You’ve got to love someone who can write a catchy ditty about the loss of a fingernail and turn it into an allegory for grieving and recovery. Singer-songwriter Süss has a whole catalogue of quirky and ear-pleasing songs that cover a range of everyday subjects, from musings on lesbian sex to the innocent joy of nighttime bike rides. The sound is a clever mix of jazz, pop and folk-rock that tickles the brain without being overly cerebral or too cutesy.
“Often I’ll think of a moment, a scenario, and then find something to say about what’s happening,” says Süss, who goes by only her last name. “I wrote the song ‘It Didn’t Hurt’ about things you’re expecting to hurt a lot but don’t end up hurting much at all. Like when your pinkie nail falls off, it’s because it had already been really damaged. So it comes off after it’s already finished hurting.”
Listening to this material, it’s very easy to forget that Süss embarked on her solo career quite recently. Her debut album, I Just Ride My Bike, was released in 2007, just before Süss turned 40 — an age when many indie artists are beginning to wind down their music careers in favour of more stable and secure employment.
In fact, it wasn’t until reaching her 30s that Süss seriously considered a career in music. Her parents had encouraged their children to sing hymns in their Mennonite church, but Süss found herself increasingly captivated by artists like Bruce Cockburn and Jane Siberry. Enrolling at the University of Winnipeg as a mature student, she began to explore jazz piano improvisation and multicultural music in search of her own personal sound.
“I was really interested in different time signatures,” she says. “I mostly perform on guitar and piano, but there were 10 years where I played flute doing traditional Middle Eastern music. Well, as traditional as a white girl like me can pull off.”
Süss’s first serious music job came while working at the CBC, where she was producing a documentary about her experience as a gay Mennonite. Fellow staffer Clare Lawler commissioned Süss to write a piece that became “Waltz for Clare,” and the results encouraged Süss to start planning a full-length album.
Unlike pop or rock music, jazz and folk tend to have fairly long shelf lives in record stores and with online vendors, which allows a new artist space and time to catch on. Süss placed I Just Ride My Bike with the indie music site CD Baby for distribution and slowly began to build a dedicated local following that appreciated her sound. As sales and audiences grew, she began to look beyond her prairie borders in search of wider exposure.
Now embarking on her first multi-date tour, Süss is ready to introduce her music to new audiences across the country. It’s quite a step up from some of the jobs she was forced to take while honing her craft.
“While I was writing and working towards recording, I had to do a lot of odd things to support myself,” she says. “I pulled rickshaw in Winnipeg for a while. One night I pulled [Manitoba jazz performer] Wally Larson to the Franco Manitoba Cultural Centre. I made him give me 20 bucks.”
Money well spent, I say. The production on I Just Ride My Bike is crisp and clean, allowing Süss’s delicate musings plenty of space to have a solid impact on the listener. The lyrics are thoughtful, sweet and frequently quite funny, creating an intensely personal and affectionate atmosphere.
Whether it’s the gleefully goofy song “Lesbian Sex” (“Lesbian Sex is better than a gmail address, it’s better than searching the net, for a blogger who’s obsessed”) or the poignant “Lovers, Drugs and the Wandering Apostrophe” (“The drugs of her lover take her under… at first she does a little, just to be together on that same planet”), Süss manages a conversational feel that is both effective and affecting.
The title track is also a standout, with its joyful ode to nighttime bike rides.
“It’s really fantastic to do in summer here in Winnipeg, when it’s been too hot and you need to cool off,” says Süss. “I like to stand on the pedals, throw all my weight onto the front of the handlebars and then let go with my hands. It’s night, and I have my arms and fingers in the air, and it just feels so beautifully free.”
Süss brings her tour to Toronto on Tues, May 3 at The Tranzac, 292 Brunswick Ave. See sussmusic.com for more details.