Songwriting collaborations come in many different shapes and sizes. Methods range from Nashville country songwriters arranging a co-writing ‘date” in a Music row office to contemporary pop, dance, R&B and hip-hop artists who may credit seven or eight writers, producers and beat-makers on just one track. Hit songs in all these genres are, increasingly, created through collaboration.
Artists in other genres have also adopted the collaborative approach. Here, we’ll explore two recent, highly acclaimed Canadian album projects, Namedropper by roots songstress Oh Susannah, and Just Passing Through: The Breithaupt Brothers Songbook, the brainchild of the songwriting team of brothers Don and Jeff Breithaupt.
“Everyone in the community loves Suzie [Oh Susanna], so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’” – Ron Sexsmith
As the title jokingly suggests, Namedropper features contributions from an A-list of Canadian singer-songwriters, all friends with Oh Susannah (Suzie Ungerleider). The concept behind Namedropper was suggested by her producer, Jim Byson (himself a well-respected songsmith). “Suzie initially pitched me on the idea of producing a covers record,” Bryson recalls. “Off the top of my head, I said ‘That seems to [have been] done a lot by Canadian female artists. Why don’t you have people write songs for you?’ It just seemed a fresher idea.”
The pair approached Ungerleider’s talented songwriting pals, who responded immediately and positively. The reaction confirmed both the peer respect Oh Susanna enjoys as an artist and the genuine affection she personally attracts. As Ron Sexsmith notes, “Everyone in the community loves Suzie, so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’ It’s a cool concept and it came together in an inspired way.”
The impressive list of artists delivering one new song apiece: Joel Plaskett, Royal Wood, Keri Latimer (Nathan), Jim Bryson, Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse), Old Man Luedecke, Luke Doucet (Whitehorse), Amelia Curran, The Good Lovelies, Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo), Jay Harris, and Rueben deGroot. Ron Sexsmith contributed two, “Wait Until the Sun Comes Up” and “I Love the Way She Dresses,” a co-write with Angaleena Presley.
The accomplished result is the most stylistically eclectic of Oh Susanna’s six albums to date. “That is exactly what I wanted,” says Ungerleider. “We specifically asked the writers not to all send slow, waltzy tunes [her forte]. Some writers approached it more as if they were writing a song they’d do. That was fine, too. The whole idea was to stretch what I’m doing and that is exactly what we got with these songs. I feel lucky.”
Jim Cuddy, a longtime friend, fan and duet partner of Oh Susanna, contributes the moving ballad “Dying Light,” based on their mutual love of soul music. “I once heard Suzie sing ‘The Dark End of the Street’ at a Gram Parsons tribute,” he recalls. “I thought ‘My God, you have this powerful soul voice that isn’t exhibited in your own material.’ I knew she’d have the vocal dexterity for my song.”
Ron Sexsmith wrote “Wait Until The Sun Comes Up” with typical creative ingenuity. “Suzie e-mailed me, and I thought ‘“Oh Susanna,” that’s a Stephen Foster song.’ I have a Foster songbook and a song there, ‘Nellie Bly,’ reminded me of ‘Wait Until the Sun Shines.’ That gave me the title, and I wrote the thing in 30 minutes, with a Buddy Holly pop feel.”
Bryson’s song “Oregon” leads off Namedropper. “That was a song I’d already written, but Suzie kept going back to it,” he says. “I pleaded, ‘Don’t put it at the front of the record, I’ll look like a jerk,’ but she liked where it fit.’
With many songs submitted in raw form, Bryson worked with Ungerleider on the instrumentation and arrangements. “You get to try different things, bouncing ideas back and forth,” says Bryson. “Suzie is very clear with her thoughts and opinions. To me, overseeing this record was pure joy.” The core band on Namedropper included multi-instrumentalist Bryson and drummer Cam Giroux, Oh Susanna’s husband.
As has been well publicized, the album’s scheduled Fall 2013 release was delayed a full year after Ungerleider was diagnosed with, and treated for, breast cancer. Now healthy, she and Bryson recently played Canadian dates and headed to the U.K. in early 2015.