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Oh Susanna
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Big Risks Mean Big Rewards for Oh Susanna

Oh Susanna braves the unknowns with a new collaborative record and successful battle with breast cancer.

By Megan Clark

When friend and producer Jim Bryson suggested that Suzie Ungerleider (who performs as Oh Susanna) ask other Canadian musicians to write new songs for her to perform on her next album she was thrilled. “I was like, yeah! That would be amazing….but can you ask them?” Suzie lets out a hearty laugh from her home in Toronto. I’ve reached her by phone to talk about the release of that ambitious project, Namedropper.

I have more connection with the people involved and more connection with the music in a truly joyful way.

All the awkward asking aside Suzie is a mainstay of the Canadian roots scene and easily rounded up an all-star cast of songwriters for the unique project. Artists like Joel Plaskett, Old Man Luedecke, Melissa McClelland, Amelia Curran, Jim Cuddy and more lent their words in the form of previously unreleased songs or tunes written specifically for the project. As the songs started to come her way Suzie had to do a little coaxing to convince her friends they had the freedom to give her a challenges. She remembers asking, “Can you try to give us one that’s not a slow waltz? Cause everyone thought I’d sound good singing slow waltzes and I was, like, ‘No! Rock out! Do whatever you want.’”

After a number of successful records singing narrative and character driven roots and country music Suzie found herself in the studio with a batch of songs built to get her outside her comfort zone. Which was exciting and nerve-wracking. “We didn’t know what we were going to get. Some people gave us songs right away and others we were still waiting on in the studio. We had to come up with a treatment on the fly.” Despite the creative challenge Suzie was determined to push her musical boundaries saying the most important thing was to not “make carbon copies of what I’ve done before.”

The songs forced Suzie into unfamiliar but exhilarating places. Like the track “Mozart for the Cat” penned by Melissa McClelland. Suzie giggles while describing her first reaction to the song, “It was kind of like this 80s dance pop song.” And that reading of the track allowed her to reach back to some earlier musical obsessions. “I got to channel all these things I don’t normally do. Sort of like being a teenager in my room fantasizing about singing into a microphone in front of people.”

Artists whose songs appear on Namedropper:

Ron Sexsmith
Royal Wood
Jim Cuddy
Joel Plaskett
Luke Doucet
Jay Harris
Rueben deGroot
Melissa McClelland
Amelia Curran
Old Man Luedecke
Keri Latimer of Nathan
The Good Lovelies

Now, it’s hard enough to make a record as successful singer-songwriter and the triumphs of earlier Oh Susanna records create great opportunities but also a lot of pressure. With Namedropper the pressure was enlarged as Suzie’s focused also on paying service to the writing of her musical friends and collaborators. She confesses, “My insecurity was that I wouldn’t be able to sing the songs as well as the writer and be able to hit all the technical and emotional notes.” But of course they were all thrilled with her interpretations and the final project. She laughs at the positive response arguing, “Of course no one is going to tell you that they hate it. We’re all too Canadian for that.”

This all happens in 2012. A successful kickstarter campaign brings the final mix of the album to fruition and then a diagnosis. Breast cancer. Namedropper comes to an abrupt halt and Suzie lets her fans and friends know that she’s going to need some time. She thinks back to that time. “It was this incredible celebration and pleasure and then it felt like this darkness cropped up.” The next year was devoted to treatments, healing, and reflection. Now, at the other end of that year with the outlook positive I can hear Suzie’s smile on the other end of the line. “Everyone was rallying and it felt like a big reward at the end. I was like, okay, at the end of this year we’re just going to do everything we planned on doing. It will have been this incubation period while I go through the journey of treatment and healing.” Namedropper was released on October 7th and with it Suzie can now reflect on the many changes of the last year.  She explains, “Actually I feel like going through this has changed my perspective on things and made me more joyous. I have more connection with the people involved and more connection with the music in a truly joyful way.”

Listen to “Mozart for the Cat” written by Melissa McClelland for Oh Susanna’s new record, Namedropper.

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