Since 1985 Suzanne Vega has been an instrumental force in popular music. It was her ground-breaking, self-titled CD that paved the way for other female singer-songwriters like Tracy Chapman and Jewel, and her literate, poetic songwriting that proved the general public was indeed capable of listening to music with intelligent lyrics.Since 1985 Suzanne Vega has been an instrumental force in popular music. It was her ground-breaking, self-titled CD that paved the way for other female singer-songwriters like Tracy Chapman and Jewel, and her literate, poetic songwriting that proved the general public was indeed capable of listening to music with intelligent lyrics.
Videos by American Songwriter
Vega is a modern day troubadour. Though she loves the purity of standing alone in front of an audience with a guitar, what thrills her the most is the execution of an idea and the creation of a song.
Dancing was Vega’s first love but while attending the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City as a dance major, she became drawn to the musicians in her class. “Whoever played for the classes made such a big difference in my day,” recalls Vega. “I eventually realized it was the music that made me feel like dancing.” She was all of 17.
As a teenager, Vega had a regular Saturday night writing appointment with herself. “I would start writing about 8 or 9 o’clock at night. And I would work until about 1 a.m. Then I would go to sleep and wake up and finish what I had begun the night before. Usually whatever was missing would be filled in as I slept.” She churned out songs but concedes that she rarely performs any material from that time frame.
Over the years, her writing process has changed. Instead of writing a song a week, she now pens a song each month. Inspired by another band’s music, a cool rhythm, or an interesting word or phrase, she keeps a notebook for capturing those precious yet often fleeting moments, writing down as much as her initial vision as possible. And she discovered co-writing.
“I started co-writing when I got my record deal and I started having a band because I wanted to expand musically,” Suzanne explains. “So sometimes I would write musically with other people. I don’t collaborate on the lyrics.”
Perhaps her most notable collaboration was with then-husband, Mitchell Froom, who produced her 99.9F and Nine Objects of Desire albums. “When Mitchell and I worked together, often I would have the lyrics already and he would have the music already and they would happen to fit together. That’s a really kind of amazing synchronicity.”
Suzanne describes her most recent release, Songs in Red and Gray, as “More typically feminine,” explaining that, generally speaking, women often write about their feelings and their bodily experiences while men write more about larger issues like justice or peace. She’s quick to point out that there are many exceptions to this generalization, but she does feel there is a feminine style of writing, even if she wishes that weren’t true. She also believes that the music industry treats female songwriters differently.
Vega questions, “If Dylan had been a woman, or if there were a female Dylan today, would she even be recognized for who she is? If she had written the exact same lyrics, would she be recognized? I’m not sure that she would be. I think people would look at [the song] and tend to think that she’s writing about her own stream of consciousness or they would personalize it in some way. They would apply the stereotype to her and she probably wouldn’t be recognized as the wildly unique person that she is.”
Suzanne’s career has not been without its share of struggles – the type of struggles only a female songwriter can have. Becoming a mother forced Suzanne’s career-driven priorities to take a back seat for a while. While it’s generally accepted for musician dads to leave the baby and go back to work, it’s a completely different issue for women. Thus, raising a child required her to be more disciplined with her songwriting schedule and work around the things only a mother can do. And lack of sleep made writing virtually impossible for a long time – a very long time. “I went through four years during which I think I wrote two songs,” she admits.
How did she manage to overcome such a serious case of writer’s block? By re-connecting with a New York songwriter’s group she had belonged to before she had her record deal. The group meets on Monday evenings in the Village. It’s hosted by Jack Hardy and is called The Songwriter’s Exchange.
“The idea of the group is to come in every Monday with a new song. And I can never do that,” Suzanne explains. “But listening to some of the other people was really good for me because I could see that some people have the ability to make a song out of a small moment or an interesting observation. It doesn’t have to be an epiphany. It doesn’t have to be a huge revelation. It can just be a moment. So listening to the other writers got my juices going. It must’ve been about a month and a half before I even ventured to write anything. I think ‘Soap and Water’ [on Songs in Red and Gray] was the first one.”
When Suzanne is not touring she still attends these weekly songwriting meetings and recommends that other songwriters search for similar feedback. The key, as she points out, is to find a group that is not overly critical or one that’s trying to tear everyone down. A supportive group is one that will help you learn and grow as a writer by allowing you to discuss ideas and songs with other like-minded people.
Suzanne offers this personal piece of advice to aspiring writers: “Keep going. Keep all those tings that people think are weird about you. Those things that people try to correct. Figure out what works for you. And just keep going for it, even if it takes 10 years or 12 years or 15 years. If you have a vision, then you’ll just have to keep going.”