Oh Susanna happy with the lonely lovelorn and lost

It isn’t uncommon for artists to want to explore the darker side of life. Strife (be it real life-or-death trouble or your standard romantic boo-hooing) has long been the muse of painters filmmakers and songwriters alike — there’s just something about that darkness-at-the-edge-of-town kind of morbid escapism that audiences seem drawn to. It’s an easy well to draw from if times have been tough. But what does a songwriter do if she happens to live a perfectly peaceful existence? If a happy well-adjusted musician doesn’t want to turn to formulaic life-affirming anthems (a.k.a. “pulling a Jon Bon Jovi”) they can always take a cue from Suzie Ungerleider. The singer-songwriter (who performs as Oh Susanna) has a fascination with the lovelorn the lonely and the lost but in real life she’s a very content woman with a thriving career as a musician and a life that has been made even happier through the birth of her son two years ago. Since the details of her own life have never made ripe subject matter for the kind of music she’s interested in (which is more often than not described as “Americana Gothic”) Ungerleider long ago made the choice to sing about the lives of others. Ungerleider’s fourth full-length album Short Stories is perhaps her strongest collection of vignettes yet. In the space of a single song she manages to create a character dig down to that character’s emotional core and perhaps most amazingly of all make the listener genuinely care about what happens to this fictional person. Quite modestly Ungerleider claims that writing these miniature character studies is easier for her than a confessional diary-style album would be. “It’s like wearing a mask or putting on a costume” she says. “In some ways it helps you to do things you wouldn’t necessarily do or feel things that you wouldn’t let yourself feel. In your role as a mom or just trying to be a good person and trying to do the right things you put on all these masks anyway but then I’m allowed to put on this other one and let these other things that I feel or other impulses I have come through. And maybe that will help me to understand other people and why they do the things they do.” Another compelling aspect of Ungerleider’s music is her constant eye on the past. Her first full-length album 1999’s Johnstown (which was made up of a series of character sketches of fictional victims of the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania) had a specific historical touchstone and Short Stories sees her once again drawing from that days-gone-by kind of feel. Ungerleider says that the time shift is another device she uses to gain a different emotional perspective in her songwriting. “I do like history but I’m looking at it from the point of individuals” she says. “How did things look? How did things feel? What were people thinking about? I think I like to be transported into another place and time — out of the mundane and into this other sort of landscape.” None of this is to say that Ungerleider has any complaints about her own life. It’s just that as a songwriter whose name so often gets paired with words like “cinematic” and “literate” she feels that the best way to express her feelings about humanity — even elements of her own life — is to use her imagination and live vicariously through her characters. “I’m not sure if my own life even warrants a song” she says laughing. “But somebody else’s experiences do. I’m as narcissistic as any other songwriter but on the other hand I’m more interested in singing about other people’s lives or living their life in my imagination. I like to go there. It’s like going to the movies. I wouldn’t want to see a movie of my own life. That’s kind of boring.”