Suzanne Vega Doesn't Mind Explaining Her "Weird" Songs, As Long As You Applaud Afterwards
By Chris Steffen
Jan. 14, 2021
Suzanne Vega is no stranger to highlighting the common threads in her back catalog, as evidenced by her early 2010s Close-Up album series, which grouped her music into themes like love songs, people and places, and family. Her latest live release, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, brings together 15 songs that explore highlights and lowlights of her hometown, recorded in an intimate setting with stripped-down arrangements. Vega also explains the stories behind many of the songs on the album, as she says that sometimes ambiguity can lead to too much weirdness.
Vega spoke with AllMusic about the challenge of making her sometimes hyper-specific songs work for a wider audience, how her lifestyle in New York has changed during the pandemic, and what she's learned from categorizing her songs into groups. She also shared stories about crossing paths with other New York music icons and recalled her experience as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 1987, which brought her the flirtatious attention of one of the show's more notorious cast members.
AllMusic: Do you have a particular approach when assembling a live album?
Suzanne Vega: I myself personally don't really like live albums. I think I have only one other one, From the Stephen Talkhouse, the others are bootlegs. That said, that's what makes this album a really special one, because the shows themselves had gone so well that I thought other people might like this, the whole idea of the set. So that's why we jumped on it and why we put it together the way that we did.
AllMusic: The album includes spoken sections from the live shows where you'd go into detail about the songs. Do you enjoy explaining songs that precisely?
Vega: It took some time to get comfortable. When I was young and did a set at a jazz club called the Tin Palace, there was a bass player named Richard Davis who saw me singing, and he told me, "You have to talk to your audience, people like to be talked to." And I think he's right. In my years at Folk City, watching and listening to shows, I found that it was helpful to talk in some way; some people like to joke, other people like to explain what a song is about. I tell people what the songs are about because I honestly think you probably wouldn't know what they were about unless I tell you. The shows that I've done where I don't speak, it quickly has a weird atmosphere. Imagine a setlist full of songs like "Cracking" and "Luka" and "Gypsy" with no stories and no explanations, it would feel really weird.
AllMusic: And you don't like leaving that weirdness hanging in the air.
Vega: Back in the early 1980s, after a song like "Cracking," I had all the weirdness I could want. I had so much weirdness that I thought, if I wanted applause at the end of the show, you've got to talk to your audience. So that's what I do and it's become part of my thing.
AllMusic: Did you study other performers' ways of communicating with their audiences before finding your approach?
Vega: It was trial and error. I learned some things did not work for me. For example, drinking and then getting onstage, no way. It works for some people, but not me. Telling jokes onstage, no. [laughs] There were a lot of things that didn't work, I can't even remember all of them. But what did work was to say a little bit about what you're going to hear and something to make the audience laugh. I want to bring the audience a little bit of familiarity in what I'm saying, because the songs can seem so odd. "Small Blue Thing," at the time, was really weird. So I learned to make it something that people could relate to.
AllMusic: Even if the song is about a specific street intersection that they've probably never been to.
Vega: The songs themselves have a kind of life of their own. I'm often not conscious of what I'm doing while I'm doing it, I write what makes sense to me and what's interesting to me, and then afterwards I look at it and say, "Will anybody get this on this planet?" When I wrote "Marlene On the Wall" I thought, "There's not a person on this planet who's going to understand what I'm talking about here." And then it went Top 40 in the UK.
AllMusic: How do you feel when one of those songs gets a burst of attention?
Vega: I don't think about it that much. I think to myself, maybe they aren't paying that much attention, or maybe they aren't thinking about what the words mean. And that's fine, I'm happy to still be hiding there in my songs, and I know what I really meant to say, but if other people see other meanings in it, I think that's fine, too, up to a point.
AllMusic: When you did your Close-Up series of albums, you went back through your catalog and organized songs according to their themes. Is that something you mentally do with other artists you listen to?
Vega: No, I never would have thought to organize all of Bob Dylan's songs by mood or theme. It was more a response to the way people like to hear things. I often get requests for the first two albums, which is OK, I like the first two albums, too, but I've done a whole bunch of them since, so I thought this would be a way where people could hear what they like and know, but also hear some newer material become acquainted with it, and I found that it actually worked, people would buy Volume 1 because they knew a song or two on it, then discover the rest of it, so it worked pretty well.
AllMusic: Were there any surprises you came across when grouping your songs that way?
Vega: The surprise was Volume 4, because it was all the songs that were left over, and I thought to myself, "What do these have in common?" and I found that they were all songs about family, which I could not have predicted. "States of Being" is what I used to call my mental health set, songs about feeling weird. So that wasn't exactly a surprise, but it was satisfying to see all of it in one place. The other thing is that people would complain, "She used to write in a certain way, and now she's writing weird stuff," and I'm like, "No, I was writing really weird stuff the whole time, you've just forgotten." So to put "Cracking" right against "Blood Makes Noise," you can see how they're related. But really, Volume 4: Songs of Family was the big surprise.
AllMusic: Have you stayed in New York City during the pandemic?
Vega: I'm here. At the moment when the pandemic hit and it was all closing down, my daughter came over and said, "So are you staying?" and I was like, "Yeah, this is where I live." No-brainer. So yeah, I'm still here.
AllMusic: With so many places closed, what are you finding to keep you connected to the city?
Vega: I'm finding great comfort in Central Park, which I always did. We go out once a day to walk the dog, and we walk for hours, and I'm always struck by how beautiful Central Park is, how old fashioned it is, it really is like being in a painting, no matter what the weather is like. It's great sanity to be able to just go there, no matter what else is going on. I find I'm really missing certain things, missing going to the Carlyle for a martini, I can't wait to get over there when that opens up again.
I really miss going to the Met, which I know is open, but because I live with a person who has underlying conditions, I'm not going to run over there right now. And over the summer, when things were more open, I was enjoying this more European feeling of going and eating in the street at certain restaurants, I would go out once or twice a week and it was great, it was a literal breath of fresh air. So I'm missing that right now, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm just telling myself and everyone else to hang in there.
AllMusic: You were the musical guest on an episode of Saturday Night Live back in 1987, how did that experience line up with your expectations?
Vega: It was a blur. It was very exciting, my parents were there in the audience, and I'm still wondering why I wore that blue dress, I'm like, "What was I thinking?" I wish I'd worn something black. I think my stylist was trying to get me out of my black phase, but it's not something I've really grown out of. So I kowtowed and wore the blue dress for one night, but I feel like I looked like a schoolteacher or something.
I remember Dennis what's his name, who used to do the news, Dennis Miller, he was super flirtatious with me backstage and sent me flowers, I think, afterwards. He talked to my parents at the afterparty, and I remember him being very, very flirtatious and funny, and that made me feel very shy. But it was a huge thrill.
AllMusic: In that era of music in New York City, would you cross paths with musicians from all sorts of genres, or did people stick to their scenes?
Vega: Yeah, in New York City your paths would cross often. I met jazz musicians, especially if they were Buddhists, because my family practiced Buddhism, so that's how I met Richard Davis, the bass player, and I'd meet rock and rollers because they'd wander in from across town. I think I met Iggy Pop when he came down to Speakeasy once. So you'd meet people all around, and by that point, 1987, I was meeting a lot of people at awards shows and things like that. I remember my first time meeting Run-DMC, I said hi, they said hi, one of them said, "We have all your rekkids," and I was pleased about that. And I remember meeting LL Cool J, and he sang at me, "My name is LL…" [to the tune of "Luka"] and I think I have a picture with him. I remember meeting Lisa Lisa in a dressing room somewhere, and that was cool.
AllMusic: When I spoke with your fellow New Yorker Patty Smyth last year, she told me about dealing with sexism in the record industry in the 1980s. For example, she said she couldn't put out a new song if another female artist was also releasing a single, because radio stations would only add one woman at a time. Did you run into that as well?
Vega: I figured that was happening early on, you'd feel baited by certain journalists to say negative things about other women, and I just decided not to do that. As to release dates and all that stuff, I never really paid attention to any of that. I thought of myself as a kind of singular person, and if I had any problems, I always thought of it as being because my songs are a little weird, I didn't think, "Oh, it's because I'm female," it didn't occur to me that that was a problem. I never thought of myself as a Top 40 artists, so just the idea of, "Oh, there's a single? You found a single on the album? That's great." Rather than saying, "Oh, you're not going to put my single out because it's coming out the same time as someone else."
But I could tell sometimes if they wanted you to say something about another artist. There was one time when there was an article in the New York Times when Maria McKee had her album out around the same time as my album, and so they had to have this sort of competition thing, which I thought was a bit silly, but I was also grateful to be in the newspaper at all. So I think there probably was a lot of prejudice against women back then, but I wasn't really keyed into it, and I guess I didn't think of myself as particularly female, so I didn't think about it.
AllMusic: That sounds like a very modern perspective to have had back then.
Vega: I guess so, yeah, I just didn't think that gender was that important. In a lot of the songs I wrote, like "Luka," that's from a male perspective, and I had other songs that could be any kind of gender, "Small Blue Thing," even "Tom's Diner," I thought of as being written through the eyes of my friend Brian, so that's kind of interesting, that the two songs that made it big were both written from male perspectives. It wasn't something I spent a lot of time on, I guess.