The British audience have always been receptive to Vegas work, her début self titled album from 1985. The album went Platinum in the UK and was a real hit. (With Marlene on The Wall possibly partly responsible for that success) whilst well received in the USA, the album did not attain the same success as it did in the UK. However, when Solitude Standing was released two years later it again achieved Platinum status but also contained two hit singles (Luka and Tom's Diner, the latter became a hit in 1990 when British group DNA remixed the song)
Believe it or not but it has been 25 years since Suzanne Vegas break through album Solitude Standing was released. To mark the occasion she has been doing a string of tours State-side and returns to the UK on the 16 October for a one off concert at London’s Barbican Center. Photogroupie were lucky enough to speak to Suzanne about her views on Solitude Standing 25 years after its initial release and her new album.
Solitude Standing is indeed a very poetic and well constructed pop/folk album which has influenced countless other artists. It
consists of Vegas trademark haunting melodies such as Calypso and Gypsy, but also the titular track which has a punchy rock feel and is eerily catchy. But which song is she most proud of?
“I am proud of Luka, and in its own quirky way I'm proud of Tom's Diner, but mostly Luka. I had no idea on the day that I wrote that song that there would be so many people who would respond to it. It's a good song, I feel it's well written in a dramatic sense.”
For those of you who don't know Lukas pop feel is somewhat misleading as the narrative of the story is told from the point of view of an abused child - not really what you'd expect from a hit record. But like some of Vegas other work the song and the album tapped into a public consciousness at the time, which is possibly why it has had such longevity. So what does its author think is the key to its success? “I really can't tell why people buy things and why they don't. I'm always surprised. I'd like to think that the themes are still the same. I think people still like the sound of it. I think I hit something at a moment and the themes still speak today.” Her song Left Of Center (1986) from the film Pretty In Pink, tapped perfectly into the 80s feeling of isolation and alienation, a common theme in Vegas work, but is also a theme that has remained constant in our modern world. If you listen to the reprise of Tom's Diner which appears at the end of the album, this is enhanced further. “ I was imagining it to be Brechtian. I wanted it to have an absurd feel, but the song has that too, it's not just a person in a diner drinking coffee. There's an observing ironic distance in it.”
With so many references to these themes in her songs does Vega see herself in the same isolated way as the characters from her songs? “Compared to most modern celebrities I do, I'm a private person, but I'm not a lonely person. I have friends, and I have my family. I'm probably more sociable than people would expect. I perform live, which I love. I do like the touring aspect and seeing an audience.”
Which is a great relief to hear as certainly a world without this first class poetess performing her songs would indeed be a poorer place. The songs for the series of anniversary concerts will sound a lot like the originals but are reinterpreted mainly by Vegas guitarist the fabulous Mr Gerry Leonard, who is also the musical director for the band.
If you who cannot wait until October for the 25th Anniversary Concert at the Barbican the final instalment of the Close Up series is due out in September entitled Songs Of Family. This volume will feature songs and some new songs never before released and is also fittingly titled as her daughter Ruby (herself another very talented musical lady) sings backing vocals once again on several tracks. For Vega the end of this project marks the beginning of a new creative chapter. “I'm very much looking forward to writing new material. I've got a bucketful of half finished songs.”
Her new album, like all the Close Up series will be released on her own record label, Amanuensis Productions. Now that Suzanne is without the influence of a major record label, what advice would she give to new artists looking to get signed: Stay independent or go with a label?
“I would say its great to go with a company if you can stay aware of your rights. What you want to do is have a manger who will make sure you can own your own masters so that if your droped you can take what you have made with them. These days you can have that kind of record deal 25 years ago that was not the norm. So you can go with a big company but dont give away your stuff.”
But she also has plenty of other creative pursuits to follow such as the musical play about the life of American author Carson Mc Cullers, co written with Duncan Shiek which she'd love to get into production with another performed playing Mc Cullers this time round. “I'd like to write a book one day about my life, which I think would be entertaining at the very least. I'd love to continue studying dance and yoga and I'd love to study a bit of martial arts.”
Having watched American 'shock jock' Howard Stern interview Susanne back in the 90s, I always felt that he seemed to treat her unfairly and place more regard on her appearance than her music. So when I had the chance to ask her would she have liked to ever get her own back ? Not a bit. “I know he likes me, he's not so bad” she says generously seeing beyond his formidable persona. “I've always felt a certain amount of intelligence and graciousness” she muses “I know he's abrasive, I expect that, but that's not the whole man.”
Vega is also a Buddhist and says of her faith that “it's kept me on a good track and keeps me grounded” in accordance with her Buddhist beliefs she is philosophical about absolutes: when I asked jokingly quizzed her about her nine object of loathing (in reference to her fifth studio album Nine Objects Of Desire) she says “ to be honest I don't put a lot of energy into hating things,” but naturally some things she finds unpleasant such as polyester (who'd have thought) because it brings her out in a rash. Also eggplant would fall into that category. “Loud people cursing on the beach I don't like very much. I guess haters, people who find something to hate and make a career out of devoting themselves to hating that thing. That is something that seems like a huge waste of time to me”. Of course she's right it's almost impossible to be creative when your head is always full of negative thoughts.
For one as creative as Suzanne Vega I am sure that her fascination with the psychology of the human spirit will continue to provide her with subject matter. With many of her influences coming from classical literature (she has a degree in English Literature and I learnt that she has also really enjoyed listening to Mumford and Sons especially the song Tinshelwhich is based on Steinbeck’s East Of Eden – one of her favourite books!)
So what exactly inspires her to write and tell a story in the way she does? “Something speaks to me. I'll read a story, I'll see a name or a face and it will speak to me in a certain way, or it will haunt me. And it will keep coming back to me until I feel I've expressed it. I haven’t really analysed what makes something speak to me but I know when it has. Then I feel I have to wrestle with it until it comes out.”
In the past I've heard Suzanne talked about the writing process as if she were a scribe and having the music and lyrics are channeled through her from some place (perhaps this is why her record label is called Amanuensis) “ You really feel at some point that you're taking it all down. Sometimes it takes months of fiddling around and trying different approaches. It really can take a while of crafting it before you get to that moment where it really strikes you and moves through you.” She is not alone in saying this as Albert Hammond, and I am sure many other writers, have also been struck by this ethereal burst of creativity. But what does it feel like to be on the receiving end of such a creative process, Suzanne explains: “It's a great feeling but its also can be very painful. A song like Queen and the Soldier happened that way. I had been fooling around with it for months and months and finally the minute I had the Soldier come to the door of the Queen the whole song seemed to write itself, including the tragic ending they seem to have a life of their own, and the whole thing seems to unfold itself right in front of my eyes. Its inspiring but it can also be cathartic.”
Finally, I ask Suzanne why she thinks she has had more mainstream success than her some of her peers from the Greenwich Village Fast Folk movement. Once again Vega in true songwriter fashion is generous of spirit and takes little credit “Some of it is management. I worked with Ron Fierstein for many years. He had a vision for me, and he had a vision especially for the song Luka that was bigger than what I had for myself. He worked really hard, he sort of engineered the production of Luka. So in many ways the kind of success I had was due to his hard work. But it's not all management, some of it is the time that we live in, who responds to the songs, luck, destiny all of that.”
I would agree that what has given Suzanne Vega her dedicated fan base is indeed, “all of that.”Like all the best story-tellers the audience is still responding well to her work 25 years later not only because her songs are universal and therefore timeless; but also due to the fact that she, like Kate Bush remains an enigma. Not an easy thing to do to do in our fame obsessed world. It all comes down to the story and the music which is perhaps the biggest key to her longevity.