Westfest Preview: The Return of Susan O

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Photos by Shana Levin and Susana McGahan. Feature image of Susan O and family by Valerie Keeler. 

Life often has way of working itself out. Over time, through thick or thin, things tend to eventually fall into place. Ottawa’s Susan Odle (known simply as Susan O) can attest to that. In 2008, she released an album, Lonely Town, to very good reception. But then life got in the way, so to speak. She moved out west, became a single parent, then later met her current partner and together they raised 4 children who are now ages 10-16 years old. Despite a natural love for music running through her veins, she chose to make her family her priority. Certainly can’t fault a woman for that. She enjoyed raising her family but you can be sure that music and performing were always on her mind. In fact, she wrote several songs during her thirteen year hiatus. When the time finally came, she was ready to re-emerge with plenty of material to share. She has returned to the Ottawa music scene with a vengeance. Her new album is called 20 Years  and it is chock-full of poetry and music that will leave you lingering in deep thought recollecting your own life’s memories, both joyful and sorrowful. 

Ottawa Life caught up with Susan O to talk about her highly celebrated comeback. 

Ottawa Life: I’ve been listening to your album and particularly enjoyed a song called, “Birds”. I understand that I’m not alone in this and that fans have identified it as a favorite.

Susan O: Yes, from far and wide that song, among others, resonates with many people from different backgrounds. I suppose it’s fairly literal and easy to follow. It’s all about, looking back on our lives and thinking about the things we wanted to do and the things we have done. It’s about being a dreamer.  I believe it’s so important to never stop dreaming and to never lose the desire to dream.

That’s a perfect segue into the story of Susan O and your own path that has brought music back to the fore after a 13 year hiatus. Were you dreaming all that time that you would return to the stage one day? Did you always write during that time?

Oh yes, writing and performing have been passions of mine my entire life. That has never gone away. But when I released my first album, Lonely Town, I didn’t have kids, so I wasn’t distracted by significant life choices. But I’ve always had my guitars nearby, my home studio; I’m always singing and creating. I knew I needed to get back out there to share my songs. 20 Years is my foray back into the music community. I’ve missed it so much. I can’t overstate the joy that performing brings to me and the joy of being part of this great community that we have here in Ottawa. It’s like life blood.

Your new album, 20 Years has been so well received and with great merit. How did you envision your return?

Thank you. It was just a matter of how can I make this work; when do I put myself back out there to go full speed ahead knowing I won’t have to pull back again. I want to be committed and focused. Now that I’m back in the music community here, I don’t plan on ever taking another break again. For starters, I don’t plan on having any more kids [she laughs!]. I’m back and I’m not going anywhere!  I want to keep on putting out great music and want everyone who comes out to a show to have a great time.

Tell me more about the theme running through 20 Years.

If you think about your journey from mid-twenties to mid-forties – so much goes on during that time span: you might fall in love for the first time, you’ll go through heart-break (perhaps more than once!), you go through grief as you lose people close to you, and you celebrate joys and successes, like buying your first home.  “Shelter Me” is about the first house I ever bought. It was a tiny little wartime home, but it was mine and I loved it. On a sadder note, I used to travel a lot and wrote “Forever Be” after 9/11. I imagined myself on one of those flights and having to say goodbye to someone I’d left behind. There’s a lot of love and life in that 20 year span – so the album is about that journey. It’s a reflection of all the things you go through from your 20’s to 40’s.

Your idea of always dreaming and wanting to do more is so important. But on the other hand, we must also remember and be grateful for all the things we have accomplished. We shouldn’t look these over, right?

No, you’re right.  One of my mottos that I live by is, to never have any “what-if’s.”  Always try things. Even if you fail, or don’t quite succeed, you invariably learn from the experience.  Always try something new. That, to me is part of succeeding in life.

You sound like you’re in a great space right now. The world is your oyster!  You’re ready for anything.

Yes, I am! I’m having a great time living life and performing again. Music to me is like breathing.

Tell me about your work with Canadian Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke. How did that come about?

Well, a long time ago when I put out my first EP, I reached out to him to ask permission to set one of his poems to music and he agreed. We kept in touch so when I was ready to release 20 Years, he joined me on stage for a spoken word segment. He shared a poem he wrote a few days after the passing of Leonard Cohen and asked me to set it to music.

And here’s a very cool thing about all that: U2 are using two of his poems on their current international tour as backing music on site ahead of their live shows. One is the song, “Kaddish” for Leonard Cohen and the second is a poem that George asked me to set to music. It’s pretty cool. So I’m like one degree of separation from U2, who are my childhood idols from when I was growing up. I feel so fortunate and blessed that people are recognizing my music as something that has value. I’m thrilled! I’m having the time of my life!

Well I can tell and it’s contagious. We share your excitement. Big congrats to you, Susan.  What a great positive vibe you have.  

Thank you. Ottawa is my home. I’m never leaving again! 

You will find Susan O on stage at Westfest in Ottawa on Sunday June 4 at 4 pm. Look her up at: www.thesusano.com

(The song, “Kaddish”, is not on the album but can be purchased separately online.)