In The Know...Oh Susanna Takes Soon The Birds On The Road

>> Friday, 3 June 2011

Photo by Heather Pollock

Sometimes, when planning a tour, it’s handy to just reach out to a label mate and see if they’re interested in coming along.

That’s the simple and pretty straightforward approach Toronto-based singer-songwriter Oh Susanna (Suzie Ungerleider) took when piecing together her current cross-Canada tour. For the duration of this "He Said, She Said" tour  Oh Susanna will share headlining duties with Matthew Barber, another Toronto-stationed musician also flying under the Outside Music banner.

For Oh Susanna, it’ll be a chance to perform and show off the many stunningly beautiful songs housed within her brand new record, Soon The Birds, her first in four years. As with previous outings, her vocals are strong and irresistible and her narratives are thoughtful and engaging; but, this time around the folk-country arrangements are more expansive, more venturesome, courtesy of the many guest musicians on Soon The Birds (Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo, Ruth Moody, Burke Carroll,  to name a few).

I hooked up with Oh Susanna last week over the phone and talked to her about the gap between records; the dual role of mother/musician and the resulting changes to her creative process; and her contribution to Survivorman’s album (yes, THAT, Survivorman).

Painting over Silence: Soon the Birds is your sixth proper release. Where was the album recorded?

Oh Susanna: It was recorded in three studios: one in Acton which is near Toronto, but sort of in a rural area; in the Woodshed Studio, which is Blue Rodeo’s space; and a lot of it was done at David-Travers Smith studio, on the West Side of Toronto.

PoS: David Travers-Smith also produced Soon the Birds. What made him the right fit for this effort?

OS: He mixed my last record, and I love hanging out with him. He’s a very smart, very funny person who is meticulous in his work ethic and who has the ability to hear frequencies I cannot! *laughs*

I love the production he’s done with other people like the Wailing Jennys. I felt like he was someone who is flexible, would want to work with people that I have already worked with, and who would bring new people to the table. Which he did. He’s a wonderful human, very talented guy, and he’s also a musician, so that’s a bonus too!

PoS: If I’m subtracting correctly, it’s been four years between proper releases? Why the extended period between records?

OS: The main reason why is that when I recorded Short Stories I was pregnant, and then I had my baby, released the record, and toured some of that record. If anyone who’s out there has a kid and is reading then they will know that you get preoccupied with being a mom and childcare. So I had to figure out how to write songs when I had this person that needed attention.

And it took a really long time to actually record the record, partly for this reason. I had to do a lot of the recording and overdubbing in these little short spaces of time, unlike my previous records where I could work twelve hours a day on them. With this one I said “Well I can come in for two-and-a-half hours this afternoon since my son is in kindergarten.” *laughs*. Having a balance has been good for me – I love being able to work for long stretches of time, but, on the other hand, I could take breaths and reflect on what we’ve done and really figure out if that was the right course to take.

PoS: As with previous efforts, your lyrics tend to be fictional and narrative-based instead of strictly drawing from personal experience. What is it about telling these kinds of stories that works better for you as an artist?

OS: Because I’m a fraidy cat! *laughs* I don’t want anyone to know about what I’m doing.

But, seriously, in some ways I don’t feel that what I’m thinking about or what I’ve done is all that exciting to put into music. I think I’m a bit of a voyeur or I like to project myself into other peoples’ circumstances. I’m interested in songs that help me do that, so maybe that’s what I’m trying to do with my own music. There are certain songs that touch on things I’ve lived through or the emotions that I’ve had, but, you’re right, a lot of them are narratives and mainly about other people. I find it very fascinating to find out how someone else would do things and wearing a mask helps me figure that out.

PoS: So now you have the chance to take these stories on the road, including June 6th at the Park Theatre in Winnipeg. How did this “He Said, She Said” tour with Matthew Barber coming into being?

OS: Matthew and I are on the same label – Outside Music – and I think we have a lot of mutual respect for each other. I wanted to find someone to tour with who would make a nice pairing, and I find his voice and his songs are very warm and thoughtful. We kind of approached him and said “would you like to do this?” He agreed, so that was a very nice thing.

PoS: Will you be performing some songs with Barber?

OS: Yeah! I’ve been listening to his new record and learning some harmonies, and I’m hoping he’s figured out some stuff from my songs. He’s totally open to that. I’ll have my set, he’ll have his set, but I’m hoping that we’ll invite each other up when we’re playing our respective music.

PoS: There’s a lot of vocal harmonies and a ton of players on this record, so I’m curious: Who currently comprises your backing band?

OS: I’m very stripped back. *laughs* It’s going to be me and Burke Carroll who plays pedal steel on the record. Matthew’s just going to be on his own, so maybe, if I convince him, he’ll play. Winnipeg’s not going to see the full-fledged thing since it’s probably going to evolve as we keep touring – you guys are going to see the first show that we’re doing – but he’s going to have a piano and a guitar, so I’m hoping he’ll come and play piano with me. Most likely there’ll be singing going on.

PoS: Finally, what’s on the horizon after this tour?

OS: After the tour, I’m going to do some summer shows and festivals. I just came back from being a singer for Les Stroud, who is a tv star on Survivorman.  I don’t know if you know him from Discovery channel?

PoS: I know about the show, sure.

OS: He’s actually a musician as well. So he recorded this record with a whole cast of characters this week at his solar-powered bar. They set up near Huntsville and we recorded nine songs in two days pretty much live off the floor. He also made a DVD of it.  So, who knows – I think Les wants to do some kind of tour – but I don’t know if that’s going to happen for awhile yet. I’m still buzzing from that experience. Then, in the fall, I’m doing some shows with this group called the Abrams brothers who are a roots group from Kingston. They’re young guys - 19 or 20 year-old guys who are incredible musicians.

Catch Oh Susanna on Monday, June 6th at the Park Theatre with Matthew Barber. 


Jeope 6 June 2011 at 21:43  

The new album is a thing of beauty!

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