- Suzanne Vega - Coming to terms in retrospect
Exclusive Interview by Dominic Bonner
- CHALLENGES are an everyday aspect of a journalist's career - which may be a thirst that some, could say would never possibly be quenched. But despite the endless angles that have been taken on Suzanne Vega in attempts to gauge the true person behind the artist, it seems previous efforts have served only to regurgitate the past. So how do you approach the folk/pop legend who seemingly has answered every question in the book?
For myself, this was one person I had desired to meet for a very long time after the endless celebrities that have passed my way. It is true that she has become 'cool and smooth and curious' over the years in the eyes of the public and media - if I may excuse myself to use one of her lyrics from the song 'Cracking'. Yet the allure of Vega on the telephone is no different to that of her records. She is charming yet trite; her disposition of blatant honesty mixed with humour dispels any previous depressive traits about her misunderstood personality. Paradoxically, she is spellbindingly intelligent and difficult for any person not to engage into a conversation - And for her age, she is still stunningly beautiful.
- Observations of Vega in the past from the media conclude that she is a serene laid-back person, someone who observes her surroundings and then calmly writes about a particular situation or story that could take many weeks - She admits her process of writing is not an easy one.
So I ask her to explain how she leans on observationalism or existentialism and her true path of balance due to the confusion with the media about how she really sees herself,
"Probably more an existentialist rather than
observationalist, because I feel myself to be involved in things but other people seem to think that I
observe them," she laughs. "I don't know but I have always felt that way and even as a small child in class plays I was always being asked to be the narrator and even in my own family of having this slightly outsider. I had read the works of Jean Paul Satre and that whole gang of Existentialists, my step father had all of those books and I read them as well."
- Vega's career has not been the most celebrated of vocations with regard to the music world with only a few memorable hits over her career. It seems integrity and her knowledge of where she belongs in what she does that keeps her feet on the ground.
"I think I am one of those people that's gonna come in and out of the pop world I am sort of like on the edges of it, which is fine, I feel that I sort of belong on the edge. There's sort of a fringe group of different ages that always like the music and that's who I play for." Vega says thoughtfully.
- The beginning of her career was a strange but lively one. The attraction or rather repulsion of seeing Lou Reed at a concert back in the early 1980's compelled her into changing aspects of her songs and defined her position in the music world and to abandon any aspirations of reading dance at university. But had this moment not occurred would things be as they are now? "Yeah, I think it probably would have, I think that I would have become a musician anyway, but I think that his seeing him at the time gave a point and a focus too my style of writing, I think it changed my way of writing. It kind of clarified it for me."
Touring has obviously been an integral part of her life. It has not something that she has always found easy to come to grips with, indeed in the beginning it seems that appearing in the smallest New York café was a suffocating experience. But after her recent visit to Liverpool, it would seem that every concert is a metaphor for an opening window for her to reach out to some one and talk to them. Her stage presence seems disarmingly engaging to the point of friendliness.
- But her thoughts of how the present is for her, shows a somewhat different bent to how things were in the beginning for this issue.
"Yeah, it is like being attracted to something that you also fear. You eventually, stop doing it or you make peace with it,"
She reflects. "If you are gonna stand on a stage you should expect and hope that and want people to look at you and at least people to listen to you so I don't have that much of a problem with it any more. In fact, it is the main thing that keeps me going."
- Despite having a 19-year record deal with A&M records and having 'the freedom to enjoy self-expression' as she cheekily laughs about, referring to the lack interference from them throughout her recording career. Pastures new beckon and Suzanne seems a little indifferent to the recent parting with her record company.
- On the one hand, there is sadness due to the glowing relationship that has seen the consistency of the way her records have been produced and her friendship with former A&M supremo Gerry Moss.
To whom she mentions that she feels she owes a great deal. But on another
you have any views or have a news story then
she feels it is time to move on due to the recent take over of A&M via Interscope records and the rap artists that are synonymous with that record label. It would seem that there is a mutual feeling that Vega should be finding a 'new home'.
The private life of Suzanne Vega is exactly what the statement says - private. Seemingly, she is not too keen to elaborate on former boyfriends too much - perhaps the sting in tail from her divorce from Froom is still evident. Talking candidly about the 'bad period' on how things on a personal level came to the forefront of her life. Here is a willingness from her to talk about the bad times in which five years she saw virtually most of her life change, thus, spawning song's such as 'Widows walk' and how the durability of that change affected her musical approach.
"Well it was really quite huge in some ways. I guess you feel because you think that success will change you in a certain way and that success will give you a kind of security.
Instead, in those five years everything can change. Your marriage can dissolve, you decide that you cannot afford to live in your house any more and your record deal will change and your management will change. I mean almost everything changed at
that point. So I felt that I was thrown back on my strengths, which have always been my writing, my lyrics, my perspective and my guitar and in this case my daughter Ruby. So she has of course stayed with me and a new group of songs came out of that experience. There's nothing in my previous experience that would have prepared me or my previous songs that I would have related to so what I did instead is wrote a group of new songs that reflected what I had been through."
September 11 is a subject that Lou Reed in a previous Channel 4 interview a few months ago was not a subject he was willing to engage. But Vega, 43, who lived very close to Ground Zero, still religiously reads about people's experiences of that day. Her brother worked in the World Trade Centre 8 months before his death, and despite this, her reverent memory of the event is still very much at heart, "I used to go by there several times a week and know people who were affected by it, my friends brother was killed in the attack. It is one of those things we all stared at thinking that it was some kind of terrible dream. It is something that seemed impossible and of course, it actually happened. I think about it a lot, I have relatives who were stationed down at Ground Zero and the months following it.
So it is this deep thing that has happened to New York that we will be feeling for years to come and writing about it and thinking about it and in some ways, it is almost an obsession. I myself go and buy books and read peoples stories of what happened to them on that day. Not only that but almost everybody I know had some kind of story." Vega says.
Asking the awkward question about retirement seems like a breeze compared to the last few minutes of the conversation. However, Suzanne seems to find a great sense of irony and humour in this as it is a thought that does not pass her by with each day - but never has time to announce it. The likelihood of it seems more remote now than ever as she has already recorded 30 new songs - which she reveals has a likeness to her second album 'Solitude Standing' - for her follow up to her latest album 'Retrospective' - Bearing also in mind there is also two existential and romantic novels in the pipeline.
"It is silly people keep running out to announce their retirement - again. I am sure everyone will notice me by my absence when that
happens". She chortles.
Comedy has also been one of the great features of Suzanne Vega's life. Indeed a tour of America with comedy magazine 'Mad,' she remembers with great fondness and laughter after the magazine spotted a reference to them upon a previous album. But a strikingly unintentional comical moment that runs gamut against the grain of her
image, " I was visiting the president of Portugal in his palace and we had run out of things to talk about. I had gotten a bit nervous and I decided I would take charge of everything and I left so we could go have lunch. I went over to what I thought was the door and opened the door and it turned out to be the window. So the guard came running over shouting and asking me 'wouldn't I prefer to leave by the door', rather than the window." She laughs ironically, "So that was a good moment." I could quite agree with her in an embarrassing way - lets face it, we have all done something humanly similar.
The future still has many challenges left for Vega and of the many dreams she has left, there is one particular musical ambition she has left to fulfil - the mouth-watering prospect of a duet on a record with David Bowie.
"I would love to work with David Bowie, I am very curious to see what would transpire out of that. I think it would work well. He has such a great musical style that kind of transcends all time really. When you see him perform it is kind of an old-fashioned stuff with plain rock n' roll, it is just great to watch and great to listen to. So I think that would be really fun. And a lot of times, he is not really saying something literal or he is not telling a story. I think I could learn a lot from him." Perhaps, Monsieur Bowie should make that phone call now.
Correspondence to Suzanne Vega and further tour information is available at:-