A Melody – A Chord – A Lyric: A Conversation with Suzanne Vega
When I think of the music of Suzanne Vega, my brain conjures up vivid images of characters, time both past and present, destinations traveled, dreams dreamt and sometimes, those yet to be experienced. I’ve never made it a secret that I’m quite a huge fan and try to never miss an opportunity to see and experience her brand of high-caliber storytelling first hand: once I was even tragically stuck in the foggy air above San Francisco—therefore unintentionally missing the very concert I had gone to see in its entirety. But despite this major set-back, I still managed to have a unique concert experience—but more on that at a later time. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Vega’s long-overdue return to Utah is scheduled to take place on Saturday, March 21 at Park City’s George S and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, and was honored when granted an interview with her, as she remains one of my favorite artists of all time.
One of the great aspects of a Vega performance is the variety she can draw from her rich back catalogue. Like all touring performers, she understands the importance of the main “hits” getting presented (“Luka” or her latest take on “Tom’s Diner” are nearly guaranteed) and why not, as they are as big a part of her 30-year career as are her other classics, like “The Queen and The Soldier,” “Gypsy,” and “Small Blue Thing.” She is likely to perform a few songs from her latest release—the still-startling Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentacles—too, and there always seems to be surprises in her sets. But whatever she chooses to perform, one of the most unique aspects of a Vega live performance is to witness her sublime story narratives. It is not as though her lyrics don’t speak for themselves, but Vega remains a masterful storyteller, often bringing a measured wit and dose of good humor along for the ride. Whether performing with a group of musicians, or just pared down to a duo alongside her present musical conspirator Gerry Leonard (David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright) or likewise with her longtime bassist, Mike Visceglia, or just simply by herself with her acoustic guitar, it all revolves around her riveting songcraft.
That back catalogue was cleverly reimagined a few years ago through the start of Vega’s own label, Amanuensis Productions, with her wondrous Close-Up series, consisting of four volumes of songs from her eclectic arsenal, arranged loosely by theme and then completely re-recorded alongside never-heard-before tracks and a few of her earliest songwriting compositions. The first volume appeared after her New York opus, Beauty & Crime, where she continued something she’s been doing roughly since Solitude Standing: closing the album with an especially emotionally inspiring, thought-provoking song—in Beauty’s case the haunting, 9/11–themed ode to her late brother (Tim Vega) entitled “Anniversary.” Before this, there was “Pilgrimage,” “Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser’s Song)” and “Song Of Sand,” but stunningly, one of her finest was first presented on her first proper European greatest hits as the last bonus track: “Rosemary.” She’s continued this tradition with her latest release which, even a year later, sounds fresh and inspiring and still begs for repeated listening.
When I wrote my initial review for it last year, it was hard to take everything in: I was instantly drawn to the wonders of the hypnotic “I Never Wear White,” and the toe-tapping “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain,” but was also haunted by the brilliant handclaps of “Jacob And The Angel” (partially because those reminded me of her “Room Off The Street”) especially when they blended seamlessly into this wave of gorgeous orchestration. It didn’t occur to me immediately that the melancholic sadness of “Song Of The Stoic” seemed to tell the continuation of Luka’s brutal reality, but loved how it referenced the two succeeding tracks, the endlessly fascinating “Laying On Of Hands/Stoic 2” and then another supernal closer, “Horizon (There Is A Road).” Leonard’s skilled production has proven to be a great achievement, especially his flourishes of orchestration and I start our interview by inquiring how he was chosen to produce it.
SLUG: So, Gerry Leonard has been playing with you I see since probably the Red & Gray time period and…
Suzanne Vega: That sounds right.
SLUG: …and how did he get chosen for the producer? Is it just from this association of playing with you and playing on your albums?
Vega: Well, it’s not quite as casual as that … Well, Gerry and I started playing as a duo back in 2008. We’d played together pretty much on and off since Songs In Red & Gray, but as you probably know from your research, he’s been called away by other notable artists—
SLUG: Like David Bowie.
Vega: David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright … so we started to play together as a duo in 2008, and that’s worked out really wonderfully. So we’ve spent a lot of time together on the road and he has ambitions of being a producer, and I needed a producer, and so we worked together through the Close-Up series.
SLUG: Yes, I love the Close-Up series!
Vega: Ah, thanks! I’d actually asked him if he would help me work on some demos so I could get other producers and he, being ambitious, said, “OK, I could do that.” But he really wanted to produce the album. So he did such a great job on the demo of “I Never Wear White” that we hired him to do the whole album.
SLUG: Wow, I love “I Never Wear White!” That’s one of my favorite tracks!
SLUG: You’re welcome! So, when you started the kind of songwriting collaboration with him—’cos I’ve noticed that he is credited as a music songwriter on a lot of the tracks—did you work together or did you add each other’s parts?, How did that happen?
Vega: Well to be honest, on every single album—except perhaps the first one—I’ve always worked with co-writers, whether it was my band, like on Solitude Standing I wrote with some members of my band at the time, [or] with 99.9 and Nine Objects I worked with Mitchell Froom. So I’m used to collaborating with whoever’s around, usually ’cos I usually can’t come up with bridges and intros and that kind of thing, those are more difficult for me than, say, the lyrics and the melodic ideas. So that just became a natural thing, where Gerry felt if there was something he could add, he did it and I was really happy with most—with all—of his musical ideas, so that’s how he became a co-writer.
SLUG: Oh that’s great, ’cos it’s really melodic in spots. And you were talking about the songwriting process and I remember back on the Undertow message board when you were working on Songs in Red & Gray about how I think you would present some of your songs to a songwriting collective?
SLUG: And present them that way … Is that still in existence for you? Or do you just try them out on the road?
Vega: Well, the guy who led that group for the longest time, who was my dear friend, he passed away … It was over three years ago.
Vega: Jack Hardy, and the group is still in existence, but I haven’t been back since he died. But these days, I mean I was touring a lot in the last few years, that’s kinda how I make my living.
Vega: So it became easy to play the new songs on the road and…
SLUG: And see the reaction?
Vega: Yeah, feel the reaction and say, “OK, well, we need to speed it up here,” or, “It’d be great to have a little break here.” Gerry and I worked really hard on that … trying things out as we were writing them. It was very exciting, it was really cool, because we got sort of “instant” feedback, which we were able to incorporate.
Vega: So many times you make the album and then you go out and play the songs and then you realize, “Oh, you know—“
SLUG: This one isn’t going over?
Vega: Or this one needs a different key, or a different tempo or whatever, so that really works.
SLUG: Yeah, that’s great! That sounds more organic too. So, when you start composing, how do you hear melody in your head? You know, like “Tom’s Diner” comes to mind, with the “da da da da” part. Do you hear it as a melody or do hear it as words?
Vega: Sure! Each song comes differently, and “Tom’s Diner” is one that I did hear the melody first. And it just pops into your mind and it just stays there. The way it happens when you’re listening and you haven’t written it, it kinda happens that way when you have written it, also. I was walking down Broadway and I suddenly started to hear a melody in my mind—which happens from time to time—and there’s been other songs that happen that way too, where I just hear the melody and I can’t wait to hear what the song’s about, because I love the melody. A song like “Horizon” was also that way: I had the melody before I figured what the song was actually about.
SLUG: Interesting, interesting! I love that song! Well, speaking about “Horizon,” ’cos I was finding in listening to the album a lot lately—I can’t believe it’s been out for a year already now.
Vega: Me either.
SLUG: “Song of the Stoic,” is the sequel of “Luka” or Luka’s continuation, is that right?
Vega: Sort of, yeah, more or less. Not literally, but kind of a loosely connected song.
SLUG: And it’s such a sad song, like, I hope that doesn’t sound negative … it’s so intense, but then you reference “Horizon” and you also reference “Laying On Of Hands,” in both those songs and then those really, I think, bring a peace to the proceedings.
Vega: Yeah, a sort of joyfulness and some kind of vision of the future that’s not quite so bleak. I think that’s why I sequenced the album the way I did. So they’re connected but it does tell a narrative, and it’s not “The Queen and the Soldier” where you know [laughs] where it’s really tragic! So, yes, I think you’re right: I think the way you experienced the album is the way I intended it, yeah.
SLUG: That’s great! And that would lead me into asking a little about Amanuensis, your label, your production company. Does that—and I admit I had to look that word up ’cos I didn’t know what it meant—is that any reference to maybe your old relationship with A&M? Or am I reading that wrong?
Vega: Well, only basically. It’s sort of a joke, implicit in the title. I thought it was sort of funny: you know an amanuensis is a servant, someone who writes things down for someone who can’t do it themselves. I sometimes feel that when I’m writing the songs—that I’m writing, that someone is writing through me. Not “someone” but like I sometimes feel like as though it just flows through me. And I suppose it was sort of a joke, a private joke, that the servant would get to own the masters—their recording masters—so that was sort of my little joke and it is a little comment about A&M, who do own my previous masters of the recordings and they—because I signed, you know everyone back then signed because of the legal stuff—it’s not likely that I’ll ever get those masters back nor are they likely to give them to me, since they can still release them and make money.
SLUG: Yeah, that’s why the Close-Up series I think is so brilliant! Because you—it’s not even reinventing them—but it’s like you’re presenting them in a whole new way and it’s like you just explore so much of your back catalogue and some of the newer tracks too! That’s why I really gravitate towards that so much.
Vega: Well, thanks, yeah, you seem to really understand the whole idea of it. It’s kinda great to have them and to be able to do whatever I want to.
SLUG: ’Cos they’re still your songs, I mean.
Vega: Yeah, definitely! And they’re kind of more simply presented without the big productions, even though I loved the productions at the time, and ‘of the day’—it’s not like I don’t like them—but I wanted people to hear them in a more stripped down version, you know? Which is what this is.
SLUG: Yes, definitely, and they work so well. With your own label, would you ever do that to some of your b-sides or your kinda lesser-known tracks? Like “Black Widow Station” and “Men Will Be Men?” I mean, all of these things that I love, and I have live recordings of, I mean “Men Will Be Men” is a b-side, but would you ever re-record those for a future thing?
Vega: It’s possible, yeah, it is possible. I have a lot of tapes of songs I wrote when I was a teenager and things I wrote in my early 20s, and maybe at some point I will go back and, yeah, I have a lot of ideas and thoughts about what to do with Amanuensis. I just haven’t quite, you know, as you said, I can’t quite believe it’s been a year since that last album. I haven’t moved on from the last album yet, which I suppose I’ll have to do at some point. [laughs]
The poetic heart and reflective eye of singer, songwriter and storyteller Suzanne Vega comes to Park City’s George S and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, March 21, 2015. You really shouldn’t miss it!