Oh Susanna’s Suzie Ungerleider had to delay her Namedropper album — with contributions from Ron Sexsmith, Joel Plaskett, Melissa McClelland and others — for treatment, but she finally debuts it in concert on Saturday.
Music, Published on Thu Oct 23 2014
When Oh Susanna performs Saturday night at the Great Hall, Suzie Ungerleider will be celebrating not only a sparkling new album called Namedropper, but successful treatment for breast cancer.
It was about 18 months ago, during the late stages of mixing the new Jim Bryson-produced album, a collection of 14 original songs written specifically for Ungerleider by numerous respected Canadian songwriters, that the Massachusetts-born, Vancouver-raised, west-end Toronto resident was diagnosed.
“I discovered a lump in my breast, had it checked out and it turned out to be cancer,” said Ungerleider, who will be celebrating her 44th birthday Saturday, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
“I went through surgery and chemo and genetic testing and radiation — I did it all. And the message the doctors gave me is, ‘We’re going to do all the stuff because, medically, you’re very young and we feel it will give you a long life afterwards.’”
Ungerleider concluded treatment “around Valentine’s Day” this year and her cancer is in remission, finally enabling her to focus on launching the Kickstarter-funded Namedropper after being forced to sit on its release for a year.
The project, her sixth album, is a respite from the gloomy and transformative Appalachian-flavoured folk and alt-country balladry on which she has built her considerable North American and European following.
The new originals, contributed by the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Royal Wood, the husband-and-wife Whitehorse team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, Jim Cuddy and many others, certainly sound a little brighter and more pop-oriented than Ungerleider’s signature sound.
It was part of the game plan, although the Juno-nominated singer and songwriter admits she initially had a different vision.
“I had this idea for several years where I wanted to make a record of songs by people I know, but I was just going to choose songs of my friends that I loved,” says Ungerleider.
But it was producer Bryson who suggested commissioning the originals from the writers.
“I said, ‘that’s a great idea. Can you ask them?’” Ungerleider recalls, a hearty laugh resonating over the phone.
“It turned into a whole different ballgame when that happened. I got to put on different masks and it was really fun and liberating.”
The choice of Ottawa-based Bryson, an artist in his own right, as producer, reflected her desire to stretch artistically.
“I wanted someone who was going to make me do what’s a little less comfortable for me, push me and make it sound interesting and less folkie than I probably would otherwise,” Ungerleider admits.
“I love Jim’s creativity and I said to him, ‘I think you should do this because you’re kind of bizarre and way weirder than I am,’” she laughs. “He loves doing weird stuff sonically.”
In terms of approaching songwriters like Joel Plaskett, Nathan’s Keri Latimer and Amelia Curran, Ungerleider only imposed one imperative.
“The requirement was that I’d know the people personally, but not necessarily super well,” she explains. “Some of the people that Jim suggested I couldn’t do because I didn’t know them. But he started out with his list, and then I’d run into people and say, ’Oh, maybe you want to do this, too.’ Then suddenly, it was, ‘Oh, we’re asking too many people.’ So in the end, we had too much stuff. We couldn’t get it all done, but it was a good problem to have.”
Bryson and Ungerleider also wanted to avoid “slow, waltzy songs” and have the writers “think outside the box, because that was the whole idea of the project.”
For Sexsmith’s “Wait Until The Sun Comes Up,” he consulted his Stephen Foster songbook; Cuddy’s “Dying Light” “feels more autobiographical than his normal material,” Ungerleider says, and Melissa McClelland’s rocking “Mozart for the Cat” was inspired by Ungerleider’s son Sal, who was born three months premature.
“There were some stories that were personal, and some where we let the writers do what they wanted to do and get the inspiration however they wanted it.”
Saturday night’s show — which will include Bryson on guitars and keys, bassist Eli Abrams, Ungerleider’s husband Cam Giroux on drums and The Good Lovelies’ Caroline Brooks on harmonies, along with “some people showing up and doing stuff” — is a precursor to tours of Western Canada, the U.K. in January and the Netherlands next spring.
But it also gets the Sonic Unyon recording artist back in the swing of things, to the point where she’s experiencing a new zest for writing.
“I am kind of a lazy person,” she laughs. “I wanted to get the joy back in writing.
“Sometimes I beat myself up about writing, and I feel that going through this illness made me realize that I needed to change my thoughts, have it be more of a joy and not be so overwrought about it.
“Sometimes writing for me can be difficult because I take a serious tone with it. But this was a lovely way to have some new voices in my head.”