Suzanne Vega is an author of books, a story-weaving writer of emotionally complex songs, and recently, an actor and playwright. Carson McCullers Talks About Love, written by Vega (music co-written with fellow musician Duncan Sheik), ran at New York’s Rattlesnake Theatre in May.
As she talked, she pondered a revamped version of the play about the Southern writer, which she plans to re-mount in San Francisco this fall.
“When I get off the phone with you, I’ll probably hunker down and write a few pages for the new version,” she says.
The wide-ranging telephone discussion touched on her music, including a well-known song Vega recently revisited, her upcoming Tupelo Music Hall shows with accompanist Jerry Leonard (“a whole band and orchestra in one, he’s kind of a wizard on the guitar”), Occupy Wall Street, rekindling romance via e-mail, and the career retrospective Close-Up series, which gathers Vega’s impressive catalog into four thematically organized volumes — the final is due later this year.
You’ve said that the title of Close-Up describes the vocals, and their proximity to the listener.
I called it “Close-Up” because I was stripping the songs down, but then it became kind of a description of the way it was engineered. Joe Blaney’s sound, especially with the vocals, is kind of warm, close up and grainy, and it really does sound like I’m in the room singing in your ear. That was a happy coincidence of the name and the aesthetic coming together like that.
On the other hand, “Tom’s Diner” was fleshed out with strings and rhythm. Why?
Because the original is so easily found, there didn’t seem any point in re-doing the a cappella version. The string arrangement is an adaptation of the reprise from “Solitude Standing,” and it was also the way I’d been performing it live, with the strings and the beats. It felt right putting it out there in the moment.
Does it surprise you how much “Tom’s Diner” has been analyzed? One writer took the time to trace every element of it, down to identifying William Holden as the actor you didn’t know.
Yeah, I appreciated that actually! I’ve been teased over the years — “you didn’t know William Holden was?” I’m like, yeah, OK, I do now. So I’ve made up for lost time. But certainly when I wrote the song I never would have imagined what was going to happen, and it’s something I embrace. I pretty much live with the wonder of it every day.
You are an early victim of the music appropriation age with the way DNA took it and reworked it.
I don’t think of myself as a victim in that respect — certainly after we bought it and it became ours and that was my idea to take it and make it our own. At the time I wasn’t sure if the audience would accept it as something from me, and that’s why I released it under the name DNA Featuring Suzanne Vega, because I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t my production. And DNA were very surprised [laughs] to find themselves a group. They thought I was going to release it as my record. But I made them the front men because the production was really the front and center element. And it became a big hit; to my surprise it was widely accepted by millions of people.
Luka is perhaps your most well-known song. Was he a real person?
Yes, there was a real boy named Luka, and he lived in my building, and for a little while I was receiving his mail by mistake. I found myself looking at the name. It’s a very ambiguous name; it’s neither male nor female and it’s not a specific ethnicity. So I was wondering about the name and I saw the child — this boy was waiting for the elevator. I said, what’s your name, and he said, “My name is Luka.” And I thought, there he is. I guess I appropriated his character ... I already had the idea for the song, but I didn’t know what shape it would take and who I would get to be the mouthpiece for the abused child. So Luka as I knew him was not an abused child, he was just a boy — I lived in the basement of that building so everyone lived upstairs from me, not just Luka. That’s how it happened, it took a few months to fall into place, but once I had the opening line it began from there.
“Song of the Stoic” revisits Luka, writing a final chapter in his life. What compelled you to finish his story?
That’s a complicated question. I guess in anybody’s life there are scenes that occur, and … I guess I’ll have to get used to answering questions like that if I’m going to put them out there on YouTube. Let’s think about that for a second. Besides the obvious point of it seemed worth revisiting I guess there’s a part of my psyche that is that character and needs to be revisited, I guess all the characters I’ve written about I feel some connection to. I don’t know what to say other than it was an idea that took root and that’s how it flowered. What if we revisit this character and he’s like this. So it’s a good question and I hope I get to figure it out in the next 10 years.
It’s a sad ending too, looking at the mood of the character.
Yes, it’s very stoic, very austere. Which is why I say it’s a part of my psyche. I wouldn’t want to feel that way all the time, but I was sort of in a certain mood and I know people like this and sometimes I feel that way. It’s not the totality of how I feel, but there are moments when I identify with that person. Again, it’s a male character and I understand that point of view.
The new material you’re working on, does it include any similar codas to earlier songs?
That’s a good question. I can’t think of any. There were songs that had sequels. “The Queen and the Soldier” had “Knight Moves,” which was sort of a play, sort of taking the same characters and moving them on. Not as literally as I’ve done here … I’ll have to think about that one. I’ll just say no unless someone thinks of some other song that I’ve carried on the character, I guess I’ll be corrected. But I think this is the first time that I’ve done that. People do ask me all the time what happened to Luka, so I suppose because [people] have asked me I’ve sort of planted him — like this is what might have happened. In some ways it’s a response to that.
It must feel remarkable to have created such an enduring character that people care about so deeply.
It is amazing. I actually went and saw a play recently called Horsedreams by this very interesting playwright, Dael Orlandersmith. The main child in the play is named Luka, and every character is symbolic. The father is named Loman, as in Willie Loman, and the mother is Desiree. I knew she was familiar with my work and had taken the child and put it on stage. It took me about half an hour to stop feeling a twinge of surprise every time they mentioned his name. It was odd to see the child come to life, and the kid who played Luka was so great. After I met him I told him I’d written a song called Luka and of course he looked at me and smiled and didn’t really know what I was talking about, but the playwright knew my work. It was very odd to see the child come to life and very moving, I have to say.
You released the Close-Up volumes on your own label. Did the business element motivate you?
Sure, but I have to say that I had thought of the idea way back when I was with A&M Records. I had thought of both reorganizing the material so it could be released thematically, and doing an acoustic series, and both ideas were well-received when I was with them. So both ideas were percolating for a while, and once I found myself without a record label again, I thought now is the time to do that. The other thing I was thinking of, I was released from my Blue Note contract in 2008, and I was just getting familiar with Facebook at that time and I remember thinking how great it would be to have a bunch of people that I could interact with one on one, so my thought was while I was promoting the Close Up series, I could be gathering a group of people on Facebook so that when I made a new album, I would have an audience to release it to that would be ready made. It’s been very successful, my goal was to have a group of 100,000 people, and we’re at 77,000 now. So I think that’s pretty cool. That was the other idea, that over the two years, gather a bunch of people in one place.
You’re releasing it in a trickle, which is a very appealing idea in the Internet age.
Yeah, it’s been a little confusing to some people, it’s not a normal marketing technique, but I think it’s been a very interesting experiment and I’ve been very happy with it.
Do the Occupy Wall Street protests remind you of your experiences as a child in the Sixties?
It does bring back those memories. There are a lot of people of my generation who feel like they missed the ’60s, and I must say, I did not miss the ’60s, I was right there, with my parents who took me to every rally, protest, marches, and we went to Hunter College, and the Columbia University riots happened right outside my front door one day when people were marching down Broadway — I lived on 102nd and Broadway. So I don’t feel like I missed it the first time. My sympathies are there even if I don’t go there myself and my husband is a civil rights lawyer and spoken word poet and has been very involved in it — he represents a lot of the people who’ve been arrested, the protesters. So we get a lot of calls night and day, so I kind of see it through that angle. It’s here at my house. I don’t have to go down to Zuccoti Park or some of the other places because it’s here already. We’re getting phone calls at 1:30 in the morning from people who’ve been arrested and need representation. So my sympathies are there.
You married your husband after once dating and then being out touch for over two decades. That’s amazing.
It is pretty incredible, and it’s been great. I guess we lost contact — for two people who communicate very well, we were unsuccessful at keeping in touch. It was the mail system. He would send me a letter and it would go to the wrong address or get mixed in with fan mail and I didn’t answer it for two years and so he was angry when I finally did answer it. Missed connections right and left, then finally with e-mail it became easier to get in touch. He tracked me down on my website and sent me an e-mail. Then he phoned me, and the next thing I knew he was flying to New York.
Saved by technology.
Ha, ha — exactly.