Have you ever had an experience something akin to being flat-out broke, only to find a neatly folded tenner in the top pocket of an old faded jean jacket that you haven’t worn for a couple of seasons – just enough to tie you over to the next paycheque? Most would put it down to luck, accidental strokes of good fortune, but I prefer to see them as a little cosmic reward for trying, at least for the best part, to be a half decent human-being. For me, viewing it this way just makes the world a slightly more beautiful place, or maybe a connection to a higher power or perhaps that lost someone looking down reassuringly saying, “there you go Rich, take care.”
This is how I feel about this new release from Suzie Ungerleider – it really is a small gift from the universe arriving to my front door courtesy of this fine publication (and gratefully received, as such). Not that it exactly gets you jumping for joy, it doesn’t break boundaries, being an altogether rather low key, late night melancholic and minimalist Americana-folk tinged affair – but that is far from criticism, as it’s kinda perfect for me and this particular ear.
On first spin, what’s immediately striking is how there’s fine song craft aplenty throughout the ten tracks on offer; how the musicians find just the right balance to enhance, but never overwhelm the songs. It’s very well produced, allowing Suzie to gently pull you into her personal private little galaxy, and it’s incredibly easy to inhabit that same space. This intimacy tends to grow with each repeated play, somehow making two far away worlds collide to become one for the duration of the record, such is the power of music and shared emotions that bide us homo-sapiens together.
It came as no surprise to learn that while new to me, Vancouver resident Suzie Ungerleider is no stranger to the music scene, being a two-time JUNO award nominee under her previous stage persona, Oh Susanna, and with this album being her tenth solo studio album release to date. Switching from her moniker to her given name was brought about by the unintended realization that “Oh Susanna,” the Stephen Foster song of 1848, contained racist imagery that she understandably did not associate with. “I am still following my path but this time it is one where I am truly integrating my musical being with who I am, finally seeing that music is insider of me and not in some alter ego,” Suzie shares. “Believe me, I have loved being Oh Susanna, she is exciting, dark, funny, charming, but I am now recognizing that was actually me all along. So here I am, leaving behind the trappings of a persona that gave me the courage to climb up onstage and reveal what is in my heart. Now that I have grown, I am ready to shed that exoskeleton. It once protected me but I need to take it off so I can be all of who I am.”
The new album song cycle is introduced by the exquisitely sad “Mount Royal,” where Suzie shares memories of her first time in the city of Montreal, and is followed elsewhere by the searing “Baby Blues,” where the traumatic events we witness when we’re young can haunt and indeed shape our older-selves. It is a deep subject that Suzie wisely explains: “Like ghosts, sometimes you just need to just sit with them, feel their power, and, because they feel seen, they release their hold on you for a little while.”
Another track depicts an older and wiser artist and mother sometimes writing for her child, both at the time of the dramatically premature birth and miraculous survival on the achingly pretty “Summerbaby,” then as a teenager courageously dealing with her own identity on the intimate “Hearts,” on which mountains of blue watch over her. In short, songs that relay lived experience in its various times and complexities. I’m particularly drawn to all of these tracks, along with “Pumpkins” and “Roses,” together with the concluding “Ships,” but in all honesty, I don’t skip tracks to get anywhere fast.
So, if you’re reading this, it might just be a little cosmic nudge of your own to encourage you to investigate whether this recording is also aimed at you. However, if you are skeptical of such ‘magical thinking,’ there’s really no earthly reason why you should miss out – either way, with an album that is this good, there’s absolutely nothing to lose, and potentially much more to be gained. I sure found a lot more than a folded tenner when discovering the music of Suzie Ungerleider.
Photo Credit: Stephen Drover