Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Suzanne Vega in a black hat singing into a mic

Suzanne Vega's Personal Best

30 November 2022, 16:30

Suzanne Vega is making up for the lost time of the pandemic with multiple tours and a tenth studio album in the works. She talks to Alan Pedder from the road about which songs, old and new, she considers her personal best.

Fast approaching her fortieth year in the business, Suzanne Vega is as busy as she ever was.

When we speak on the phone, she's in a hotel room in Paris preparing to play the last of a three-night run at the sumptuously grand Cité de la musique. It's part of a month-long tour that continues a long-running collaboration with Ictus and Collegium Vocale Gent, two instrumental ensembles from Belgium.

First staged almost exactly four years ago, it sees her narrating the entirety of the Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opera Einstein on the Beach, a 200-minute epic. “It’s going really well,” she says brightly, with no hint of fatigue. “It’s fun to be out on the road as opposed to being home for two years.”

Making up for all the lost time of the pandemic, it’s already Vega’s fourth tour of the year and when she gets back to New York in December, there’s a residency at City Winery booked in over the Christmas holidays.

And that's not all. Next year will likely see a tenth studio album from her, the first since 2016’s Lover, Beloved. “That’s my definite intention,” she says. “I just need to clear away some space for myself to do it. I'm excited about it, believe me!”

Suzanne Vega and an acoustic guitar framed by two black curtains

Vega says she can’t talk about what the album might involve just yet, because she’s still in the phase of “collecting thoughts, ideas, titles, melodies, and verses here and there about various things.” What she can talk about, though, is her first tour of 2023, which darts around the UK through February and into March. “It'll be a very different thing from what I’m doing right now,” she says. “Just me and [long-time collaborator] Gerry Leonard, and it’ll be my own songs, old, new and in between.“

Old, new and in between songs are exactly what Personal Best is about, so Vega was tasked with coming up with five that she considers to be her own greatest hits. Unfazed, she says she tried to pick songs that were representative of different times in her career and songs that were groundbreaking at the time. And, for the first time in the (admittedly short) life of this column, a brand new song that she hasn’t yet recorded.

Titled “Last Train from Mariupol”, it was written in response to the horrors of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I’d had the idea in my mind for a long time and eventually wrote it while I was on tour in July,” says Vega. “I had hoped that I could add it to the tour then but instead I got Covid and was laid flat out for five days, so I thought I’d better not mess around with the setlist right then.”

She did add it to the setlist for a later run of shows in the US, and her crew had captured a live version with Gerry Leonard accompanying on guitar. When I ask if she has any video footage from the tour that we can run with the piece, she offers instead to film one for us in her hotel room and set it to that recording. “It’s really no problem, we’ll figure something out,” she says, and a few days later the video arrives.

Watch it below, and read on for the stories behind each song.

"Cracking" (1985)

BEST FIT: This is the first song from your first album but to me it still feels quite contemporary. How do you feel about “Cracking” all these years later?

SUZANNE VEGA: Every time I sing it, it still feels fresh. To me, it still feels modern. It still gets the audience to turn around and listen.

When I wrote it in my very early twenties, it was a stylistic departure for me. Before that I was more interested in writing the kind of songs that Leonard Cohen wrote, longer ballads. So “Cracking” was a whole new thing.

It’s a restrained song but the drama is in the structure. You know, it starts off very carefully and delicately, and by the end you’ve been on a little journey with the narrator. You start to realise that it’s the person singing the song that’s cracking.

Right. This person is walking through a park and having some kind of crisis. Can you talk about how that idea developed? Where did it come from?

I had just moved out of my parents’ apartment and I moved in unknowingly with a woman who was having a breakdown. She lived in a big apartment with several empty rooms, one of which I rented. Living there, I started to feel as if I was taking on another burden, besides being young and in college and away from home. I started to feel as though I was sort of absorbing her state of mind as well, and it was a lot to handle.

At the same time I was studying film and I was really deeply impressed by this film called Repulsion by Roman Polanski. I was very sensitive to the soundtrack of it, which I loved. If you haven’t seen the film, the soundtrack is sort of created from the point of view of the character [played by Catherine Deneuve].

There’s a scene where she breaks a breadstick or something and it sounds like a gunshot going off, and watching it I thought, ‘This is how I feel.’ So that was the atmosphere I had in mind when I wrote “Cracking”.

Did you live with this woman for long? How did it all turn out?

I lived with her for six months, I think, then I went to talk to a counsellor at the college and she said, ‘You really have to get out of there and find a different place to live.’ So I did, and the minute I told her I was moving, she got herself together very quickly.

It was relatively easy to find another place and I certainly felt a lot better. I had a very supportive roommate after that, and then I continued on my journey. But for that moment in time, I just felt all the weight of the world in my head.

You’ve talked before about the reference to ‘the Deep Freeze’ in this song, and how it was some kind of waking paralysis that you experienced as a child. Can you talk a bit about that?

Yeah, ‘the Deep Freeze’ was a codename for a state of being that I used to get into from time to time. The way you described it is pretty good, I’m not sure I’ve used that term myself but that’s about right.

It used to happen when I was either very frightened or tired, or just stunned by something. There were always things going on in our neighbourhood and in my home when I was growing up.

Hitting the Deep Freeze meant being unable to move or to feel anything, not being able to respond to anything. I always felt that there was a certain danger in being in that state of mind because I couldn't turn and run, I couldn’t fight back. I was kind of frozen in position, so I was always afraid of it.

It sounds awful. Is that something you grew out of as an adult?

No. It was still something I experienced at the time I wrote this song, which was when I was 20. If I didn’t always feel it physically, there were times I still felt it emotionally.

Cover of Suzanne Vegas 1985 self titled debut

"Caramel" (1996)

BEST FIT: You've talked before about how this song was influenced by Brazilian bossa nova, and especially by Astrud Gilberto. Were you exposed to that music a lot, growing up?

SUZANNE VEGA: I was exposed to it through my parents in the ‘60s. They loved jazz and were always playing it at home. They played Stan Getz and Paul Desmond. They played Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley. They just played jazz constantly.

I think I first heard Astrud Gilberto on the radio and I just loved her voice right away. I don’t know what gave me the idea, but I remember thinking that if I would ever sing that would be the kind of voice I’d want to have. A simple, straightforward voice.

She didn’t sound like the other women. She didn’t have a high voice or sing with vibrato. Her voice was just as simple and raw as a little girl’s, and that’s how I wanted to sing. So that’s the way I sang, and still do sing.

Caramel is a nice metaphor for something that's either unrequited or inappropriate, a forbidden fruit kind of thing. What’s the story there?

[laughs] Well, I suppose I asked for it since I chose this song.

I had a crush on someone, and caramel was a word I used to describe the colour of this person’s skin. The reason it was inappropriate was because I had just gotten married – to someone else, obviously – so nothing ever came of it. It was a passing crush. I never acted on it, and I don’t think the person I wrote it about even knew about it for years. He was kind of a friend.

What made it even more awkward is that I produced the Nine Objects of Desire album with my husband, and “Caramel” was the first song. He said, “This is a great song. One of the best you’ve ever written. Do we need to talk?”

So we did talk about it and I explained to him that I, as an artist, had the right to write whatever I wanted, and that I didn’t behave inappropriately. I defended myself to the tee, and he did a great job on the production.

I felt that this song was a breakthrough in style for me because I had always wanted to do a song with that Antônio Carlos Jobim feel to it, and my husband knew just what to do with it. He did some really beautiful things with the arrangements, and it's one of the songs I'm still most proud of.

You said the guy you wrote it about didn't know for quite a long time. Does that mean you did tell him eventually?

No, I never did! I never told him. But I think he figured it out. Unfortunately he's passed on now. Before that we’d kept having this sort of eternal ‘Let's go for a beer and talk’ sort of situation, but we never actually got to do that. He died very quickly, in the last couple of years, so the moment has passed now into eternity.

That’s a shame. The song already had a sensual but tragic kind of feel, and now it feels a little extra tragic.

Yes, I felt that way too. Well, that's life, you know? When you have the moment to go for those beers, you better go for them. That's my advice.

Cover of Suzanne Vega's 1996 album Nine Objects of Desire

"New York is My Destination" (2016)

BEST FIT: This song comes from your album Lover, Beloved, which started out as a play about Carson McCullers. Presumably this song is written from her perspective.

SUZANNE VEGA: Yeah, exactly. It’s her perspective, and it’s full of all the longings and hopes that people have when they have dreamed about coming to New York. Some of the things in the song did actually happen, and for a while she lived in Brooklyn. In the end though, New York proved to be too much for her she moved out to Nyack, which is about an hour outside of the city.

I love the musical theatre influence here. Was it the first time you’d written this kind of music?

I think so. I worked with Duncan Sheik on the whole soundtrack for the play, and I came to him with very specific instructions. I said, ‘I want this to sound like Rodgers and Hart, and it should be a waltz.’

He had a real knack for coming up with things. I mean, give him 15 minutes and he’d come up with a glorious melody, the chords and everything. So I was really thrilled with what he did, and he was really a lot of fun to work with. He's not what I would call a typical musical theatre composer. He's written all kinds of songs, he’s very free in his writing.

[Reconsiders for a minute] Was it the first time? Well, I'd been working on this project since I was in college so I can’t say it was the first time I’ve done that kind of music. But it was the first time I got to work with Duncan.

You’ve since made a film of the play that premiered at SXSW earlier this year. How was that experience for you?

It was wonderful. I was so excited. We made this film so quickly and on such a small budget. Actually, the first time I saw it was watching it on my iPhone and I had grave doubts, you know? I thought, ‘What have I done here?’. But to see it on the big screen at the premiere was a whole different animal. Let’s just say I was thrilled. So now we’re working on getting it distributed and seeing what kind of platform we can go to. It’s a whole new world for me.

Was it a bit more daunting to make the film compared to the play? Because you knew it would kind of live forever?

Yes. See, here's my thought. The first act takes place when Carson McCullers is very young [her first novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published in 1940, when she was 23] and the second act takes place in 1967, about a month before she died.

The way I see it, I can always play the second act since, you know, she’s seconds away from death, but I felt it maybe wasn’t so appropriate if I keep doing Act One myself. So I wanted to get the film of the play done while I could still do it, and I’m glad I did because then Covid hit and all hell broke loose.

Your parents moved to NYC when you were two and a half years old. Do you feel like they maybe had some of the same dreams and fantasies about New York as Carson McCullers had?

Well, it's possible. I grew up with my Puerto Rican stepfather who came to New York City when he was 13. I think he was just taken there, so I don’t think he himself had any particular dream of being in New York. His parents had wanted better economic opportunities and that’s how he ended up growing up in the South Bronx in the 1950s.

I don’t know if life was any picnic for him, but he loved New York and he lived there his whole life. When he met my mother, he wanted to bring her there so that’s what he did. My mother had never been to New York before and I don’t know she had any dream or desire to go.

She was a farm girl from Minnesota and she landed in East Harlem, so I don’t think she had any idea what she was getting involved in, to be honest. As it turns out she loves New York and she loved East Harlem. She just landed there and it all worked out.

Cover of Suzanne Vegas 2014 album Lover Beloved

"I Never Wear White" (2014)

SUZANNE VEGA: This song is so much fun to play live. It’s the point in the show where I pick the mic up off the stand and prowl around the stage. I get to go right to the front and sing it right into the audience’s faces, and either they love it or they’re sort of taken aback. But most people get the song right away and get really into it, whether they are 6 years old or 76 years old. They love the attitude of it. And I love the attitude of it.

It’s sort of my version of a Rolling Stones song. I said to Gerry, I need a sort of Keith Richard riff that’s a bit like “Paint It Black” or something like that. And he said ‘Oh, like this?’ and played this great riff he had just written the night before. And I said, ‘Yes, exactly like that!’, and the song was practically done in about three minutes.

It’s one of those funny things that just caught fire, and I just get this deep satisfaction when I sing it.

BEST FIT: A lot of the songs from the Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles album are quite metaphorical, whereas this one is very direct.

Yeah, I guess it's quite literal. To the point where, for a while, I would get into these little arguments with girls in their early teens who really wanted it to be true. They wanted it to be that severe.

Like, if I was signing merch and wearing a peach-coloured jacket or something, they’d come up to me and say, ‘I thought you never wear white!’. And I’d say, ‘Well, this isn’t white’. ‘Well, it’s like white.’ ‘No it’s not, it’s peach and peach is different from white.’ Funny little arguments like that.

So, because of this song, some people expect me to be in black all the time. And I respect that, but it’s not literally true.

I’m sure you get people asking, ‘Well, what about your wedding?’

Yeah, they think they'll catch me out. The fact is I've worn white all over the place but I've never actually felt comfortable in it. Except for on both of my wedding days, when I've worked towards some variation of cream or something like that. Most of the time when I’m wearing white, I always feel a bit like it’s something I’m just trying out. Whereas the minute I get back into black, it just feels like home.

I read that when you were making this record you were hoping that Lou Reed would join you on this song. Obviously, he wasn’t able to, but I can totally imagine him singing it.

Honestly, I don't know what I expected him to do. Maybe take a chorus or do a background vocal or something like that. I sent the song to him and he sort of gave me faint praise for it. Something like, ‘Oh very nice,’ which of course is really not what you want to hear.

He had been very enthusiastic about another song that I gave to the New York Times called “Daddy Is White”. He loved that song so I thought he might have liked this one, but I think he had other things to do.

Cover of Suzanne Vegas 2016 album Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles

"Last Train from Mariupol" (2022)

SUZANNE VEGA: This song is almost like a nursery rhyme in that the lyrics are very, very simple. The whole song is four verses long and there’s a very simple guitar part that repeats and repeats, so again I feel like this is something new for me.

The song came from all the images we were seeing on the news, especially at the beginning of the war in Ukraine in February, when there was this mass panic of people fleeing by train. One report I saw was about Mariupol and I thought it was just such a beautiful name, and the city was so beautiful. It seemed to require some kind of song.

I was thinking about this last train, the final train before this sort of apocalypse that was coming. Then I was reading an article in the New York Times that said that people in Mariupol were saying that even God himself had left, that even he was frightened by what he was seeing there. I thought, ‘That’s it. God has left the city of Mariupol, and he was on this final train.'

I feel it’s hard to write about politics and about awful tragedies. I didn’t want to write something pedantic. This was my way of writing about it.

BEST FIT: Simple but powerful. I understand the need to write around something that is very hard hitting – really, a world-changing event – like you did with the song you wrote on the anniversary of 9/11, which was also very beautifully done and interesting.

Thank you. I had to think, ‘How detailed do I get here?’. Because sometimes detail is good and brings real spice to a song, but in this case I just wrote it from more of an emotional perspective. I didn’t want to talk about specific stories and individuals. Just the general idea, and to put all the detail that was needed into the melody and the emotion of the song.

Ukrainian flag square format

Suzanne Vega tours the UK in February/March 2023. Full list of 14 dates and tickets available here. This Friday, she releases Volumes 1–4 of the Close Up series individually on vinyl for the first time, through her own label Amanuensis Productions.

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