Americana singer-songwriter Oh Susanna releases her critically acclaimed album Sleepy Little Sailor album in a new deluxe edition. The “magnificent country soul” (Nigel Williamson, Uncut) record is available on CD, digitally and (for the first time) on vinyl, featuring the original 11 songs, plus acoustic recordings of 5 of the songs, including the title track, and a bonus acoustic version of ‘You Win Again’.
Four singles have been released in the build up to the album’s release, including acoustic versions of the title track ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’ and ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Beauty Boy’, plus the most recent track ‘River Blue’. Accompanying each release is a special hand-drawn behind the song video, revealing the origin and narrative of the lyrics, acting as a fascinating insight to the person Suzie Ungerleider was 20 years ago. As well as her Genie Award for Best Original Song, Suzie has been nominated twice for a Juno Award, holds and a Canadian Folk Music Award for Best Songwriter and three Canadian Folk Music Award nominations for her last, 2017 album A Girl In Teen City.
Born in Massachusetts, USA, and raised in Western Canada, Suzie Ungerleider began performing under the name Oh Susanna in the mid-1990s, winning instant praise for her debut album Johnstown in 1999, which she remastered and reissued last year to mark its 20th anniversary. Suzie had been quietly working as a clerk at a Vancouver library when in 1996 she self-released a cassette tape of seven songs recorded for just $200, and found herself besieged by music industry executives and agents after performing a tiny set at a local club.
With her “remarkable, crystalline voice” (Neil Spencer, The Observer) and folk-noir balladry that have drawn comparisons with Gillian Welch, Neko Case, Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos, Suzie drew support from “Whispering” Bob Harris who championed her on BBC Radio after receiving Johnstown in the post. “I immediately loved it,” he said later, raving about the “heart-tugging emotive quality” of her voice. Van Dyke Parks, Jim White and Booker Prize-winning author Michael Ondaatje have all declared themselves fans; Suzie has supported White as well as Wilco and Whiskeytown.
Sleepy Little Sailor brought her considerable critical acclaim in the UK two years later, in 2001. After her intense, concept-style debut album – inspired by the 1889 flood that ravaged the steel city of Johnstown, and redolent of old Appalachian ballads – her captivating follow-up bared all in dreamy late-night rootsy songs showing off a voice that was alternately gutsy and fragile.
For every track belted out with gusto, such as “Ted’s So Wasted”, or her heartfelt country-soul version of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”, there were yet more vulnerable songs telling of obsessive love and loss: “Forever at Your Feet”, “Sacrifice”, “Beauty Boy” and “River Blue”.
Some of these songs are given a beautiful reworking on the reissue, including River Blue and Kings Road, which were newly recorded with producer Jim Bryson, while Sleepy Little Sailor, Sacrifice and Beauty Boy were taken from the original demo sessions with her producer Colin Cripps (Kathleen Edwards).
These pared-back acoustic versions highlight both the effortless strength of her bewitching voice and her immense songwriting talent, bringing their haunting power to the fore. Confessional songs such as “Beauty Boy” and “Sacrifice” burn with pure intensity.
“The idea of violence and hate being intertwined with passionate love was something that I was experiencing so much in my late teens and twenties”, Suzie reflects on the former. “It is hard to love someone and be loved by someone who wants to hurt you. I needed to sing about that to get through the pain and leave it behind.” On the latter, she recalls being chastised by a lover for not making sacrifices for him. “This declaration scared me because it made me feel like I was supposed to martyr myself in order to keep his love. 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.”
Stripping away the electric guitar and Hammond organ, ‘Kings Road’ is imbued with lovelorn tenderness. This reissue shines a light, too, on her compelling storytelling of rich characters, and the finely told darkness within. ‘River Blue’ tells of the long-lasting effect of child abuse on close relationships.
“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. Over two decades later, it still is one of the most requested songs that I have ever written”, says the singer-songwriter and guitarist twice nominated for a Juno Award.
Suzie also holds a Genie Award for Best Original Song, a Canadian Folk Music Award for Best Songwriter and three Canadian Folk Music Award nominations for her last, 2017 album A Girl In Teen City.
These are songs just as powerful today as they were 20 years ago, and they hold new resonance in today’s world. Take the evocative title track, about which Suzie says: “Who is the sleepy sailor?” I think we have all been the Sleepy Little Sailor at some point in our lives, trying to save our dreams in the face of greater forces of nature.”
Sleepy Little Sailor was recorded with producer Colin Cripps at The Bathouse studio outside Kingston, Ontario in the summer of 2000. “I was really intense and so were my songs,” the artist recalls. “I had really strong ideas about what I was communicating and I wasn’t going to veer away from my vision.”
Colin had envisaged making the album in the style of fellow Canadian songwriter/producer Daniel Lanois who, on producing albums for the likes of Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, would record the band playing live onto two-inch analogue tape, with minimal edits and overdubs. With the exception of “River Blue”, all the vocals for Sleepy Little Sailor were recorded live off the floor.
“Everything was done very delicately”, she explains. “I was singing softly in a way I had never really sung before. 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.”
Suzie had set the scene by replacing copies of lads’ magazine Maxim on the coffee table with books on The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
“I wanted to tap those dreams and get them to come out in our performances”, she says. “I think it worked. We all felt that it was a magical recording session. I don’t think it took any hindsight to know that this experience was dreamy and blissful. We knew it right there and then.”
“Every musician knows that the way a recording sounds is all about who was there, how and what they played and the vibe of the studio as much as it is about gear and equipment. It is about the humans who are in the room, how they interact together and how they interpret the song. It is like a party where someone decides where to hold the gathering, who will be invited, what food will be served, what kind of drinks will be there, what the atmosphere will be. You set the stage, welcome your guests and then watch the night unfold.”
Artist’s website: https://www.ohsusanna.com/
‘River Blue’ – official video: