Our friends at Sodajerker recently hooked up with one of the greatest American songwriters of modern times – here’s what happened
ongwriting is delighted to once again bring you an interview from Sodajerker On Songwriting, the bi-monthly podcast put together by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor. The boys from Liverpool have managed to attract some of the biggest names in the business to their show, and this month is no exception, as they pose the questions to the legendary Suzanne Vega.
Readers who are a) in the UK and b) of a certain age may remember a 1985 episode of Channel 4 music programme The Tube, when a then-unknown, waif-like girl with a guitar stood up and sang a song called Marlene On The Wall… as pivotal a moment in some of our musical educations as seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show or David Bowie doing Starman on Top Of The Pops had been for others. Since then, Ms Vega has gone on to huge international acclaim and recorded seven studio albums. Most recently, she’s been re-recording her entire catalogue in a series of albums called Close-Up, with four albums in the series to date – the idea being, she says, to “free” the tracks from their association with the production sound of the 80s and 90s.
She’s also collaborated with Joe Jackson, David Lynch and Danger Mouse, hosted a radio series on great American composers, published a book of her poems and journalism and co-written a play. Truly a Renaissance woman if ever there was one, her Sodajerker podcast interview makes fascinating listening – below, we present just a few edited highlights…
It’s interesting to see how long you’ve been associated with the arts: studying dance at high school and literature later on, and then obviously the music. Did your upbringing set you on that path?
“It was both always an interest and a natural inclination – I started reading at the age of three – and something my stepfather, in particular, encouraged. He’s a writer. My mother was a computer systems analyst, so I suppose if I’d shown ability in that way that would have been encouraged too! But I didn’t go that way – I was always interested in the arts.”
You went to stage school in New York, studying dance, but taught yourself guitar while you were studying. What made you make the switch to songwriting?
“I got a sort of double-push. One was that I got pushed out of the dance department, because my teachers told me I thought too much to be a really good dancer! And the other push was towards the music department because I really liked the musicians who played for the classes. So I’d go talk to them and a lot of them were songwriters who played for the group just to make money.
“One of them gave me some advice, he told me to just go out and play in small clubs and coffee houses and learn how to perform. And I followed all of his advice, and all of it worked! I felt much more accepted in the songwriter community than I did in the dance world, so that was what made me switch over.”
We’ve read that you had quite an interesting songwriting process when you were younger, that you’d write on a Saturday, then finish the song on a Sunday after sleeping on on it…
“Yeah, that was it exactly – that was my formula back then, and it really worked. Up to a point. But these days, I’ve written so many songs in so many different ways that I really don’t have a formula. Basically it’s just, get it done whatever it takes!”
Was Marlene On The Wall written using the Saturday night/Sunday morning routine?
“No, by then I was in my early 20s and working a day job and I probably went out on Saturday nights! Once I started going out dating and going to Folk City – which was a great hangout, you could go there any night of the week and find people to hang out with and drink and talk about songwriting – then that little trick stopped working. I think Marlene On The Wall was pieced together over the course of several days, actually.”
You’re known as a very literary person: you studied literature, you’ve put out a book of poetry and lyrics, you’ve co-written a play. Did you ever aspire to being a writer or a poet?
“I’ve always loved poetry especially – I think poetry came before prose. So I’d say it’s more that I’m drawn to that life because I love books, I love telling stories… and mostly I feel that I see the world in quite a metaphoric way, so that’s why I love poetry and the world of writing.”
Do the words tend to come first when you’re writing?
“No, it depends – with some songs the melody comes first. Tom’s Diner was definitely a melody first, I was walking down the street and a melody popped into my mind. And I think I’d just been to Tom’s Diner so I thought, ‘This’ll work’… and it did. But then other songs, especially some of the folkier-sounding ones, start out with just lyrics. And if I’m really lucky they come together at the same time.”
We were struck by one of your songwriting articles in the New York Times, where you said a great song doesn’t need a well-crafted, memorable melody to work. And yet a lot of your best-known songs are incredibly melodic and memorable…
“Well, I really appreciate you saying that! I myself think my melodic sensibility is pretty simple… I feel that I have a lot of ideas in terms of lyrics but only a few simple ideas in terms of melodies. So I’m always listening to other people that I feel are really melodic geniuses. Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney… they have a beautiful sense of melody. Sting, also – he’s great. If you really want to hear how beautiful a melody can be, go to them!
“Especially because there’s a level above crafting. Billy Joel, to me, is a good craftsman, I love his melodies and I went through a stage of listening to him a lot. But someone like Paul Simon, the way he crafts a melody is so unexpected, and the way he combines it with the subject matter is unique… he really is someone who has a gift for melody and lyrics and the way the whole song works together.”
We were also interested to learn of your involvement in the Greenwich Village Songwriters Exchange… did you learn a lot from being in that environment?
“I did, I loved it! By the time I was 20 I had written a lot of songs, and I’d developed a style I felt was my own, so I felt I had a lot to contribute also. So I was embraced right away by that group of people and I do miss it, being part of that group. There were some great songwriters there and they’d always tell me if I was trying to get away with a cheap line… they still do, to be honest!”
Can we ask you about the writing of Book Of Dreams? That’s a song that’s less folky, less voice and guitar… it’s more produced, more like a pop single. Did you have that in mind when writing it?
“I sure did. At that point in my life everyone was going, ‘We need a new single from you’. And I was listening to a lot of XTC at that point, so I had it in mind to do something that was pop but still kind of cool… and that was my effort. So yes, I did definitely craft that one to be a single.”
“If you write a song that’s a hit, it will resonate all over the world”
We also read that sometimes you prepare a song mentally for a long time before actually writing it. Would Luka be an example of a song that took a lot of thinking about first?
“Yes, very much so. I don’t have any rough drafts of Luka, I don’t think I wrote anything down until I wrote it completely. Usually I take a few stabs at something, and it’ll go through a few changes before I write the final thing. But with Luka there’s nothing like that.
“The name Luka comes from a little boy who lived in my building. I actually saw his name written down before I met him and I thought, who’s this? You know, you can’t tell from the name whether it’s male or female or what the nationality is, and that struck me and I thought, ‘If I ever write a song about an abused child, this would be a good name to use,’ because it’s kind of universal, and it’s a universal problem. And that intuition was borne out when it became a hit all over the world.”
“That’s a weird thing about songwriting: sometimes you’ll hit a nerve that you have no idea, consciously, of what you’re doing. What I mean by that is, it was told to me later that the word ‘luka’ means ‘wounded’ in Indonesian. There’s no way I could have known that, but that’s one thing that happens if you write a song that’s a hit – it will resonate all over the world in different cultures, and it goes way beyond your conscious mind.”
With nearly 50 episodes already under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established last year by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn and Harry Shearer among many others.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 45-minute interview with Suzanne Vega – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.