Singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider, known to most as Oh Susanna, was planning to release her album "Namedropper" last year when she received sobering news: a breast cancer diagnosis.
"Now of course this is scary and emotional because in all our minds cancer conjures death and believe me that was what I was thinking a lot about while waiting for my results to return," the singer wrote in an August 2013 post on her website."However, all scans have indicated that the cancer has not spread deeper into my body. Prognosis is very good."
A year later, following chemotherapy that she described as a "metallic cocktail" and surviving the battle, Ungerleider says she's extremely happy to see "Namedropper" finally come out.
"We had already started recording actually,” she says over coffee on a sunny late September day in Toronto. "Recording was really easy and fun and all the songs were kind of in this raw form. They became transformed into these fully blossoming gardens, like a painting or a photograph coming into view. That was very, very exciting. So it was a really beautiful kind of thing and then it was done and then I got diagnosed. That was the only thing that was kind of hard, feeling like the momentum of this project is going to stop.
"I had a really good year in spite of going through something hard. It was actually really great."
"Namedropper," out Oct. 21, sees Oh Susanna performing previously unreleased songs written for the album by a bevy of Canadian talent: Ron Sexsmith, Joel Plaskett, Jim Bryson, Royal Wood, Luke Doucet, Melissa McClelland and Jim Cuddy among others. The idea was one Ungerleider was a bit hesitant about starting off.
"We [herself and producer Jim Bryson] were worried that we would hate the music," she says. "Or that we'd get all these slow, sleepy songs which is what I wanted to get away from. Or that people wouldn't want to do it. So there were a lot of things but pretty quickly we had a group of songs that we thought were really great. In fact we had too much material and we couldn't do it all."
"Namedropper" contains a horde of strong tunes starting off with Bryson's gentle "Oregon" and the poppy "Mozart For The Cat" penned by McClelland. Perhaps the album's strangest aspect though is how the lyrics – all written before her diagnosis – could allude to someone fighting a health crisis. Jim Cuddy's contribution "Dying Light" contains lyrics like "life rearranged, don't even know when everything changed" and "I'll love you always, I know that time's not up yet." That's not to mention "Mozart For The Cat" ("life is never what you would expect") or Sexsmith's "Wait Until The Sun Comes Up" ("eyes clouding over, tears falling from the sky").
So does Ungerleider look at these songs and lyrics differently after her bout with cancer?
"No, I never thought of that," she says with a laugh. "With all the songs what was fun about it was to sing from the perspective of the narrator in the song.It was more my own songs. I was going through all these tests and I was playing some shows and I'd be like, 'I'm singing this song about death. It's kind of weird.' But nobody knew.
"So that was very strange and very isolating and bizarre. To feel that there was this whole other thing going on internally and medically that nobody knew about but I was singing about it in a way. So no, I think the 'Namedropper' stuff is a great way to move away from that.”
She also says the album was a good distraction from the illness.
"I think it helped," she says. " I would take the subway down to the hospital and I would listen to the record and every time I did it made me feel really good. It was a good way to kind of feel like there was something to wait for and anticipate when the treatments were all done.”
Another support system came from a Kickstarter campaign created in 2012 before "Namedropper" got rolling. The financial support resulted in an original goal of $10,000 being surpassed ($13,780) but the emotional support Ungerleider received from donors' cards, letters and warm wishes was priceless.
"The Kickstarter campaign helped everybody know this was happening, know that we were making this record, know that was I going through cancer treatment," she says. "Then they're sending all these messages. I had all this support from people that I knew and I didn't know which was cool. I felt like I wasn't alone which I think is the hardest thing, to feel that you're just by yourself doing it.
"I was very surprised. I never experienced anything like that. So it was very moving and it changed how I saw a lot – how I saw people, how I saw myself and how I saw the world. And just small things make a big difference."
With most of the rewards (including magnets, handwritten thank you notes, journals, autographed CDs) making their way to Kickstarter donors, Oh Susanna will celebrate the album's release with a Hamilton show Oct. 23 and a Toronto “release show/birthday bash” two days later. More Canadian dates are planned in November with a European tour slated for next year.
"It's nerve-wracking but good," she says of the Toronto gig which will have some special guests. "It's going to be super fun whoever is there. It's going to be great."
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