Interview by Joyce Peters
Reprinted courtesy of Taconic Press
I recently caught up with Suzanne Vega by phone from her home in New York.
JP: What are you most proud of?
SV: The success of “Luka.” That was such a surprise to me. It was a top 10 hit all over the world. I wrote “Luka” in 1984. It was a small song — a character song — a subject no one wants to talk about: child abuse. My manager thought it could be a big hit. I didn’t see it that way, but it was a huge hit. It’s something that’s hard to talk about and I still get responses today. People of all ages still come up to me and say it meant a lot to them. “Tom’s Diner” was also a surprising hit. Those two hits allowed me to go almost anywhere.
JP: How have you evolved over the years?
SV: It’s been a spiral. It all centers around an acoustic guitar and telling a story. I’ve taken jumps into different types of songs, productions, etc. I always seem to return to the guitar. The spiral always seems to go up somehow. As I get older, I realize how moving a beautiful melody can be and how integral it is to songwriting. I’ve gotten better at that.
JP: You’ve credited with paving the way for artists like Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman. What’s it like to hear you described that way?
SV: I’m never sure how to answer that. First of all, I’m very aware of a lot of women who came before me. I had a sense that there was lots of room for me. I worked really hard at it. I write really difficult music and lyrics–things people don’t want to hear about. Lately it’s more crowded–there are more women. Sometimes I’m included in the women of rock retrospective, sometimes I’m a footnote. My job is always the same, but the context is always changing.
JP: Whose praise is most meaningful?
SV: I tend to be pleased with good reviews–it’s still not like people always get what you’re doing even if they like you. My songwriter’s group means a lot to me. We meet at Jack Hardy’s house on Monday nights. The praise there from certain people means a lot. And my daughter–she’s extremely selective and quite blunt.
JP: You’ve worked with some amazingly talented people. Who would you love to collaborate with?
SV: The producer, Butch Vig. It’s a very imaginative, melodic production. Once in awhile, I think about a theatre piece with Lou Reed. I wouldn’t say no to that.
JP: What do you want to happen next?
SV: Let’s see — I’d like to work on writing a novel. I’d like to have a nice long steady career where I can sell records and books. Make a living happily without politics — a way to continue in a good way. Part of that is to work more on my writing.
JP: What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on stage?
SV: In 1989, we performed in Glastonbury [England] wearing bulletproof vests because someone was stalking my bass player.
JP: What would surprise people to find out about you?
SV: I’ve actually been thinking about this issue. I collect vintage clothing and I’m starting to think about auctioning off items from my closet. I’m attracted to things like red sequined cocktail dresses and white ostrich feather jackets. I may call it “Suzanne Vega’s Secret Closet.”
JP: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
SV: Putting on my makeup. It’s a way of focusing myself before the show. And cough drops. That’s about it.
JP: What adjectives would people who really know you use to describe you?
SV: Reserved. Very intelligent. They figure out eventually that I’m passionate.
JP: What are you passionate about?
SV: Music, poetry, figuring out some way to do good in the world, and write what I perceive is injustice. It’s one of the main focuses of my life, especially in the area of child abuse. I don’t shout about it like Bono, though.
JP: What’s on your nightstand at home?
SV: An overflow of about 45 books! They’ve fallen off the table and onto the floor. I’m reading “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.” That’s a pretty great book. And “Varieties of Religious Experiences.” I always go back to them to remind myself of that side of life.
JP: As a New Yorker, how has life changed for you in the last year?
SV: It’s been a devastating year for our family; there’s been a lot of death. September 11th was followed by the death of my youngest brother, Tim, who worked at The World Trade Center. He avoided going into work that day because he was sick, but he died eight months later. I’ve been collecting my brother’s artwork and we’re putting on a show of his work at a gallery in New York. My ex-husband’s father died this year. Ruby [daughter] bears the brunt of a lot of this. Our family cat died. And two lizards. It’s been a year where I’ve had to teach Ruby about things that are pretty deep knowledge. When I think back on this year, I think of my brother.
JP: What can we expect from your upcoming performance at The Towne Crier?
SV: It will be me on guitar and Mike Visceglia on bass. It will be a combination of old and new songs: a nice mixture. I like performing this way. I can stop on a dime and perform almost anything. It’s always intimate at the Towne Crier.