand, like I’m going to introduce myself and be open and authentic and all that stuff. But then there’s part of me which is, ‘just get over yourself, stop bullshitting, have you ever really hid who you are?’. It started to feel really weird to say I am Oh Susanna. Then writing this content took me over to the other side.”
My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider is out August 13 on MVKA/ADA.