By TJ Dawe
It’s a great and rare feeling to have an album pierce your heart. It’s even greater when that album is specifically about Vancouver.
Oh Susanna is the stage name of Suzie Ungerleider, an alt-country performer based in Toronto. She grew up in Vancouver. As she grew through her teen years so did Vancouver. Expo 86 happened, and a culturally inexperienced city got more attention than ever before. The city put on clothes that didn’t quite fit yet and acted as if this was normal, like a sixteen year old try to pass with a 23 year old’s stolen ID. This is the central metaphor of the album, titled Girl in Teen City.
The album is a song cycle. Every song explores Oh Susanna’s teen years in Vancouver. It doesn’t tell a single story. There isn’t a cast of characters. She always sings from her own point of view. Each song is self-contained, even though a number of them deal with the same relationship, or the love of music. In My Boyfriend, these themes intersect, as she tells the story of her boyfriend auditioning to sing in a band, and having the looks but not the voice. Meanwhile, knowing she could sing far better than him, she stays in the corner and says nothing.
The instrumentation and songwriting are simple and straightforward. Acoustic guitar, piano, bass, drums. And yet within this meat and potatoes approach there are sonic details that will reward close and repeated listenings. The song Walked All the Way Home has a haunting though subtle reverb that accentuates the beautiful loneliness of the young Suzie witnessing her boyfriend plodding off in the rain.
The album is replete with references to Vancouver landmarks – Hastings and Main, Granville Street, the Cambie Bridge – and places which have since been closed and replaced – the Capitol 6, the Ridge, the Town Pump, Dick’s on Dicks. Vancouver cultural icons from those years also get name-checked: DOA, the Raging Grannies, the Vancouver Five. Seemingly there’s a danger in making one’s references so specific. Will people who didn’t live here in the 80s get it, or care? But as I’ve discovered in performing autobiographical monologues about my life, if a story is grounded in honest emotion, people will sub in the equivalent details of their own lives as they take it in.
Girl in Teen City devotes songs to teen experiences like saving money to buy a car, trying to be taken seriously by adults, falling in love, discovering a local band, and feeling that painful longing of reaching toward the adulthood your feelings give you tastes of, but that the world isn’t yet ready to grant you.
I was in born in Vancouver, and grew up here. Part of the experience of being a long term Vancouverite is seeing the city substitute for other places in the movies and TV shows shot here, or hearing it disparaged by transplants for the rain, the real estate, the social isolation. I don’t deny that it can convincingly pass for Seattle, or New England. I heartily agree that it rains a lot, that it’s a horrific place to find accommodation unless you’re wealthy, and that most of us avert our eyes as we walk the sidewalks, and suffer for it. But even with these flaws there are stories here. There are people growing up, finding their place in the world, experiencing joy, fury, anger, excitement, and a heart-breaking wistfulness that if expressed just right, can reach into your chest and cradle your heart with understanding.
I’m deeply thankful that Oh Susanna created this album. I didn’t realize how much I’d been craving such a statement about this place, as well as about the young human soul. I’m looking forward to seeing her in concert when she plays the WISE Hall on Friday, October 13th. It’s advertised as a night of story and song, featuring Leah Abramson, Jenny Ritter, Grant Lawrence, and a few more special guests. I imagine the exploration of youth and our still young city will be heart-felt and powerful.
You can get tickets at http://ohsusannawisehall.brownpapertickets.com or at Red Cat Records and Highlife. Do yourself a favour and buy the album.