Legends and landmarks populate Oh Susanna’s latest release, A Girl in Teen City. Set in 1980s Vancouver, its dozen songs take place in high-school classrooms and oceanside parks, in Downtown Eastside rehearsal halls and the Commodore Ballroom, at Dick’s on Dicks and on the Davie stroll. Through snapshots from memorable concerts—the “Clash City Rockers” at Kerrisdale Arena; Slow’s Stephen Hamm flashing the crowd at Expo 86—and photo-booth images of the budding songwriter in her “Vaseline flattop and skinny black jeans”, the woman otherwise known as Suzie Ungerleider has penned a warm and poignant Valentine to her own past.
Oh Susanna’s genius, though, is that A Girl in Teen City is not purely self-referential. Those who were there will recognize themselves in these songs; those who were not will gain insight into what our “sleepy seaside town” was like in the days before it became a gridlocked city of glass. And those who have no connection to Vancouver will still get to experience a uniquely insightful portrait of a universal experience: first love.
Strangely enough, it’s also a record Oh Susanna never expected to make. On the line from her Toronto home, Ungerleider explains that until fairly recently she’d considered herself more a writer of fiction than a memoirist, noting that it took input from a trusted friend before she felt confident enough to make the switch.
“I have to give tribute to [Ontario producer and songwriter] Jim Bryson, because he really was the one who encouraged me to write more about this,” she says. “Years ago, on Sleepy Little Sailor, I wrote the song ‘Kings Road’, and it was about growing up in Vancouver, and a little bit of a nod to the punk-rock scene that was there and that I was trying to be in. And he said, ‘You know, I love this song, and you should really write more songs about your punk-rock youth, because it’s really interesting and it’s something that people don’t know about.’ ”
A Girl in Teen City developed slowly. First, Ungerleider had to take a hiatus from songwriting, dealing with some health issues (now happily resolved) and recording her covers record, 2014’s Namedropper. Immersing herself in the songs of such regionally rooted artists as Winnipeg’s John K. Samson and Halifax’s Joel Plaskett helped clarify her vision of how autobiographical writing could be as much about place as persona.
“I’ve learned a lot from them,” she says. “And when I look back [on growing up in Vancouver] I think that we did a lot of really interesting, cool things. It was a little bit of an undiscovered, strange place, with lots of contradictory things going on, with the Socreds and the NDP, and the loggers and the miners, and the labour movement and the protests and the hippies. All that stuff was so familiar to us that it didn’t seem all that interesting or exceptional—but when you start thinking about it, or you go elsewhere, you go, ‘Oh! Yeah, we lived in this really interesting time in the city’s history.’ ”
Oh Susanna opens for Stephen Fearing at New Westminster’s Massey Theatre on Saturday (January 27).