Category Archives: Interview

an interview with SUZANNE VEGA

SOLITUDE STANDING, SUZANNE VEGA’S DEFINING ALBUM, HAS JUST REACHED A QUARTER CENTURY IN AGE. TO CELEBRATE THIS LANDMARK, THE NEW YORK SONGWRITER IS PERFORMING A ONE-OFF SHOW IN LONDON NEXT WEEK.
There’s a 1992 episode of BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD, in which the jaundiced wastrels view the vivid cut-up video for recent boom-and-klang single BLOOD MAKES NOISE. The pair are non-plussed by the decidedly moderne efforts of  “that LUKA chick”.

Following 1987’s huge crossover hit single LUKA, “that LUKA chick” is probably how Suzanne Vega was most widely known. The early 1990s sound-flip, from graceful sepia to brash technicolour, challenged drivetime radio listeners and MTV viewers who presumed they had her correctly pinned and mounted as an acoustic ingenue.
A spikier, more aggressive, sonic palate and a sometimes more impressionistic approach to lyrics featured on the 99.9F album (1992), while more ambient redefinition had appeared on 1990’s DAYS OF OPEN HAND.
Five years before Beavis & Butthead’s confused fug, as she approached the release of her second album – SOLITUDE STANDING, from which LUKA sprang – the New Yorker was on the verge of consolidating a respectable reputation for crafting distinctive tunes and, more crucially, for setting keen-eyed observation and intimate reflection to them.
Across several years of lugging her guitar and stories around the coffee shops and smoky clubs on Greenwich Village’s bohemian scene, Vega had framed herself as a beat-poet variant of the emerging contemporised folk tradition. Signed by A&M Records in 1984, her debut album was released to general critical acclaim in 1985.
CRACKING, SMALL BLUE THING and minor hit single MARLENE ON THE WALL were amongst several high watermark moments during a discreetly confident set in which cool melodies counterpointed warmly intelligent lyrics. 
It was Vega’s precise and elegant distribution of words which really piqued curiosities and captured imaginations. Her debut was an engaging signpost: clearly, here was an interesting young woman who knew not just what she wanted to say but was diligent in the craft of how she would say it.
1987’s SOLITUDE STANDING was to become the record that elevated Suzanne Vega to the major league. Not only did it expand on the vocabulary of sounds and refine the techniques of songwriting from that debut, but it opened out her commercial reach through two unexpectedly enormous worldwide hit singles.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of their parent album’s release, Suzanne Vega spoke to The Mouth Magazine about the hits LUKA and TOM’S DINER, the writing and recording of SOLITUDE STANDING, and her thoughts about it now…

I guess when an artist’s first record is released, it’s the one that carries the weight of the paying of dues. You were on the scene in New York for a few years before your debut album, playing small clubs and so on… It must have been an interesting time – no money, trying to win audiences over ..?
Absolutely. It was great… I had a lot of songs and I was writing steadily – a song every few months – and I could try them out at a leisurely pace. I was with friends who had high standards for writing, and so it was good to try to meet them.

So NY was a good grounding… and the songs on that first record are very strong. How did signing to A&M Records come about?
The record deal came after a great review in the New York Times. We’d made a demo tape and my manager had already submitted it to A&M Records twice. However, after this particular review they came running…

When you recorded the debut album, was it difficult to have fixed, definitive, versions of songs that had been fluid for you?
Since I was on tour I sang the songs the usual way, so it wasn’t difficult to let go of them as recordings. I don’t listen to the records very often. Not now, and not then.

The debut was greeted with critical acclaim and some success – did that have a direct bearing on the way you approached SOLITUDE STANDING? I ask in terms of songwriting, in terms of singing… It’s a much more assured album in both of those regards. Were you consciously raising your game?
I was writing songs the usual way, more or less. Where I had more of a hand was in the final mixes. I sat with Shelly Yakus (Chief Engineer and Vice President of A&M at that time) in the studio and we brought out the drums much more than for the previous album. I think I was singing better, also. My manager felt that the song LUKA was a hit from the beginning. I was sceptical, to say the least. But, yes… we were all trying to make a commercial album that would live up to the promise of LUKA. To my surprise, it really worked.

Listening back, I was struck by just how timeless the recordings seem. Some of that’s down to the songs, the style of the songs, but was there ever record company pressure on you to “go a certain way”?
No, actually. I had something unusual. I was signed to a production deal with my manager. So, in effect, I was signed to Ron Fierstein and he was signed to A&M. So if there was any pressure like that it went to him, and not to me.

It’s a very warm sounding record, despite the coolness of the recurring lyrical themes of loneliness, restriction, oppression… There is some bitter-sweet comfort to be taken, I think, that after 25 years of listening, those characters remain where they were when you parked them… But do you ever find yourself drawn to thinking about where they might be now?
Yes, actually, I do. I’ve written a song that’s a sequel to LUKA – which is called SONG OF THE STOIC (as yet unreleased). It’s set fifty years on, it’s not a very cheerful song and, I must say, not entirely truthful in its bleakness. But there is a part of my own psyche, obviously, which gets expressed in these songs.

Some of those characters seem impossibly incarcerated – really trapped – but accepting of it, like it’s become part of them as opposed to just something they deal with. LUKA, for instance: “Just don’t ask me how I am…”, and his “… After that you don’t ask why…”, Like he has developed coping mechanisms, events have become part of his personality…
… Stoic…

… but the character in IRONBOUND / FANCY POULTRY is, I think, a little different. She seems on the verge of… well, I’m not sure what… The words suggest someone who’s actively living but always one step removed. Behind glass somehow, either through poverty, loneliness, depression…
I loved the area of Ironbound, which is a part of Newark, New Jersey, with a lot of immigrants, a large Portugese community… I, myself, was avoiding getting married at the time of writing the song. I think I was afraid of feeling trapped. So I projected it outwards to a random woman from that area…

You wrote GYPSY when you were 18. Despite the sign off of “please do not ever look for me…” (which seems wistfully prescient a thing for a girl of 18 to have written), it strikes me as potentially the happiest song on the album – there is resolution, a decision…
I’d had a summer romance when I was 18, but I was afraid he’d show up at my door and that my stepfather would be angry – so that’s why I said that, that line. I’d been teaching young children to disco dance and play folk music, at a summer camp, and he was also teaching there. We had this romance, and at the end of the summer I knew he would be going back to England, where he was from, and I’d be going back home to New York. So I wrote this song for him, as a gift. In return, he gave me his bandana… We’re still good friends, actually. We see each other every year, and we exchange e-mails.

It was written before most of the first album, but you didn’t include it…
That’s right. I felt that the song was too folky for the debut, so I didn’t include it. I’d wanted the first album to really be the weird mixture that it was…

Were there other older songs you were able to bring to the table for the second album? Or did you find yourself going through an intense period of writing?
I had a lot of songs. I chose all the ones I thought were good enough, from the hundred or so that I had at the time. But I did write new songs for SOLITUDE STANDING…

… and the record has a more complete band feel to it…
The band was there from the inception, so the music and arrangements were more integral.

On SOLITUDE STANDING, the song TOM’S DINER is in that pure vocal form…
I’d thought it would be fun to write a song that was like a little film, a kind of French film soundtrack. But I didn’t play piano, myself, and nor did I know anyone who could. So it stayed a cappella…

… and it became something else entirely when DNA remixed it in the early 1990s – a huge club hit. My guess is this opened up your ears to the possibilities of expanding “the Suzanne Vega sound”… Some of what followed sounded like you were ready to go out dancing..?
Actually, I had been a dancer for ten years. Most of my training in life was as a dancer… I was always happy to experiment with sounds and production. That’s if I liked it myself. I really liked what DNA had done with TOM’S DINER. It made me feel that an audience would probably accept more from me. I was already straining to do more, on the DAYS OF OPEN HAND album… But BLOOD MAKES NOISE (from 99.9F) was the first thing producer Mitchell Froom and I did together, and we surprised even ourselves on that day. I felt we were really onto something.

There’s a one-off SOLITUDE STANDING full album show in the UK soon…
Yes. We did a similar show in Boston in July, which was great, and we’re also doing one in New York this week. The SOLITUDE STANDING album really took off in the UK so we thought London was an obvious place for a European celebration of the 25th anniversary. It’s next week, Tuesday 16th October, actually. At the Barbican.

… and CLOSE UP: SONGS OF FAMILY, the fourth in a quartet of CDs of re-recordings, has just come out… What are your intentions after that, Suzanne? More concentration on the play you’ve written about 1940s author Carson McCullers, perhaps? Or a new album?
I’m finishing up the Carson McCullers play, yes. And I do have a series of new songs that I’ve been trying out, here and there. As you know, the music industry is a changed thing from what it once was… So next time will be my first time for putting out a record of original material, new songs, without having a deal… So we’ll see what my options are. We’ll see how it goes…