Hailing from Vancouver originally, Oh Susanna has been performing since 1996 and has released seven critically acclaimed albums.
She is the recipient of a Genie Award for Best Original Song and a Canadian Folk Music Award for English Songwriter of the Year. She has also been nominated for two Juno Awards each for Best Roots and Traditional Album of the Year, as well as two Canadian Folk Music Awards for Best Solo Performer and for Best Contemporary Singer of the Year. On May 26 she released A Girl in Teen City, an album of songs set in 1980s Vancouver starring a teenage punk girl named Suzie.
Oh Susanna heads to Wells, BC this summer to teach a four-day Songwriting workshop (August 1 – 4) alongside Paul Linklater and Don Kerr in the lead up to the ArtsWells Festival Of All Things Art. She will also be performing at the ArtsWells Festival, August 4 – 7. She took time out of her current UK tour to chat to ArtsWells Festival Artistic Director, Julie Fowler, about her new album and who mentored her in her early songwriting career.
What inspired your soon-to-be-released album, “A Girl in Teen City?”
Writing this album has been an unexpected delight. I am much more from the short story school of writing songs where you imagine other lives and explore that. In this project I am remembering my life and my teenage self is the main character. A quite different task. Perhaps I felt like my life wasn’t that interesting to write about but my friend and fellow songwriter, Jim Bryson believed the opposite and told me to write more about the life I lived. I am sure glad he did because it really is like a way to immortalize the youth I had and also I am finding so many other people connect with what I am singing about. Even though it is specific to me, there are universal themes of coming of age.
In terms of your early years, who were your most important mentors and what did they teach you?
I must say that my parents are the ones who taught me to write. They were my earliest coaches. My dad was really instrumental in teaching me to just get my thoughts down on the page…you can always edit later. He also loves plain language that is succinct. My mother too is a great creative soul who loves putting pieces together…she is a brilliant tailor and then later in life became a film editor. So both were inspirational in teaching me how to tell a story within a form, whether it be an essay or a photograph. Then I would say that my aunt was the most brilliant oral storyteller. She could make simple things sound fascinating and emotional.
In your song, “My Boyfriend” you sing about sitting in the corner watching your boyfriend sing off key in his high school rock band, knowing you could sing circles around him, but you stay in the background.I could totally identify with that experience and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about being a woman in the music industry. Is it getting easier for woman to speak up? What advice would you give aspiring woman songwriters and musicians?
It is hard to generalize about being a woman in the music industry because it is hard to separate what happens to you as specific to you, dumb luck, or as a result of one’s gender. Sexism is now frowned upon so things are more subtle. However, I would say that things happen that I do believe are a result of sexist attitudes that are simply ingrained in us. Recently, a man I respect and know is kind, talked about having lots of women on his roster and therefore couldn’t accept anymore…I felt like that would be something that would not be said about male artists…no one has ever said, “I have too many male artists on the bill/roster”. Another example of sexism was that a reviewer thought that because my album is about a teenage girl that this would “grate” on the male listener. So it just shows that women are seen as a subset or category rather than just being human.
The thing that I am singing about in the song is that I put myself on the sidelines, that as women we internalize what other people think about us. This is something that we have to try to overcome. I still downplay my talents and achievements. However, having a chip on one’s shoulder is never the way to go. Being calm and straightforward is the best way to deal with discriminatory situations. Showing strength and confidence and a sense of humour.
What’s your favourite lyric from a song you have written?
There are moments in songs I feel proud of. One of them is in the song “The Bridge” where I write “Till silk ribbons of white water have twisted me in two.”
What lyric do you wish you had written?
I admire greatly the words of Veda Hille. She is so unique, painterly and scientific. She follows her own vision so completely, uncompromising and true.
Seeing that you are teaching songwriting up in Wells this summer, what do you enjoy about mentoring other songwriters?
I love to see the buried treasure that people hold within them. I help give them a shovel to dig down and see what gold and diamonds they might discover.
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