Deep Listening: A Conversation with Suzanne Vega

Volume CIX, No. 7/8July, 2009

Matt Weiers

Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega, a Local 802 member since 1984.

Suzanne Vega, a Local 802 member since 1984, is not only a top-tier singer-songwriter but also an activist. She was part of the MusicFIRST coalition that recently lobbied in Washington, D.C. for the Performance Rights Act. Vega also performed in Albany in February in support of the New York State Council on the Arts.

Suzanne Vega grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side and graduated from the High School of Performing Arts. While majoring in English literature at Barnard College, she performed in small venues in Greenwich Village, where she was a regular contributor to Jack Hardy’s Monday night songwriters group at the Cornelia Street Café.

Vega’s debut album, “Suzanne Vega, was released in 1985 and was well received by critics in the U.S. Her next effort, “Solitude Standing” (1987), garnered critical and commercial success including two hit singles: “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka,” which was an international success. “Luka” is written from the point of view, of a battered child – at the time an uncommon subject for a pop hit.

After two decades of albums and other projects, including collaborations with Philip Glass and Joe Jackson, Vega released “Beauty & Crime” on Blue Note in 2007. The CD won a Grammy for best engineered album.

Suzanne Vega was interviewed for Allegro by Matt Weiers, a musician, producer and educator in Portland, Oregon. Weiers has conducted exclusive interviews in Allegro with Carla Bley, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Fred Hersch, Kenny Garrett, Jane Ira Bloom, Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

Matt Weiers: How has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?

Suzanne Vega: In many ways it’s the same. I’m still concerned with what a song is about, how to tell a story, what the melody is, and what the chords are. The main difference is that now I write with an ear toward how it’s going to be produced. Sometimes I work with software called GarageBand, which of course I didn’t used to do.

MW: Do you make compositional choices based on whether you think a song will be produced commercially or performed only at a small club?

SV: I must say that I almost never consider whether something is going to be commercial or not. The two songs that I wrote that were the most popular I didn’t write thinking that they were going to be commercial. Usually what I think are things like “this could use a really great string part, or a certain rhythm.” I try to find out what the character of the song is and then develop it so it becomes more of what it is.

MW: Who do you envision listening to your songs?

SV: If a song is about a particular person, then I wonder how they might respond to it. I usually have in mind one person listening to it. When I wrote the song “Angel’s Doorway” I imagined a policeman listening to it and being able to relate to it. That song is written from the point of view of a policeman who comes home from Ground Zero.

MW: What do you think of the MP3 format, and people listening to music on iPods? Do you have any thoughts about the sound quality or environments in which people are experiencing your music?

SV: I have to say that I’m a person who has never been very particular about the sound quality of what I listen to. When I was growing up, what I thought was cool was a transistor radio. We used to walk down the street holding them up to our ears. They were tiny tinny little things. You could hear the melody and the whole production but not a lot else. It wasn’t very subtle. So I’m not one of these people who have great speakers in my living room. I’m pretty lo-fi. MP3’s are fine with me. I don’t mind people having my songs on their iPods. What I don’t like is free downloading and the idea that somehow people should get things for free just because they can. I think there’s something seriously wrong with that. The more we go along, the more the music industry is going to be undermined.

MW: Do you have any thoughts about musicians who are making deals directly with places like Starbucks or WalMart to distribute their music and leaving big record labels out?

SV: I think musicians are doing what they have to do to survive. If that means signing a deal with Starbucks, then I guess that’s what they’ll do. The only problem is, what if Starbucks isn’t selling as much coffee? If their main product doesn’t do so well, what happens to their subsidiary products, like the music? I don’t know that there is any stability in it. The way that someone like Clive Davis has managed to shepherd certain people through the industry through the years has produced a longterm, stable kind of a haven for the artists. I don’t know if people would find that kind of longterm stability at someplace like Starbucks.

MW: Have you found any drawbacks to being involved with a major record label?

SV: In my particular career, no one has ever told me, “No, you can’t do that.” I’ve done many different types of music at different times and had a really good time making it and most of the time the record company was 100 percent supportive. So I haven’t had that bad experience that some other artists have had. At the end of my years at A&M it was a little weird. I felt like I didn’t really know the president of the company as well as I had previously and there was this awkward feeling that I was going to be dropped at some point and then I was dropped. But I had been eighteen years on the same label, so you could just say it was a relationship that had come to an end.

Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega, a Local 802 member since 1984.

MW: What is your favorite environment and audience to play for?

SV: There have been times when I’ve loved the standup venue, clubs that hold maybe a thousand people. When I’m playing with my band I think that can be very exciting. Another type of situation that I really like is a festival, like when you’re playing to a lot of people, say, in the afternoon, and people are really into it. I’ve played acoustic tents in festivals in Europe, and it’s great. The audience is singing along and it’s the opposite of a folk club, but it’s very dynamic and exciting.

MW: What differences have you noticed in the reception of your music in the U.S. and abroad?

SV: There is a bigger audience overseas because people are more open minded. Here you have all these markets that have been segregated down to the last bit of definition. It’s hard to be included on the radio or certain festivals. I can play any of the alternative festivals in Europe but I don’t get to play Bonnaroo or Coachella here. I can play all sorts of places there that I can’t here.

MW: What about on a more individual level – how have foreigners responded to your music?

SV: I think it’s pretty similar. The music is usually received well. There was one exception, the album “99.9 F°.” That record was received very well here in the states but the European audiences and record company were a little more wary of it. They didn’t get the aesthetic, the sounds on the record. In the end, people eventually came around.

MW: Did getting huge exposure and renown change your songwriting approach?

SV: I think I’ve managed to write good songs consistently over the last 20 years. The big push that I got happened all at once in the late 80’s. I haven’t had that kind of exposure for twenty years. I pretty much do what I want creatively. The only problem that I had with that kind of success at that point in my life was that it was exhausting. I spent a lot of time promoting the record. It took me a while to recover from all of that work that year. But ultimately I thought that it was a hugely positive experience.

MW: Is that kind of exposure like a wave that you just have to ride at the moment?

SV: That’s certainly the way we approached it. Maybe other people would have said, “Look, we need to take a month’s vacation.” But we didn’t do that. We kept working straight through that year and most of the following year, playing as many shows as were demanded, sometimes two in a night. It was exciting but it was also draining.

MW: Why did you join Local 802?

SV: I thought all musicians joined the union! Especially once you start making records, I think it’s a requirement. I joined back in the 80’s and I think it’s the right thing to do. I think unions are, in general, a good thing.

MW: What is it like to be a mom and a performing artist at the same time?

SV: I didn’t take time off from being an artist, and I didn’t find that the two things were very complementary. I’ve been working pretty much since my daughter Ruby was born. It seems like there was a long time between albums, but the fact is that I’ve been working during those times. It is difficult to balance all of it, to have a child at home and tour. You have to make the decision whether to bring your child with you on tour. A lot of the time I don’t. I want her to have her own life, her own friends, her own schedule. It’s a very difficult thing to balance, especially if you have some years, as I did, as a single mom. In the end, I feel that she has a real view of what it’s like to be a musician. It’s not always like you see on MTV, where everything is glamorous. In spite of that, she still wants to study music, so I figure maybe I’ve done something right along the way.

MW: How has doing the work of being a parent changed your creative output?

SV: I’d say my intellect is not what it used to be when I was getting more sleep. There’s something about having your sleep disrupted several times a night that makes some of your brain cells inaccessible. But in some ways, my work has become deeper and more emotional. It has more humor to it now than it did back then, it’s more realistic, not quite as abstract.

MW: Do you think about how different age groups will hear your music?

SV: I think about it to a limited degree. Sometimes I’ll hear something that’s on top forty radio and really like it. I like Timbaland and his work with Nelly Furtado. I like Scott Storch. Some of these people are people that my daughter has grown up listening to. But it’s not that I feel I have to reach the teenagers. It’s more that I listen to the music that they might listen to and some it I like and some of it I don’t like. People of different age groups do receive songs differently, but that’s always been true. I have been surprised by how often a song like “Luka” still connects with a teenage audience. I’ve gotten letters recently from teenagers who can’t believe that somebody actually wrote this song down. They are as in shock and surprised by it as a teenager would have been 20 years ago. So that’s what lingers in my mind, not how differently people hear a song, but how much it is the same.

MW: When “Luka” did take off, was it a surprise?

SV: Yes, I saw it as a song about one particular person and didn’t see the broader context.

MW: Did you consider writing other songs on social topics to connect with the audience in that way again?

SV: Even though I have written songs which touch on issues of mental health, attempted suicide, and posttraumatic stress disorder, none of the songs have connected with the imagination of the audience the way “Luka” did.

MW: What kind of role do computers play in your creative process?

SV: I use my computer all day long and it is an extension of myself, my brain and my hands. It’s a sophisticated tool. I think the possibilities are really fascinating, that I could do a virtual tour or do a show every week from my house and do a Webcast and build up an audience that way. It’s kind of appealing to me. I haven’t done that yet, but as I get older and the idea of touring becomes less appealing, maybe I’d want to limit my touring to a few weeks in the summer. This might be a great way of continuing contact with the audience without getting on a bus and going there. I think technology can be used in a very heartfelt way, but you have to know how to use it and you can’t let it run your life.

MW: What kind of advice would you offer to young singer songwriters who want to make a living at music?

SV: That’s a tricky one. Most of the time I tell young people that they have to work on their songs, their style, and saying something that no one else is saying. Beyond that, it’s really hard to know what to do. There are lots of options. Do you want to take the Ani DiFranco route and make your own company? Do you want to join a major label? You could be like Ingrid Michaelson and post your music on MySpace and get played on Old Navy commercials and get paid that way. There are so many ways to go about it now, and many of those options didn’t exist when I was starting out. Signing with a label can be a good thing depending on the label, but it really depends who you are and how you want to run your business.

MW: If you could change some things about the music business, what would you change?

SV: I’d like to see things changed in radio. There is a limiting situation for women that’s unique. There are rules against playing two female artists back to back and when they add songs to the playlist they’ll add an unlimited number of bands and men, but a limited number of women. So women are competing against each other for the same few spots. If you’re older, too, that’s a problem. They won’t play your new music or play you if you’re over a certain age. It would also be great if all artists could own their own masters, or at least license them out and have them returned at some point.

MW: What do you think of events where female musicians have banded together in one festival, such as Lilith Fair?

SV: Now that it’s been many years, people are looking at Lilith Fair as a thing of its time, but some of the lessons that could have been learned from it are not being taken to heart. The whole thing could be done over again today and it would still be as radical an idea as it was ten years ago.

NOTE: Suzanne Vega’s biographical information at the top of this interview came from her entry in Wikipedia. This interview was conducted in 2008.