Interview: Suzanne Vega
Songwriting meets a true giant among modern songwriters as she prepares for a tour marking 30 years in the game
t’s hard to believe it’s been a whole three decades since a young New York singer-songwriter slipped quietly into the charts with Marlene On The Wall, a song that was also, as older readers may recall, the subject of a now legendary performance on (now long defunct) UK TV music show The Tube.
Yet, incredibly, such is the case – a landmark which Suzanne Vega is marking with a UK tour next month that not only marks this anniversary but also serves to promote her latest studio album (her eighth), 2014’s Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles. She’s also, as we discovered, recently gone back to her artistic roots. Before she was ever a singer-songwriter, Suzanne trained as a ballerina, and she’s currently the holder of a Fellowship at New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts.
So much to talk about, so little time! So we’d better get on with it…
Let’s talk about Tales From The Realm… first. Would it be fair to say that it’s one of your more experimental albums?
“Sure, although I think I sort of approach every album with an attitude of experimenting with what’s there. In some ways it’s very folky, but in other ways the material is slightly more esoteric than some of the other albums I’ve written. Beauty And Crime, for instance, was very New York-based, and very obvious: it was ‘Here’s a group of songs written in the aftermath of 9/11’. So this is a bit more experimental in terms of what I’m writing about: not so much in its sounds and textures, but in terms of what I’m writing about. But I think every album I’ve made, including the first one, has elements of experimentation.”
One thing that struck us lyrically was that there seem to be lots of tarot references…
“Yeah, there’s a few tarot references – not just tarot but all kinds of spiritual influences. There’s a couple of characters from the Bible in there as well. But the tarot was the prism through which I was looking at the situations I was writing about. That came about because I started to experiment with the tarot recently, it was something I’d never really looked into before but I found myself drawn into this beautiful world of images and characters, and I started to see things in my life through that world. And it became a lot of fun to write with that in mind.”
“People have always responded more to the more cathartic material”
It’s interesting you say ‘fun’, because I was going to ask you about the song Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain. That sounds like it was fun to write: was it?
“Yeah, it was! It was sort of meant as a children’s song, in a way, and kids actually do really like it: they get it and they like the tongue-twisty bit in the middle. So yes, that was fun – there was a moment where I thought, ‘This isn’t going to work, it’s a silly idea’, but it kept coming back to me and it kept playing in my mind, and so I thought, ‘Let’s just write it all down and see what happens’. It was fun to write, and it’s fun to perform.”
Because a lot of people, I think, have a perception of Suzanne Vega as a very serious artist…
“Well that’s good! I like to think I’m a serious artist… but if you see the live show, I chat a lot more than people expect, and joke. I do have a sense of humour! But it’s true that the writing tends to be a bit more on the serious side.”
So if songwriting can be fun at one extreme, and cathartic at the other, where on that sliding scale of 0 to 100 do you fit in, do you think?
“I don’t know, people have always responded more to the more cathartic material. In my early days I did write a few songs that I thought were funny, but people never ended up asking for them [laughs] so I’ve always concentrated more on the darker, deeper, more serious songs like The Queen And The Soldier. People really love that song, and there’s very little humour in there. So I’d say I’m about 80 per cent cathartic and 20 per cent fun!”
“I listen to a lot of Sean Paul”
In the interview you did with Sodajerker, you mentioned you’d been listening to a lot of XTC and Billy Joel…
“Billy Joel? That must have been a long time ago! Normally I listen to Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney for melody. But yes, Billy Joel does have some good melodies, though I don’t remember listening to him much. XTC though, definitely.”
…so who are you listening to particularly at the moment?
“You’ll never believe it, but if I just want to relax, then at the moment it’s Sean Paul. I love the flow of his material, he’s really funny and his songs always put me in a good mood. They’re sexy without being raunchy, for the most part, and I like the way he delivers his lines. I listen to a lot of Sean Paul. Hang on, I’ve got my iPhone right here – what else have I been listening to? Let’s see… American Music Club… some things from Beck’s album with Dangermouse… Laura Marling… and Kanye West, there’s a couple of his songs I like.”
And are there any up-and-coming songwriters who’ve caught your ear? Laura Marling’s obviously one example…
“Yeah, I think Laura Marling’s terrific. She’s very well-defined in terms of her style, and I got to share a bill with her over the Christmas holidays which I loved doing. And also on that bill was Conor Oberst, who I also thought was interesting.”
You’ve also got a ballet project going on at the moment – which for you is almost going full circle, is it not?
“Well, exactly! It’s been so much fun going back to that world. I started doing ballet when I was nine, and studied it intensively for nearly 10 years. I was deeply into that world when I was I was a teenager, and recently I was given a Fellowship at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts. So I’ve been exploring what choreographers I might want to work with, and I just gave a presentation two days ago of a suite of songs that I thought could make up a ballet, so we’ll see! I’m not sure yet but I’m talking to one choreographer about doing a couple of songs, with the aim of eventually doing a full 40-minute piece.”
And what’s the end game with that? Will it only be staged at NYU, or will it tour?
“That really depends what the choreographer wants to do with it. The choreographer I’m speaking to now runs a festival in Colorado, so I think he was thinking of doing a 10-minute piece that we can present at the festival, and then see how it goes from there. If it’s well received, maybe it will become part of a larger repertoire. These things start slowly, first of all you’ve got to find a choreographer who’s sympathetic to the material, so these are still very early stages.
“But it’s been a lot of fun organising the material, and I’ve also been watching a lot of films of the old Balanchine ballets, because one of the other Fellow is Heather Block, who was one of the ballerinas in his company. So I’ve been studying a lot of Balanchine, and it’s been great to look at it from this distance, not as a young dancer who would aspire to be in his company, but more looking at his ideas, what ideas he put out there and how they changed the world of ballet. It’s been very informative.
“It was a lot of fun to get back into my old ballet clothes”
And it’s been great too because they offered me studio space, so I got into my leotard for the first time in a while! It was a lot of fun to get back into my old ballet clothes and poke around the studios.”
Are we in danger of losing you, though? Could you see yourself stopping being a singer-songwriter, and becoming someone who just makes music for ballet and theatre?
“It seems unlikely, because I love touring. Touring has always been my bread and butter, I started performing on stage when I was 16 and it’s always been how I make my living. Especially these days, when people don’t buy CDs so much. And fortunately it’s something I love doing, I love telling all the old stories and singing the old songs, and the new ones, so I can’t see myself giving it up any time soon.”
Speaking of the old songs, let’s talk about the Close Up series. Is there more to come? Because we reckon you’ve re-recorded at least half of your catalogue and we read one estimate that said 70 per cent…
“Yeah, that’s about right. I don’t know, I think there’s probably more that could come, from unused sources – I have so many tapes from when I was a teenager, and other songs that I used to sing but don’t any more that people have been asking for. So I think there might be a couple more Close Ups yet… and the other thing is that, as I go on and make new albums with full production, some of those songs might go on to get re-recorded in stripped-down, Close Up form. So I think of it as an ever-changing, ongoing project that will continue to grow and evolve.”
“Running the label is a little more difficult than I was expecting”
Speaking of owning things, the new album’s on your own label, Amanuensis Recordings. Is that going well?
“It’s a little more difficult than I was expecting. I was thinking, ‘This is great, I’ll have total freedom and okay, I may sell less records but I’ll get more of a percentage of the profits’. But right now, I’m still at a point where I’ve yet to recoup myself. The distributors are happy but I’ve yet to see a nice bump in my account. If and when I get that bump, I’ll be a little more optimistic! Right now I’m still a bit, ‘Okay, we’ve broken even, now let’s see if I can actually do this’.
“That’s why I’m doing the videos for Tales From The Realm… now. It would have been nice to do the videos last year, when the album came out, but in terms of the finance it wasn’t possible.”
But presumably there’s an upside, in terms of having control?
“Yeah, although to be honest I think I always did have control. I always had great relationships with the presidents of the record companies I worked with, and I always had artistic control… just with a much bigger budget! [laughs] But it’s early days, and especially with the new licences that are coming in for Tom’s Diner – Fall Out Boy use a bit of Tom’s Diner in their song Century – that should lead to… well, I haven’t seen any profit from that yet, but it’ll come at some point.”
Final question: I’ve been a fan for 30 years and I still haven’t got a clue what half the songs are about! Does that matter?
[laughs] “Well, that’s very honest of you! No, I don’t think it does, actually. The songs stand alone out in the world, I think, and people love them or don’t love them, and I think that’s okay. I remember writing Marlene On The Wall and thinking, ‘No-one will have a clue what this song’s about’. I thought it was too personal and no-one would get the references, but it ended up being a hit in England and Israel and right across the world. So in the end, I don’t think it matters if people don’t get every single reference. As long as you have some feeling towards it: if you love the music, that’s enough for me.”
Interview: Russell Deeks
You can catch Suzanne Vega live next month at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (16 June), Bristol Colston Hall (17 June), London Union Chapel (18 June), London Cadogan Hall (19 June), Basingstoke Anvil (21 June) and Birmingham Town Hall (22 June)