Oh Susanna Photo: Heather Pollock
Oh Susanna Photo: Heather Pollock

Five Questions With ... Oh Susanna

Oh Susanna seems to have a thing for concept albums lately. Following up on her previous release Namedropper—a collection of songs written for her by other artists—the Toronto-based singer/songwriter has returned with A Girl In Teen City, which finds her drawing inspiration from her youth, and specifically her adventures within the Vancouver punk scene of the 1980s.

Working again with trusted producer Jim Bryson, Suzie crafted her latest material like a coming-of-age novel, employing specific references while maintaining an overall sense of familiarity for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Along with Bryson’s contributions on guitar and keyboards, the album also features Suzie’s husband Cam Giroux on drums, Eli Abrams on bass, Gord Tough on guitar, and backing vocals by Holly McNarland, Gabrielle Giguere and Suzie’s sister Jessie and niece Sofia.

While many still associate Oh Susanna with the dark Americana of her early work, she continues to evolve into more pop and rock territory, and standout tracks on A Girl In Teen City such as “My Boyfriend” and “Tickets On The Weekend” display this more accessible approach without sacrificing any storytelling edge.

For an artist who originally seemed to have been transported from the early 20th Century, Oh Susanna’s current time travelling back to her own youth may prove to be her most affecting work to date. For upcoming live shows, go to ohsusanna.com.

What inspired you to revisit this part of your life on this album?

A few things got me inspired. I guess my childhood and past have always been pretty vivid in my mind. And like a lot of us, I see myself as a character walking through the narrative of my life. I just haven’t really written songs about it before. I have to give credit to my dear friend Jim Bryson who made it a mission for me. He said, “You have to write more about your punk rock youth!” Before he said that I never thought of my life as something that ought to be the subject of a song. After doing my last project, Namedropper, where I was singing other people’s songs, I got to really experience how different writers write. This got into my bones and head as well. People like Sarah Harmer and Joel Plaskett who write about their hometowns and their friends also influenced my decision to write that kind of song. However, underlying the whole thing is that a few years ago I went through breast cancer and so that made me want to record some of my life in an attempt to preserve it like a memoir. I joke that the closer I got to death, the less I wanted to sing about it. So instead I am singing about and celebrating life. 

The album first came out in the UK and you just completed a tour there. What was the response like for the new songs?

The response was incredible. First of all I have a lot of loyal fans there. Some of whom have known my music since 1999 and have every album. So they have this long perspective of who I am and what I write about. They are very receptive and welcoming to all my twists and turns. For that I am very thankful. Also, most of the fans are of my generation and therefore can completely relate to looking back on their lives and being wistful and nostalgic—especially with the punk rock theme in the background. They saw the punk scene first hand in the UK. The icing on the cake is that the reviews have really been fantastic and detailed. The reviewers really listen closely and pick up on details of the lyrics and the music and how that creates a mood for the whole project. The one thing they got right away is the universality of the album, which I didn’t even really consider. I mostly was writing for my friends and family who lived all through it with me. But it is that thing where everyone was a teenager once and so the themes of the search for identity whilst getting into mischief are universal.

Part of the album’s backdrop is the Vancouver punk scene. Are there any specific shows that were life-changing for you?

Just trying to be on the scene was life-changing for me. The swirling energy of the bands, the slam dancing, stage dives, beer, but also the politics of questioning authority, feminism, anti-racism was intoxicating. I grew up in an old leftist family so the political part was completely familiar. Just the expression of it through this raw music was a departure from the folk songs of protest. I saw DOA so many times and Joey Shithead really was like a punk rock Woody Guthrie. I can’t tell you about any specific show but their music and message was inspiring. Also I saw the Clash at the Kerrisdale Arena in 1982. The show was sold out but we went down there anyway to try to get in without a ticket. We wandered around the side door and knocked and a friendly bouncer let us in.  We loved the band already and at 12 years old, being there was so cool. I remember keeping my bus transfer from that night for years after on my bulletin board. I also remember what I wore: black jeans, a black and yellow striped collared shirt and my old tuxedo jacket. 

As a mother now, what are your thoughts on how kids relate to music these days?

My knee-jerk reaction is that the kids don’t know shit. But that’s not really true. And it is actually the same problem as when I was growing up: mainstream radio takes the easy and facile road…I mean “middle of the road” was the term from when I was growing up to describe many of the songs played on the radio at the time. However, radio is even more corporate and monopolized these days and DJs have little influence. It seems to be a computer-generated list that is based on greed. My dad says he heard a quote that was attributed to Joni Mitchell about how the music business was always run by greedy mobsters but at least in the old days they loved music. But maybe your question is more about downloads and not paying for music and not going to hear live music. It is really a matter of education. I hear that universities rarely have live music anymore, mostly just EDM concerts and so how is a person who has no history of seeing anything live and up close supposed to get educated in seeing live music? As teenagers, we are always trying to get things for free whether it was sneaking in the back door of a show or recording an album on cassette instead of buying your own copy. When you grow up you realize the value in paying for things. It has always been hard for the majority of artists to be able to make a living through art. This is an age-old question of how to make art financially viable. I wouldn’t blame the kids for this.

If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?

That is a pretty huge question, but I think it would be to have what gets played on the radio be more diverse and less specialized. Trying less to appeal to a demographic in order to sell advertising. Having DJs be well versed in music and to have them curate their shows rather than just be “announcers.” I know that internet radio and streaming sites help achieve this eclecticism but I really would like it to be on mainstream radio.  The radio is still the easiest way for everyone to hear music. I think that the public is way smarter than the mainstream media wants them to be, the media just needs to rise to the occasion.

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