Suzanne Vega: Inside the Mystery, Part Two.

This is the second part of our two-part story.
See Part One here: Suzanne Inside The Mystery, Part One

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That song [“Predictions”] is similar to a poem in that one needs to know the title to understand it. Do you write songs as poems? All words before you work on music?

I’m still working on that. I wouldn’t say that I have one set way of working. It’s usually that it comes together. Usually I have an idea. With ‘Cracking’ I knew that the title came first, and after that I would try different lines and it just wasn’t working, and sometimes it will take months for the thing to line up correctly until it seems to fall right in the right place.

‘Luka’ was that way, also. It takes months of kind of fingering it in my mind, while I’m walking around or doing something else, it’s just like a problem that my mind goes back to. It wiggles. It’s like you’re trying to get the right angle, and once the angle comes, I can write the song in two hours. Like ‘Luka’ took two hours. It took months of thinking about it and lining up the shot, in a sense. Like if you’re playing pool and you want to clear the table, you line it all up, and then you just hit it and everything clears. It’s very satisfying, but it takes months of preparation.

 With ‘Luka’, you had a character in mind?

 Yes, but I wasn’t sure what the character would say. I knew what the character’s problem was, but I didn’t know how to get the listener involved. I wanted it to be from the point of view of a person who is abused. Now the problem that that person has is that they can’t say it. So how do you get the problem out if you can’t say it? How do you involve the listener?

Well, you introduce yourself: “My name is Luka.” And “I live on the second floor, I live upstairs from you,” and so therefore you’re engaging the listener. “I think you’ve seen me before,” so you start to listen. You’re drawing the listener into this world with very simple, basic information. And it then proceeds to state the problem without ever saying what the problem is. That was my problem as a songwriter: How do I give this information without ever giving it?

It’s easy to point a finger. It’s easy to say, “Child abuse must stop” and everybody knows this.

 So much tension is created with the line “just don’t ask me what it was,” that this person is holding a lot inside, and doesn’t want to talk about it.

 Or can’t talk about it.

 It’s a technique that Randy Newman often uses, though few others do, of using a character to make a point by what he doesn’t say.

 Yeah. The listener has to work a lot. It’s true. There’s no getting around that. [Laughs]

Suzanne Vega. “I don’t mind being a poet as long as I get to mingle in society.”

 Was Randy Newman an influence on your writing?

 For a long time, one of my favorite songs was ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’ because it’s not sentimental at all. There’s so much feeling in it; he just gives you certain images. It’s a very moving song, but it’s not sentimental. I think I was aware of a few other songs, but that one, I remember feeling that I’d like to write like that.

 I was thinking more of his character songs. Not a lot of songwriters write in character, as you did in ‘Luka’.

 I guess I got that idea from studying poetry, and from T.S. Eliot. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. If you just read it flat, it doesn’t make any sense. When you realize that this character is revealing information, then The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock makes sense if you look at it through his eyes. Whereas if you just read it flat as a poem, it just seems to just lie there, it doesn’t really do anything. And once I realized that, I started thinking about how you could use that, like a camera. So it was something I was playing with.

 Are there other poets besides Eliot who have influenced you?

 I’d say Sylvia Plath because of the way she uses language, the way she puts words together. She uses language almost sculpturally. She’ll pick words for what they sound like as well as what they mean. That was very impressive to me. It seems to pack more into it. It’s almost like code.

And, of course, Dylan.

“To me it’s really important that a song be true because you have to stand on stage every night and sing it.

 You think of him as a poet?

 The way that he used his images. To me they work as well on the page as when you listen to them.

I don’t mind being a poet as long as I get to mingle in society. I don’t like this idea that to be a poet you have to be aloof and you can’t walk in the street. Poetry should be part of living. Everything should be all mixed together.

On one of the tours I was down in Texas and the woman from the record company said to me, “What would you like to do?” because we had an afternoon off, and I said, “Let’s go shopping.” And she goes, “Oh, I’m so relieved to find you’re a regular girl. I thought that you were a poet. I thought you’d be no fun, that you’d sit in your room and look out the window.” She was relieved.

I think, yes, I probably am a poet, but I really feel the need to be among people and to watch them and talk to them and be on a regular basis.

 Do you get a lot of song ideas from observing people?

 A lot of people say I’m very observational, but I’m really much more involved than I pretend. These are not just clinical observations about people. There is a direct connection between me and the person that I am writing about. There was a boy named Luka but he was not abused. He’s probably shocked to death that I put him in this song.

[In] the things that I’m writing about, I’m revealing some facet of my own life. It’s something that I’ve seen or been involved with. It’s not just a question of reading a paper and saying, “That’s a good topic. I think I’ll write a Gulf War song.” That to me is too academic. I think, in order for it to ring true, you have to know what you’re talking about. It’s not enough just to look and say, “This is what I deduce.” You have to be involved.

 Do songs gain more resonance if they are true?

 I think so, yeah. To me it’s really important that a song be true because you have to stand on stage every night and sing it.

And you have to force people to listen to it. And if it’s not true, they’re not going to want to listen to it. You can fool yourself for a while, but after a while you will lose the urge to sing it because it won’t have any resonance anymore.

 So with a song like ‘Marlene On The Wall’, you actually had a poster of Marlene Dietrich on your wall?

 Yeah. Oh, that was a truthful song. The lines came out of my life. But you want to be careful, too, because you don’t want to get into “Oh, my boyfriend left me…” I have a problem with specifically confessional songwriting. I think you have to craft it in some way. I don’t think you can come on stage and blurt out your innermost feelings. My niece can blurt out her innermost feelings. She’s four years old. I wouldn’t want to pay $25 [laughs] to go see her do that. You need to put it in a form. Although it is truthful, you have to give it some respect, or a certain kind of dignity, by putting it into a kind of form. Because these people are not my friends. They’re paying to see a show, some form of entertainment. So I’m not gonna sit there and talk to them like Ronee Blakely in Nashville. [Laughter]

I had breakfast with Leonard Cohen once and I asked him, “What do you think of confessional songwriting? Is it better to be confessional or not confessional?” He said, “You do whatever you have to do to make the song work. Whether it’s confess or lie or make it up.” And that makes sense because that’s what his songs are. Some of them are confessional; some of them you’re sure that he’s lying. [Laughs]

 I understand that he is extremely business-like about his songwriting; he carries a briefcase and works constantly on his songs every day. Is this how you approach your songs?

 I find that I do work on it everyday but it’s in my mind. I find that it’s more like a problem that’s unsolved. My mind will wander back to it if I’m in a good frame of mind. I’ll say, “Well, that last line just isn’t working” or “That just doesn’t seem to be the right thing,” so my mind will wander back to it, but it’s not the formal thing of sitting with a briefcase and working on my lyrics.

 Do you mean that your mind keeps working on songs even when you’re doing other activities?

 Yeah. Usually when I’m walking. Walking from one place to another. Or sitting on a bus or thinking or talking. My mind will keep going back to that one song and go, “Well, those last two lines, I just don’t know…” And it’ll start fingering it and eventually the whole thing will just fall into place.

 Lots of songwriters have said that their problems get solved while driving–

 Yeah. Your mind is occupied, so your other mind is left to play. You really need that time to do that. I was under a lot of pressure for the third album, and everyone was kind of stomping around and going, “Where’s the rest of the songs? We can’t finish the album without the songs.” I started to feel that I just wanted to get out. I just wanted to go for a walk or go anywhere. And it looks as though I’m avoiding it. And I’m not avoiding it. I’m just going to do my work in the way that’s the best way I can. But it looks like I’m avoiding it, so everyone goes, “No, you can’t go to the health food store. You must stay here and finish the song.” [Laughs] But you need that time to approach it obliquely. For some weird reason, that’s where the answers come from. Sort of a left-handed approach.

 It would seem that your material would demand that kind of approach, as opposed to songwriters working to write radio hits, that go to it everyday–

 It’s never worked for me. [Laughs] I’ve tried it a couple times, and every time I write a song to be a hit, it doesn’t even sing. It doesn’t work for me.

 Pete Seeger, who encouraged us to interview you, said that he agreed with Woody Guthrie that anytime you try to write songs commercially, you can harm yourself artistically–

 Well, you see, everyone knows that, and I knew that. I knew that when I was fourteen, and I knew that when I was 26. But somehow you forget, and you start thinking you can dablle in it just a little bit and twist it just a little bit and aim it in this direction. But for me, that kind of stuff just doesn’t work. So I’m strict with myself now. I’m only going to do the things that are satisfying artistically. Because I realize that my own standards, when I’m left to my own devices, are very strict. And I have a whole system of rules for myself that are satisfying to me. So for a song to really ring true, it sort of has to go through this filtering process within myself. It’s much stricter than what the record companies expect. [Laughs]

I realized that’s really what’s going to make it satisfying. Not trying to get a Top 40 hit. I learned a lot in the last year, from the last tour and the last album.

 What did you learn?

 [Laughs] I learned that it’s not good to try to force a hit. I mean, as a producer you have to be aware of these things because your record company wants a single. I feel that it’s better to not go for the pop thing if that’s not what you’re going to be. I mean, for a while I was confused cause ‘Luka’ was a hit and I was never expecting it to be one.

So I became popular, which made it pop. So this made me confused. Am I pop, am I folk? And the journalists were doing the same thing. Now I see that it’s pop if it’s popular, and other than that, it doesn’t matter. I wrote ‘Luka’ three or four years before it became a hit. I wrote ‘Tom’s Diner’ ten years ago. It wasn’t pop then, but now it’s pop.

 You actually wrote ‘Luka’ before your debut album. Did you consider putting it on your first album?

 No. I needed some time for it to settle into the bag of songs. I needed some time to get used to it as a song. A lot of people felt it was catchy, and I used to feel insulted, because I’d say, “Catchy? Obviously you missed the point of the song.”

 And yet it is. Musically, it is a catchy song.

 I guess it is. I think because I was aiming at such a complex subject that I was aiming for the simplest line to get there. Simple melodies, happy chords. I felt I had to make it accessible because it was such a dark subject. So I went all out. But I also tried to write in the language of a child. So that’s probably why it worked, because it is so accessible.

 It’s an upbeat song, and the melody is a happy one, as you said, especially for that subject matter.

 I’d been listening to the Lou Reed Berlin album that Sunday when I wrote the song. And you can really draw a straight line between ‘Luka’ and that album. That Berlin album is filled with references of domestic violence and all kinds of violence. The songs are all in major keys. They’re all done on acoustic guitar. So for me, [‘Luka’] is like the extra song on the Berlin album. [Laughs] To me. Stylistically, it almost belonged there.

 I never would have guessed.

 No one ever draws that comparison.

Lou Reed and Suzanne Vega

 Did the record company choose it to be the single?

 I think when we produced it, everybody felt that it was going to be the single. I said, “Well, good luck. Knock yourselves out.” Cause I had no expectation for it.

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