When the announcement was made last week that Suzie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna) plans to reissue a deluxe edition of her “Sleepy Little Sailor” album later this year, Team GDW were naturally curious to learn more. Originally released back in 2001 (almost two decades ago – where has time gone?), the reasoning behind this move from the Toronto, ON, singer-songwriter may simply be a logical choice, given the success of her recent 20th anniversary reissue of her debut “Johnstown” album just last year. It certainly doesn’t hurt to toss out words such as “acoustic recordings” and “vinyl” in her press release to quickly earn my full attention.
The original release of “Sleepy Little Sailor” earned critical acclaim for Oh Susanna, and firmly rooted her as a noticeable addition to the folk-roots music community, with an album that bared all in dreamy late-night rootsy songs, showing off a voice that was alternately gutsy and fragile. Produced by Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas, Blue Rodeo) and recorded at the legendary Bathouse Studio (The Tragically Hip) in Kingston, ON, these eleven tracks remain as powerful today as they were during those recording sessions in the summer of 2000. “I was really intense and so were my songs,” Suzie recalls. “I had really strong ideas about what I was communicating, and I wasn’t going to veer away from my vision.”
In tune with Suzie’s requests, Colin sought inspiration from the style of fellow Canadian producer, Daniel Lanois (Bob Dylan, Neil Young), opting to record the band playing live onto two-inch analog tape, with minimal edits and overdubs, and aside from “River Blue,” all of Suzie’s vocals for the album were recorded live off the floor. “Everything was done very delicately. I was singing softly in a way I had never really sung before,” Suzie adds. “I was searching for something dreamy and introverted. I remember that there was this feeling that the whole process was fragile. We had to capture the performance. The emotions had to be palpable. It had to give you a feeling of transcendence.”
Giving in to curiosity, I pulled out the original album this past weekend to revisit these songs once more; one that I’d not played for quite a while, and one that was more than worthy of the praise it received at the turn of the century. Tracks such as “River Blue” remain ever-powerful and deeply moving, as Suzie recites the lines: “I wish that we could go back home / Back to a time before it all went wrong / Before the day I ran away and hid.” “The song is a plea for reconciliation and forgiveness by an older sister who as a kid tried to save herself at the cost of her sister’s safety,” Suzie shares. “Two decades later, it still is one of the most requested songs that I have ever written.” Or the stunning “Sacrifice,” where the instrumental cries add so much atmosphere and intensity: “I remember when you were first mine / When our eyes met for the first time / We made love then watched the sunrise / Then we kissed and said our goodbyes.” “I wrote the song to express those passionate feelings of wanting someone and longing for them, all the while knowing that you have to give them up for your self-preservation,” she reflects. And of course, you cannot ignore the selective inclusion of piano and strings that rachet up the vocalist’s pain during “Forever At Your Feet.” Yet there are more than just heart-wrenching ballads here, with “Ted’s So Wasted” and “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” both up-tempo offerings, with the latter leaning delightfully towards the popular crossover country sounds of yesteryear.
With a release scheduled for September 4th, 2020, on the MVKA record label, some of these songs are given a beautiful reworking on this deluxe reissue, which contains a handful of previously unreleased acoustic recordings alongside the original eleven studio tracks. “River Blue” and “Kings Road” are newly recorded, with friend and producer Jim Bryson (Kathleen Edwards, Ken Yates), while “Sacrifice,” “Beauty Boy,” and the title track (shared by Oh Susanna to coincide with this announcement) are taken from the original demo sessions with Colin Cripps. These stripped down versions highlight both the effortless strength of Suzie’s voice and her exceptional songwriting talent. And did I mention that these songs are as powerful as they were almost 20 years ago, and continue to resonate here today? “I think we have all been the Sleepy Little Sailor at some point in our lives,” Suzie adds in closing. “Trying to save our dreams in the face of greater forces of nature.”