The critical and commercial success of Suzanne Vega's 1985 self-titled debut album came as a surprise to a music industry that had already rejected her several times, on the grounds that there was no American market for solo female folk singer-songwriters. The disc proved the industry wrong, and Vega's follow-up, Solitude Standing, made the point even more clearly by going platinum, and spawning an inescapable radio hit: "Luka," the first-person story of an abused child. Ironically, 1990's Days Of Open Hand was partially lost in the crowd of debuts by Vega's followers, the women of the "new folk movement" (among them Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, and Shawn Colvin). Possibly in response, Vega took her career in a new direction with 1992's 99.9F° and 1996's Nine Objects Of Desire. Both albums were produced by musician Mitchell Froom, whose previous credits included extensive production work with Elvis Costello, Crowded House, and Los Lobos, and instrumental work with everyone from Paul McCartney to Pearl Jam. In his hands, Vega's music took on a denser, lusher tone: 99.9F° was crowded with harsh, clangorous percussion, while Nine Objects was heavy, mysterious, and in places almost symphonic. Reviews of the two albums were mixed between critics who appreciated their daring and those who called for a return to Vega's stripped-down style. Vega and Froom married after their work together on 99.9F°, and had a daughter, Ruby, in 1994. After Nine Objects, Vega continued to tour, but produced no new material (apart from The Passionate Eye, a 1999 book of lyrics, poems, and essays) until this year's Songs In Red And Gray, a melancholy, hushed album that addresses, in part, her divorce from Froom. On tour in support of the new album, Vega recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about her music, the divorce, and the world's reactions to both.
The Onion: It's been five years since your last album. Were the contents of Songs In Red And Gray written throughout those five years?
Suzanne Vega: Ah, no. I wish I could say, "Oh, yes, I spent that five years writing and boiling down the songs." But I didn't. I spent four years not writing anything. I think, actually, I had written two songs in four years, and then all of them came in this last year.
O: How does it happen? Do you just say, "It's time to start writing now"?
SV: Well, in this case, I decided to go down and be part of what we call the Greenwich Village Songwriter's Exchange, which is a group of people I had hung out with when I was in my early 20s, when I was a student. They're still going, all these years later. It's sort of Jack Hardy's group, down in the Village. So I did an interview with Jack for his album that came out, and he said, "How's the songwriting going?" And I said, "Well, I haven't really been writing much of anything." He said, "Well, if you'd like to start writing again, why don't you come down to the Village, and come to the Songwriter's Exchange, and see if it helps, see what comes out?" All of the songs on the record came out of that group.
O: A lot of reviews are calling it a "divorce album," in the spirit of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights or Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Do you think that's a fair description?
SV: As fair as anything is, I guess. There are three songs that deal with the divorce directly, and other songs, I suppose, are influenced by the mood of it. I guess it's pretty fair.
O: Looking through the lyrics, it seemed like "Priscilla" and "Solitaire" are the only songs on the album that are very clearly not about a broken relationship. Which three are you referring to?
SV: The three that I wrote specifically about the divorce are "Soap And Water," "Widow's Walk," and "If I Were A Weapon." And the other songs are other men, or other people, or other situations. "Last Year's Troubles" doesn't have anything to do with the divorce. And "St. Clare" is a cover that Jack Hardy wrote.
O: Your songs rely a great deal on metaphor, and critics tend to focus on your "obscurity," or your "mystery." And that tends to lead to misinterpretation. People could certainly listen to Songs In Red And Gray and say...
SV: "All of these songs are about the divorce." [Laughs.]
O: Exactly. How does that affect the music for you, knowing that people are listing to the words and hearing the wrong thing?
SV: Well, I don't hear it that they're hearing the wrong thing. There's what I intend, but then when the song comes out, it's its own thing. It's like a sculpture or something. People can look at it from all angles and draw their own conclusions. To some degree, I look at my own songs years later and see them differently than I do when I write them. Or sometimes I'll listen to someone else's song and I can love it, and realize I was singing the wrong lyrics. That happens all the time with Elvis Costello. So I try and make it as clear as I can, but I just accept that sometimes people don't always understand it. That happens in conversation, too. Unless you're in someone else's mind, you can't tell how they're going to interpret something. To me, that doesn't take away from the way I like to work. I just prefer metaphor to the more literal ways of writing.
O: Do you actively set out to control the way that metaphors obscure your topic, or is it an instinctive process?
SV: I never think that metaphor is obscuring the topic. I always think that metaphor is enhancing it. I've had a lot of discussions with journalists about this. There's one Italian journalist who said, "Why do you lie? Why do you say one thing is like another thing, or one thing is another thing, when it isn't?" And I said, "Well, the easiest way I can illustrate this is to talk about my cat. If I say, 'My cat is a cat, and it has whiskers,' it doesn't... There's nothing interesting about that. Everybody has their own mental image of a cat. But my cat happens to be named Cow. So if I say, 'My cat is a Cow,' it makes you think of something. I mean, I would think it would make you think of something. It means my cat is fat, my cat is round, my cat has black-and-white spots, my cat looks like a cow. It gives you more information than just the literal, 'My cat has ears and whiskers.'" So, in the same way, that's what I do in the world, with my life. A lot of it is instinctive. It's just how things occur to me. I see them in my mind as an image first, and that includes a lot of emotional information. I feel them as images, as visual images, in myself. Then I write about them.
O: Interviewers often ask you to explain certain songs, or certain lines or images. Do you object to letting listeners know exactly where and how and why a song was written, or what it literally means to you?
SV: I think in the long run, it doesn't really matter. Most journalists don't ask me to explain lines. Sometimes I think that an audience member needs a little help in knowing the context of a song. I find that's true for myself. There are songs that I listen to by other people where, if you know the circumstance that it was written in, it kind of opens a doorway into it, and you can understand it better. I don't resent that, but there are times when I think that people could use a little more imagination, as well.
O: With Songs In Red And Gray, you're certainly going to have people thinking they already know what the songs are about. Do you think that'll cause people to stop using their imaginations, to miss levels of meaning because they think they don't need to look any closer at the songs?
SV: Probably, but it doesn't really matter to me. I think in the end, you put an album out and people get what they want from it. Some people will buy the album because of the cover. Some people will buy it because they like my voice. When I buy Elvis Costello, I put it on and I listen to it, and I have to say, I don't analyze every word. But it doesn't mean... I've already admitted to myself that I can't control what happens after the songs are released into the world. I think the fact that people understood that "Luka" was about child abuse was kind of an amazing thing. Because nowhere does it say the words "child abuse," nowhere is it obvious. Somehow, lots of people understood that that was what it was about, and I think that's kind of a miracle.
O: By the same token, that song—in part because of its popularity, and in part because it became a sort of poster song for abused children—tended to color your later work. Listening to 99.9F°, it's easy to read half of those songs as being about child abuse.
SV: Not half of them, but some of them are, definitely. "Bad Wisdom," definitely. And maybe "As A Child."
O: "Blood Sings" also talks about a child who could be an abuse victim. "Blood Makes Noise" could be, as well.
SV: It could be, though you'd be surprised how many people insist, to my face, that it's about AIDS. I'm like, "Okay, whatever." It's actually a song about fear. It's a song about looking a doctor in the face and... It could be about child abuse. What I like to do, and what is interesting to me, is to take a moment out of its context. It makes you identify with it, without knowing why. In a way, it's kind of eerie, because it means you can hear the song, identify with it, and not really know what the circumstances are. And in some ways, that's more satisfying to me. A lot of people won't listen to a song if they think it's about child abuse. In fact, some people didn't want to hear "Luka." They're eating breakfast, or they just don't want to be disturbed. That's the other thing: You can kind of get under someone's skin that way, if it's not obvious.
O: One of the other themes that run through your work is anthropomorphic or inanimate objects that come to life in some way. Where did that focus come from?
SV: That was the world for me as a child. Everything was alive. [Laughs.] I don't know exactly why, but I assumed everybody felt the same way. I looked at things and they had personalities, they spoke to me, they had faces. They had feelings.
And, to some degree, they still do. I can still see a face in certain things. It was fun, it was interesting. It made the world a friendly place to be, sometimes. So, yeah, to me it's just interesting to write songs that are from a different point of view than has been heard before.
O: Do you actively try to re-invoke the sensations of childhood when you're writing songs?
SV: All the time. It's not that I go back for my song themes, but the way I lived my life as a child colors everything I see and do today. I don't separate them. I'm a person who constantly thinks back and feels things that I had when I was younger, constantly re-ordering things and putting things in perspective. It's not so much that I think, "Let me go back to a childlike memory"—I mean, for a song like "As A Child," I did—but for "Small Blue Thing," that just happened to be how I was feeling on that day.
O: Some reviews of Songs In Red And Gray have come from critics who enjoyed your early work, but criticized the more experimental elements of the two albums Mitchell Froom produced. And those critics are taking the return to a more folky style on Red And Gray as a vindication of their opinions.
SV: It doesn't matter to me. Some people say it has elements of both, which I think is really more accurate. I think it's more acoustic than the records I made with Mitchell, but it also has a lot of the grooves and the... It may not be as innovative as the work I did with Mitchell, which I think was genuinely innovative, but I think that there are some elements that we kept. [Songs producer] Rupert Hine is actually a big fan of Mitchell's, and liked the work that we did together. Rupert came to me and said, "Do you want to reinvent yourself again?" And I think he was kind of really looking forward to doing some wild stuff. And I said, "No, I don't. I'm not in any mood for that. I want to write some songs on the acoustic guitar." But then I thought, "But I don't want to just make a boring folk album." So I said, "Why don't we keep the rhythmic elements of what I did with Mitchell, and if you hear any cool grooves or anything like that, you should feel free to mix them in." So I think it's just the usual hybrid stuff. Even my very first album had synthesizers. It didn't have many grooves, but it had synthesizers. It's not the pure folk album that people make it out to be.
O: When you're writing about emotional situations like your divorce, or child abuse, are the songs cathartic for you, or are you trying to provide catharsis for your listeners?
SV: Both. I think it really has to be both. I think there's no point in writing a song that's cathartic for yourself, if nobody else understands what you're talking about, or if you're not speaking for other people, and if there's not an element of entertainment. Which may sound weird. I'm sure some of my songs are not exactly entertaining. Some of them are so weird that I don't even feel like singing them. [Laughs.] I feel like, "Why do we have to sing this weird song?" When I was singing "Men In A War," there were nights when I'd think, "Oh, I'm not in the mood for this." But I still think that it has to be cathartic
for everybody. It can't just be you and your problems. I'm always aware of that when I'm writing songs. I think, "How would someone approach this song? What are they going to think?" That's why "Luka" is so clear. It was crystal clear in my mind who I was writing to, and who the character of Luka was, and how the person would speak. All of that was very clear. But it just won't do to get up on stage and thrash around, and cry, and blurt things out. To me, it's not fun to watch, and it's not entertaining for anybody else.
O: You say you consider how other people will approach the song, and yet at the same time, you've just said that you don't think it matters how they interpret it. Is there a conflict there?
SV: [Pauses.] Well, I can't control it. Some people will fall in love with the song because of the chorus or the melody. Some people will have their... I mean, this is something Bruce Springsteen said, and I think about it a lot, and I really think it's true: People don't come to see you, they come to see themselves. They'll come to see you if they can identify with something that you're giving them. It matters that I connect with them, but it doesn't matter that they get the specific point of who I'm talking to, that "Your Maggie May" is not about my husband, because my husband is older than I am, and the song is written to someone who's younger than me. I mean, all of that stuff is sort of trivial, in the long run. In the long run, what matters is, what do they come away with? What does it mean to the audience? Not so much what it means to me. I know what it means to me, but who cares about that? [Laughs.] It's really more, Is it meaningful to the audience listening to it? Because you can't control it. You can't control people's thought processes. There were people who listened to "Luka" and actually thought I was saying that this child was responsible for his own abuse. I got letters chewing me out because of that. People who worked for child-abuse agencies wrote to me to say, "How could you write a song saying that that child was responsible?" You think the person's an idiot, but you can't control it. I just thought, "You have to let it go."
O: In that case, isn't it more likely that the person interpreting the song is expressing something in themselves, and that it has nothing to do with the song?
SV: Yes! It means they haven't bothered to really understand the point of view of the song. It means they haven't bothered to think about how a child who is abused would feel. They would feel responsible. That doesn't mean I'm saying that they are responsible, but they would feel that way. That's what that person has overlooked, but there's only so much explaining that I can do.
O: Do you think it's worth living through emotional pain if you get a good creative experience out of it?
SV: Bleeccckk. No. I'm not a masochist. I'd never go out seeking some sort of wild experience so I could write about it. I think if you have a painful life, it's better to write about it and turn it into something good, but I would never seek it out. No, thank you.
O: Given the subject matter of Songs In Red And Gray, there's probably been a lot of recent interest in your divorce. Are people asking personal questions about it? Have they been respectful of your privacy?
SV: Some people are [asking questions]. Most people are not. I'd say 80 percent of the journalists have been really great. And 10 or 20 percent are so irritating that it does get on my nerves. People who will assume certain things, or just leap right in: "So,
why did you and Mitch split up?" First of all, I explain to the guy that his name is not "Mitch," his name is "Mitchell." Even his parents call him Mitchell, so you can't call him Mitch. That's not his name. After that, we're sort of off on a... I think that lets them know there's a boundary, that you can't just leap in. But I'll talk about it up to a certain point. It's not like it's such a horrible experience that it... There are some songs that I've written that are too personal to sing, that I don't feel comfortable singing or talking about. But these are not those. These, I put on the record because I felt it was a universal enough experience. Divorce is a common enough experience that I think a lot of other people can understand it.
O: With an album full of songs about personal emotions, fans and journalists alike may feel like you're inviting prying by opening the topic up yourself. Have you gotten any of that sort of attitude from people?
SV: I do think that if you put something out, people will be curious about it. But I think that pretty much everything I had to say is in the songs, and I've always felt that way. I'm curious about other stars' lives, too. We all want to know about Mariah Carey's breakdown. I'm curious. [Laughs.] I'll buy a paper and look at it to see what's happening. But at the same time, I think that there really is not that much else to say, other than what's in the songs. The songs say it all. But I don't resent people asking questions if they do it respectfully, which most people do.
O: When you're writing a song about someone specific, whether it's a love song like "Caramel" or a song about your family, what kind of responsibility do you feel to the subject, who may be recognized by your listeners?
SV: A huge amount of responsibility. This case is unusual, because everybody knows I was married to Mitchell. I tried to do it as carefully as I could. I feel that I've said things that were truthful without being accusatory. I'd say the one time I didn't do that was in "If I Were A Weapon." I started to feel that maybe that was really not fair, and maybe it was too personal. And I got a lot of people staring at me, saying, "What are you talking about? We didn't even know this was about your marriage. It could be about anything. I felt that it was about..." Whatever, fill in the blank. But in "Soap And Water," to say, "Daddy's a dark riddle" is describing a situation. It's not saying, "I hate you," or "You're an idiot," or anything like that. It's just saying that Daddy's a dark riddle, which he is, and I think he would probably agree if he heard the song. So I feel responsible to who I write about. Sometimes I'll approach someone and say, "I've written this, do you mind?" I'll also try not to identify who the person is. For the song "Fifty-Fifty
Chance," for example, I went to that person and said, "I've written this song. Would it bother you if I put it on an album?"
O: Has anyone ever said, "Yes, it would, please don't put it on an album"?
O: Are they generally flattered?
SV: I don't know about flattered. They at least let me put them on the album. [Laughs.] I wouldn't say flattered, exactly. Because I'm careful. I don't reveal who they are.
O: Have you gotten any feedback from Mitchell about the album? Will he make any kind of public response to it?
SV: I doubt it. I talk to him on a daily basis, and he tells me he's read things about it, and that he hopes it does well. He asked me if I was happy with the production, and I said, "Yes, I'm happy with the production." I think if he was feeling hurt by it, he'd have said something. He's not backwards at coming forward that way. He hasn't said anything to me so far about it.
O: You said you see metaphors as strong images in your mind, and you've written and spoken in interviews about painters and painting styles. Do you have any kind of fine-art background?
SV: I don't really have one. It's just that I love painting, and I love visual things. It's very meaningful to me. I like shapes and colors, and the way light acts in a room. My biological father is a draftsman, so maybe there's some biological thing that goes on there. But it's not anything that I've ever studied. I just know what I like.
O: And when you were younger, you were also interested in being a dancer?
SV: Yeah, that was a very strong passion of mine, until I was 18. And then I gave it up. When I went to the High School Of Performing Arts, I was studying to be a professional dancer.
O: You also have a book out. Are there any other art careers in the works for you?
SV: [Laughs.] Well, let's see. I minored in theater when I was in college. I wrote plays and acted in them and did the costumes. I've always done a lot of artistic things. I'd also studied film, which was something I was really passionate about in my 20s. That's something else I've had to let go of, because I don't have time to do everything.
O: Do you think you'll ever write another book?
SV: Oh, I hope so, at some point. Not soon, though, because at this point, the only time I'd have to write it would be in the middle of the night. At some point, I'd like to think I could write a novel.
O: You've been on record for a long time as a big Leonard Cohen fan, and the two of you interview each other in your book. What is it about Leonard Cohen's work that draws you?
SV: The intimacy of his voice, and the complexity of his thought. His sort of tangled way of writing about intimate and personal things, but that includes a broader scope of religious imagery and political feelings. I think it's just fascinating the way he works. He's able to write in this intimate way, but to include the whole world in it somehow, without preaching or being moralistic. Well, most of the time, anyway. He's been a bit preachy lately. But at his best, it's like the best of all kinds of songwriting that you could want.
O: You mentioned that some of your fans might appreciate your voice, while others might just like the music or the lyrics. When you yourself listen to music, is there a particular aspect you most often focus on?
SV: There's different aspects. With Lou Reed, it's attitude. I can't always listen to him, but I like to watch him perform live. With Elvis Costello, again, it's attitude, and just his musicality. I mean, just the sheer power of his melodies, the way it all leaps out of the speakers. I think it's just really cool.