The artist: Over the course of seven studio albums and nearly three decades, Suzanne Vega has built a formidable and varied body of work characterized by the bell-like clarity of her voice and the elusive poetry of her lyrics. The Close-Up series, whose third volume, States Of Being, has just been released, finds her revisiting that catalogue (as well as reasserting some dormant legal rights), paring down the original productions and revealing just how cutting her songwriting can be.
“Brother Of Mine” (unreleased)
The A.V. Club: What was your first keeper?
Suzanne Vega: The first song I wrote was the first song I remember thinking, “Well, maybe I can do something here.” The very first one. By the second one I knew I could do something. [Laughs.] But the thing is, it took three years to get to that song. I started playing guitar when I was 11 and wrote this song that I called “Brother Of Mine” when I was 14, which I sang for a while, and is probably going to come out on [Close-Up] Vol. 4, which is all about family. The second song I wrote was called “This Silver Lady,” which is this long, narrative ballad about a girl who lives with her father who drowns himself in a river. I was like, “I really like this. I think I could be good at this.”
AVC: What inspired you to start writing in the first place?
SV: I loved poetry and I loved things that rhymed. I guess I had assumed all kids do, because all children’s literature is always filled with poems and they’re always singing little songs to you when you’re young. I had loved that part of the world, things that rhymed. At that time, you could hear people like Bob Dylan on the radio, in 1970. My father also wrote; he had written a song for my brother when I was eight or nine. It was loosely based on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It was kind of a paraphrasing of that song. It was magical to see my real brother and to see my father had written this song with him in it, and I had my own verse and that pleased me very much. There was this magic thing of being able to write about something real and transform it into this other magical place. I guess that’s probably why I wrote my song about my brother, also. [Laughs.] Now that I think of it. That hadn’t occurred to me before.
“Cracking” (from 1985’s Suzanne Vega)
SV: “Cracking” is probably the earliest song that I had started putting on the first album. Some of the songs I had just written when I put them on there, like “Neighborhood Girls” and “Small Blue Thing.” But I think “Cracking” is probably—I had written that one in 1980, and I remember thinking, “Okay, now I think I’m really onto something.” I had a bunch of songs. There are certain hallmark songs that were turning points for me, and each time I had written one of those I’d be like, “Ah, I’m on to something.” So there were a string of those, and “Cracking” was one of those.
AVC: The percussive finger-picking on “Cracking” is very much a part of those early albums.
SV: That’s for sure. There’s not a lot of straight strumming, and in fact there’s no melody. In those days I was like, “Oh, who cares about melody? It’s so much more modern not to have one.” We were wobbling on the cusp of hip-hop back then, so I didn’t realize that was going to become a whole genre. That is, in fact, what made it modern in that moment. It’s really weird to think that song was written in 1980, because when I sing that song now, it still has the feeling of something modern. It still makes people turn around and stare at the stage, if they’re not doing that already.
AVC: Which one would hope.
SV: Yeah, which one would hope, but does not always happen. [Laughs.] So “Cracking,” even though it’s one of the oldest songs, it’s one of the most modern-feeling.
AVC: That means you’ve been playing “Cracking” for more than 30 years. Does it change for you? Do you find new things in it?
SV: There are some songs I feel every time I sing them, and that’s one of them. I can very easily put myself right back in that situation. I guess that’s why I really love what I do, because I’m meant to do what I do. [Laughs.] I love repeating the same old stories. I can easily put myself back in that moment when I wrote something. For me it’s never a chore to sing my old songs. It happened at a moment in my life—I had just moved out of my parents’ apartment and I was renting a room from a woman who had some serious issues, and she ended up having a nervous breakdown when I was in the house, and this song is reflective of that mood. I moved out shortly after, she got herself together, and we all moved on with our lives. It was a daunting way to begin my life away from home. I just remember thinking, “Holy cow, why do these things happen to me?” So that was my mind in that moment. There’s a kind of balance you have to hit when you sing it, a kind of tension that has to grow when you perform it, and I still feel all of that.
“Small Blue Thing” (from Suzanne Vega)
AVC: I was being lazy and going through your catalogue on Spotify rather than pulling out the CDs, and I was surprised to see that “Small Blue Thing” is one of the most popular songs on the first album. It seems a little cryptic to be a fan favorite.
SV: Yeah. I’m always surprised by people coming up to me telling me they like “Small Blue Thing.” I had an experience a few weeks ago where I got a massage and this big black guy, when he saw my name on the piece of paper, he’s like, “Are you Suzanne Vega who wrote ‘Small Blue Thing?’ That’s a great song!” I was like, wow, cool. Or truck drivers have told me they love the song, they identify with it. So you never know who’s tucked that one away.
AVC: It’s probably the most mysterious song on that first record, one of the more overtly poetic ones.
SV: Yeah. I always think of it as a little animation film. Almost, “If I was a small blue thing, what would I be?” That sort of question you get when you’re a kid and you’re in some sort of art class, playing that game with myself.
AVC: Like an acting workshop.
SV: Yeah, exactly. “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” It’s that sort of thing: “If you were a small blue thing, what would you be?” There was an actual small blue thing. My boyfriend at the time, who I was living with when I wrote the song—and I only remembered this later—he had a ceramic doorknob on his bathroom door, and on the doorknob it had actually a blue eye painted on it, so when you held the doorknob in your hand and turned it, you were holding the eye. It was very odd. So when you sit down to go to the bathroom, you’d have this eye looking at you. Somehow this entered my imagination. We did a lot of lying around drinking in those days, so it somehow must have infiltrated my consciousness. I must have been thinking, “How would that feel to be in someone’s hand? Being something cool or…” I don’t know. It would require an altered state to show the line from that doorknob to how I became that object. Somehow or another, that line was drawn and that song was the result.
AVC: It’s a little early in the day to start drinking.
SV: That’s for sure, revisiting those states of mind. And it was a long time ago. That was my thought: “If I were to make a small, animated film of feelings and tried to put it into concrete terms, how would I do it?”
AVC: Does that kind of visual inspiration result in songs a lot for you?
SV: Sometimes they do. A lot of the times I’m surprised by how much I can get inspired by an image, by a visual image. In “Cracking” it was the title, but even then the image is in the song. The song is graphic: the branches in the air, the branches breaking. But very often the way a song will come to me is very visual.
I was seeing a lot of films in those days. I had just seen a film called Repulsion by Roman Polanski. If you ever watch that film—which is fascinating to watch and horrible and beautiful and strange—he gives this point of view of this fragile woman, and if you listen to the soundtrack, it’s really fascinating because something as simple as a clock ticking, he put a lot of reverb on it, and he’s got it pumped up so you not only see everything from this girl’s point of view, but you hear it also. I was thinking in those terms: How do I get this point of view across to an audience and make them feel this state that you’re in?
“Tom’s Diner” (from 1987’s Solitude Standing)
AVC: It’s been interesting to watch you play “Tom’s Diner” live over the years; you sort of let your audience fill in the differences between the original version and the DNA remix. On Close-Up, Vol 3, you’re almost covering DNA’s version.
SV: Yeah we do, we cover the remix. That’s exactly right.
AVC: You’ve got those dissonant strings.
SV: And the beat, also. The rhythm.
AVC: I can’t think of an example up to that point of a song’s commercial potential being so dramatically changed by a remix.
SV: I can’t either, to be honest. I was sort of the first remix or mash-up or something. It wasn’t a common thing the way it became later.
AVC: You made it easy on them by giving them an a capella track.
SV: The funny thing is that I became friendly with those guys. In fact, I just got an e-mail from Nick Batt a month or two ago. He had heard the remix in the South of France and he was like, “It was so great working on that track.” Back then we had bought the track from them so we could release it for ourselves. I asked them, I said, “What on earth made you mix this?” They looked at me like I was crazy and said, “It was so obvious! If we hadn’t done it, someone else would have done it. The rhythm is in the track already and you basically gave us a blank slate to work with. We were fans, we were big fans of yours. We had the Solitude Standing album and we thought, ‘Let’s do this.’” Which now, I guess if you’re of a certain mindset, it would have been totally obvious. But it was not to me when I put it out. I had no idea keeping this song a capella was going to be the key to the whole thing.
AVC: Hip-hop artists release a capella tracks all the time now, as a marketing technique.
SV: Yeah, exactly. I had no consciousness that that was gonna happen. I still really liked it. I thought, “Oh this is great, I like this. It’s funny but it’s cool and they haven’t changed the song and they hadn’t changed my voice.” It wasn’t a parody, which is what I was afraid of.
AVC: So you knew it was coming? They went through channels?
SV: Oh, no. They didn’t go through any channels. Here’s what happened: They got the song, they remixed it. They put down all their production. They really liked it. Their version of the story is they called A&M to ask permission, and no one ever called them back. I believe them.
AVC: That sounds plausible.
SV: That’s totally what happened. They didn’t want to wait around so they pressed it up themselves and they started selling it at their corner store as a white label. It started flying out of the store. Once they started selling, then they got the phone call from A&M saying, “You can’t do this! You violated copyright law!” That’s how it was presented to me from my manager. My manager said, “A&M is really upset about this, they want to sue for a copyright violation.” At that point I was struggling with the Days Of Open Hand album, and I was on tour. In fact, I remember where I was. I was backstage at The Arsenio Hall Show when I heard the remix and remember listening to it and I laughed and I thought, “This is great! This is really ingenious! This is something I would have listened to when I was growing up.” I grew up in New York City listening to WBLS. I thought, “Why don’t we just release it?” My vision of it was, it would go into these little clubs, these little dance clubs, and people would dance to it and that would be the end of it. I didn’t expect it to become this Top 10 hit all over the world and be played on R&B stations. I got a plaque from ASCAP that year for one of the most played R&B songs. It was bizarre.
AVC: You mentioned you were struggling with writing Days Of Open Hand. Did the success of the DNA remix open doors for you in terms of what your songs could sound like?
SV: People say that it did, but I don’t really think so. It made me realize that my audience would accept more experimentation from me than I had given them up to that point. The good thing was, I was in a mood to do that anyway. People seem to think I hired Mitchell Froom [for 99.9F°] based on the success of DNA, which is bizarre. Why would I have done that? I would have hired DNA if I wanted to repeat my success with DNA.
AVC: Mitchell Froom isn’t exactly a noted dance-music producer.
SV: Right. At that time Mitchell was best known for Crowded House, which was great pop stuff. No one predicted, least of all either of us, what was going to happen with 99.9 F°. The very first song we worked on was “Blood Makes Noise.” That was the second day of our pre-production. I sang the song into the air and the next day he had this loop and the bassline going. What I told him was, “I want this to sound like the Ramones. I want this to be a fast-paced, guitar-based song. Really edgy, fast, loud, punky.” And he threw away all those ideas and the Ramones were never mentioned again. When I came in the next day, he had the bass line and anvil noise and we went with that. But we surprised ourselves. I had no idea we could do that after what he did with Crowded House.
“Luka” (from Solitude Standing)
AVC: It’s interesting that “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka” ended up as the big hits off that album, since neither is an obvious single. Although maybe “Luka” didn’t do as well on the R&B charts.
SV: “Luka” was definitely Top 40. It went Top 10 all over the world. That was a pop song; that was not R&B. That was a straightforward, three-minute pop song.
AVC: It’s not your standard Top 40 subject matter.
SV: No, not at all. It was crafted to be a Top 40 hit, and my manager at the time, Ron Fierstein, thought it would be a hit because of the subject matter. We had an argument about it. I actually disagreed with him. I said, “I don’t think people will know what it’s about, and once they know what it’s about, they’re not going to want to hear it.” And I was wrong and he was right. More people identified with it than I could’ve possibly dreamed of. There were a few people who didn’t want to hear it and I got letters from those people, but a lot of people identified with it hugely, so I got letters from all over the world talking about the subject matter.
AVC: Did the way “Luka” connected with people have an effect on you, over and above all the records it sold?
SV: Yeah, it really opened my eyes. When I think back on it, I think that my manager had a really deep vision for the song. He understood that it was a song about a social issue in a way that I didn’t realize. He said, “This is a song about a social issue, and people need to hear more songs about social issues.” I hadn’t thought about it that way. I though of it as a tiny story about a boy, one boy, in a particular circumstance. I did not think of it as a social issue at all. Most people don’t ask for the song. It’s not like “Gypsy,” where people want to hear the chorus. It was a song that I think embarrassed a lot of people and pained them, people would look uncomfortable. So I thought, “Well, gee, if you guys want to make this into a Top 40 hit, be my guest. Do whatever it takes.” I was for it, but I was skeptical. And it worked beyond my wildest dreams. The minute it went to radio everything changed. It was embraced by radio in a way I could not have predicted, and it got a huge listener response, which I could not have predicted. So I changed, because I suddenly became aware of this phenomenon that was happening all over the world. Japan, Indonesia, parts of the world I had never been to, people really understood it and connected with it.
AVC: You did it in Spanish as well, for Close-Up, Vol. 2.
SV: First of all, I grew up speaking Spanish. My stepfather [Reuben Vega], who did the translation, spoke Spanish. He has since passed on. It came from Herb Alpert, whose wife was an artist who did well on the Latin charts, so it was his idea to record it.
“Institution Green” (from 1990’s Days Of Open Hand)
AVC: Musically, this song is very spare and bass-driven, and lays the groundwork for some of the things that came later on.
SV: I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re probably right—that atmospheric state of mind, state of being. It’s a song I haven’t thought about for ages. Maybe I was going for something but I decided in the long run it didn’t work as well as the other songs. It’s about any institution, generalizing, those horrible buildings you vote in, which is usually a public school, and it’s always that horrible shade of green, which someone thought was restful. You feel like you’re stuck in a nightmare. Some of that feeling of “Institution Green” is that feeling of going to clinics. I spent five years in East Harlem, and our local hospital was Metropolitan Hospital, which is a welfare clinic. A welfare hospital. My mother had a bunch of kids; she had four children before she was 24 years old. So if there was an accident, we would have to go to these clinics, and we’d have to wait and wait and wait and wait to get to see the doctor, and that’s kind of what the song’s about. You wait hours to get seen and sometimes they see you and sometimes they don’t really see you. I don’t remember what triggered that song in particular, but that’s what I was going for.
AVC: You use the specific frame of voting, which adds a certain irony. It’s supposed to be the root of any democracy, and yet it happens in these incredibly barren and impersonal spaces.
SV: That’s true—little old ladies in their cardigans and everyone eating horrible snacks out of those paper bags. There’s just nothing glorious about the actual activity. You crawl in there and crawl out of there. And half the time, if you’re part of the losing 49 percent, you still feel like you haven’t been seen, you still feel like your party’s never going to win. What different does it make, anyway? At least that’s how I felt in that moment. It’s the more despairing side of democracy.
“Blood Makes Noise” (from 1992’s 99.9F°)
AVC: I don’t think anyone saw that coming.
SV: No, no. How could you? I barely saw it coming myself. The way I saw it was like, “Yeah, this is the real me. This is what I meant. [Laughs.] This is what I meant to do all along.” It was a great, liberating moment for me.
AVC: Considering you had presented yourself as an acoustic singer-songwriter up to that point, it’s startling to hear you singing through a megaphone and substituting these deep, distorted breaths for actual lyrics.
SV: The great thing about working with Mitchell is that he would listen to the song and he would do what the song required. So there was no acoustic guitar on “Blood Makes Noise.” I didn’t have any guitar part that I could think of to go with a song like that. So all this distortion and stuff, Mitchell got where the song was coming from and built the production around that. So there’s breaths and the distortions of the breaths and the megaphone. He was already comfortable working in that way because he’d worked with Tom Waits, he’d worked with Los Lobos, and they had gone through an interesting experimental period right before that. We were all feeling really free, and as long as it served the song, we felt we had license to do anything. That was out guideline in the studio, me, Tchad [Blake], and Mitchell. And it was thrilling! It was sort of like, with the last album, we were trying too hard to be successful and to be good and we would refine everything and refine it again and again. The whole album took a year. It was like working with fine pencils. So it was like getting to put all of that away and working with big, fat crayons. It was like, “Let’s make a big mess here.” Mitchell and Tchad had the skills to make it rough, but also so artful. So that was just thrilling. There’s a lot of vitality to it. We basically had that album sketched out in two weeks, what Mitchell and I did. I said, “Okay here’s the blueprint. Let’s go do this!”
AVC: You really committed to the sound of the album on that tour, as well. It’s one thing to do it in the studio, but to actually put down your guitar and pick up a megaphone on stage is something else.
SV: It was great! It was really fun. It allowed us to take the production onto the stage. That was the other new thing for me, because we had always tried to recreate what we had done on the album for the concerts. Mitchell was like, “You don’t have to do that. To hell with that. Just make it work, whatever it takes, make it work live. You can do this, you can do that, you can use a megaphone, you can use it some of the time, you don’t have to use it the whole way.” There was all this freedom and I really learned a lot from that whole experience. Making a record is different from performing live, and there’s all this freedom I hadn’t taken advantage of. It was great. I got to put down the guitar, I got to walk around. It was mostly any inhibitions I felt were in my mind, and that’s what I had to get over, the shyness of being revealed and walking around.
AVC: Sometimes it’s hard for singers to put down the guitar. It’s like losing a layer of protection between you and the audience.
SV: Yeah. That’s what I had clung to all those years. The first few times I put down the guitar, I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. As a dancer, I was used to having moves choreographed beforehand, which I guess, to be honest, most performers do. When I had seen Lou Reed in 1979 and he was pretending to shoot heroin onstage, it took me a while to realize that he wasn’t just spontaneously doing that. That was something he planned before, rehearsed it, practiced it with the other people and then would haul it out and do that onstage. The first time I saw it I was stunned, like, “Oh my God, why is he doing that?” You think it’s just occurring to him for the very first time. I guess if I thought about it, I could have choreographed a crazy little dance and that would have made me feel more comfortable. But I honestly winged it and always made it very uncomfortable and there was that element of surprise.
AVC: You come out of a theatre background, originally.
SV: Yeah, I had studied theater in school. It took me a while to straddle those worlds, and figure out how to combine them in certain ways.
“As Girls Go” (from 99.9F°)
SV: The song came from this beautiful woman who used to work a restaurant that I went out to all the time called the Ear Inn. She was one of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, really had this kind of glamour about her. She was very flirtatious and kind of funny and we had this rapport. Suddenly somebody I knew said, “Oh, you know about her, don’t you?” I said, “No” and they said, “Have you ever noticed how big her hands are?” I hadn’t really thought about it. And her shoulders and everything. So it turns out this friend of mine had dated her, and it turns out that the girl is not a girl, this girl is a boy. It just blew my mind, because first of all she was so beautiful, so glamorous, she represented this ideal in a sense. But she was a waitress; it’s not like she was a model or a singer. She’s basically serving beer and hamburgers, but she still presented herself as this ideal of womanhood. It’s basically my ruminating, thinking about her and thinking about how far did the whole thing go? I don’t know if she was transgender. She wasn’t in drag, just someone who presented herself as an extremely attractive female.
AVC: It also becomes a rumination about femininity in general.
SV: Exactly. And I was struggling with that a bit myself. I didn’t like the idea that I had to fit a certain stereotype. Those stereotypes that Madonna was going for—she was going for the throat. She was going for Marilyn Monroe and doing it with a wink and a kind of irony. I was running in the opposite direction, where I didn’t even want to present myself as a female. I want to be a small blue thing. I don’t want to be a particular type of woman or any kind of woman or any kind of human. I was trying to transcend all those definitions. So this was of particular interest to me.
AVC: There’s a theme with those kinds of female archetypes running through your work, from “Marlene On The Wall” to the cover of Beauty & Crime.
SV: The femme fatale. I always preferred Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe, because Marlene was so smart. She was nobody’s victim. She wasn’t particularly vulnerable. She was beautiful, funny, smart and she had this kind of toughness, which I liked. So if I could’ve achieved that, that was something I played at from time to time. But that’s exactly right, that character of “Marlene On The Wall” is the same as Beauty & Crime, that same character I would, from time to time, slip into as a role.
“Stockings” (from 1996’s Nine Objects Of Desire)
SV: From time to time I would have an attraction or a crush on a certain woman. So this is a collection of two or three women. There was a woman who did wear stockings. Back in the ’80s, it was a fad for these girls to wear cotton stockings with Doc Martens and little black skirts. I think I remember talking to this girl, she was on some photo shoot or something like that, and suddenly she whips up her skirt and shows me the top of her stocking. I was like, “Whoa, okay.” It was a very flirtatious move on her part. I think I combined this with some other situations and snowballed it together. That image is one of those things that, even as a woman, the visual stays there in your brain. So I was thinking, “That is the line between friendship and passion—that space that she just showed me, over her thigh, over her knee. That’s the area.” So somehow I just managed to pack it into one song. I guess for those who need to know—especially since I did the Carson McCullers play [Carson McCullers Talks About Love], I’ve gotten a lot of like, “Are you really gay?” or, “Are you bisexual?”—I’m actually very hetero and many of my gay female friends tell me I could never be gay because I like men too much.
AVC: That is a bit of a deal-breaker.
SV: Yeah, so there’s that. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had a fascination for certain women. And I thought, you know, since I liked to play with points of view anyway, why not put that out there? It could be sung from a guy’s perspective. It’s a song of titillation.
AVC: 99.9F° is an album about disease and its effect on the body, and Nine Objects is concerned with the body in a more positive sense, in terms of sensuality and also, on “Birthday,” in terms of bearing children.
SV: Yes, exactly. I guess I went from having the body as something that I wanted to transcend to then be like, “Oh, I kinda like it here.” [Laughs.] I think there was a shift there. Not having been a mother and a wife, it was a new world for me. I was trying to be this asexual small blue thing or trying to transcend all genders. I guess there’s something about being a wife and mother that plants you squarely into your body. And that’s where I was.
“If I Were A Weapon” (from 2001’s Songs In Red And Gray)
AVC: This is a song about the end of your marriage to Mitchell Froom, but it’s also loaded with this very potent, film-noirish imagery.
SV: It actually grew out of a conversation we were having. My sister was over and she’s always asking me these hypothetical questions: “If you were on a window ledge and you had to jump from this window to that window,” and it’s like, “Why would I be on a window ledge and why do we have to play this stupid game?” She was over, and I think we were playing that, “If I were a weapon, what kind of weapon would you be?” Some of that dialogue was from that actual conversation.
AVC: The song grows out of a specific circumstance, but it’s also about how there’s an element of combativeness in any relationship, and how you can’t prevent hurting the other person even if you try.
SV: Yeah. The edges where you end and the other person begins, it’s a boundary line that you will approach if it’s any kind of real relationship. The more passion, the more you find those edges sometimes. You know what’s in the other person’s arsenal, and you have to respect it. Part of relating is finding out where you’re separated. If you want something to last a long time, you learn not to go for that. You learn to think twice. It happens during any long-term friendship, and I hate to be silly, but even if you have a pet. [Laughs.] If you’re going to own the dog
“Frank And Ava” (from 2007’s Beauty & Crime)
AVC: It’s an unusual song for you in that it has a real pop-song chorus, with harmony vocals and everything.
SV: I read a lot of biographies of actresses, and Ava Gardner was one of those non-victim type women: super sharp, funny, glamorous, femme fatal. If you’ve ever seen The Killers, you’d know. I knew if I was going to write about Frank and Ava it had to be witty. It couldn’t be mushy. It had to have this driving edge to it. I guess I was going for something slightly rockabilly or something. I knew I had to go down that road. KT Tunstall sang the parts and did all the vocal arranging, so that added a super sparkle to it which I wouldn’t have. It was already very upbeat, and Gerry Leonard provided that riff. So that’s where that came from, a loose, fast sketch of a couple and their dynamic. I had the first two verses for years before I had the last verse, and then I spat it out one day and kind of nailed it. It was kind of fast, nail the target, and just keep going. I don’t remember how it related to my own life or even if it did. I’d have to go back and look in my journals to see what was going on in that moment. It wasn’t meant to be a reflection of my relationship with Mitchell or anything like that. It was more, “Hmm, that’s how that worked out.” There’s probably some reflection, but I couldn’t tell you where the line is. “Songs In Red And Gray” was about someone I had been with 20 years before, and suddenly I got smacked with an emotional memory and I was like, “I don’t know where this is coming from but I better write it down.” That was a bit puzzling.
AVC: It depends on the artist, but it seems that even the ones who do steal from life do so in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, that their work is personal in ways no one else would understand.
SV: It’s transformative. It is personal, I think, but it transforms in the telling. For some people, especially me, it’s a mistake to look at an album as a diary entry from six months before. Half the time I am a person—I just have a delay. It takes me a long time to process certain things, and certain things come flying back. I just don’t digest something and then move on from it. My way of experiencing things is very circular. So half the time I’m chomping on something that happened way the hell back then and then it comes up in a moment then it’s finished. It’s much more circular than linear.
“The Instant Of The Hour After” (from 2011’s Close-Up, Vol. 3)
AVC: This song is originally from the play Carson McCullers Talks About Love, which had a run in New York earlier this year.
SV: It’ll come out again. We’re working of remounting it in the fall of 2012. I’m reworking the book, but the songs will be the same.
AVC: Is that the best stand-alone song or...
SV: No, no, no. First, it was one of the songs that was finished at the time we went into production [on the album]. I was finishing the songs into the first week, after the critics had come and gone, and I barely finished the song, literally, in time for the opening. I put the last song in on a Monday and the show opened on Thursday. That’s how crazy that was. A lot of the songs just weren’t finished. That one I put in because I thought it reflected a state of being, the state of being of drunk and angry at a loved one. It’s based on a short story that Carson McCullers wrote called “The Instant Of The Hour After,” and most of the words are actually from her story and I shape them and set them to Duncan Sheik’s melody.
AVC: Is “reverberating acuity?” from the story?
SV: The character who is most reminiscent of [McCullers’] husband has that way of speaking. So all those phrases are directly from the story, and they happen to rhyme. He’s very verbose, the character, and the drunker he gets the more he talks and the less it connects to anything. And she’s staring at him trying to make sense of what is going on.
AVC: McCullers is someone who you’ve been fascinated with for a long time.
SV: Oh yeah. And she’s certainly not the only one. There’s a million women. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay, I think, “Oh, yeah, that would make a great one-woman play.” Or Edith Wharton. But Carson McCullers is particularly fascinating, and having played her once when I was in college, it was so much fun to play a hard-drinking, chain-smoking bad girl. It was just something I wanted to achieve more fully, get it done and see if other people could play it. Just about there but not quite finished yet.
AVC: The rhythm of the song and lyrics seems a little different somehow.
SV: A lot of it is because it’s written by Duncan Sheik. We worked together on this and his way of phrasing things and his melodies are different than mine. He’ll give me a piece of music and Gerry Leonard and I will sit with it and arrange it in a way that I can work it and I take the text, which of course is jagged and has all of her droll images—her sense of language is very beautiful—and I cut and paste and edit to what I think will work and get the emotional heart of the thing across too. It’s really fun. It’s like working on a glorious 3D crossword puzzle.
AVC: Is the fourth and final Close-Up coming out next year?
SV: Yeah it’ll come out in May and then it’ll come out as a box set. I don’t know if I’ll focus as much on that one, it’ll probably just come out. You can buy Volume 4 or you can buy the whole set or you can buy the best of. I’m concluding the whole thing in May of next year.
AVC: Are you focusing on that less because the play is going back up again in the fall?
SV: No. After two and half years I think it’s time to start thinking about a new album. I am through with this particular project. I may revisit it in 10 or 15 years when I’ve done a bunch more new albums. I own this project, so I can go back to it when I go on. That’s the other thing, I’m sort of getting my feet wet as far as being an entrepreneur.
AVC: A mogul.
SV: Yes, I am my own mogul. I am the record company, I get to argue with myself about record sales and weird stuff like that. And fight with the marketing department. It’s my first adventure there, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I’ve started working the songs for the next collection of new stuff, so I’m getting geared up for that.
AVC: And that’s for some unspecified date in the future?
SV: Yeah, we’ll see how quickly it goes. I’m making these little demos at home, and once I have enough, even though I know the whole world in the end—almost no one is thinking of albums anymore. Most kids my daughter’s age, it’s all about the playlist and nobody cares about the album. But I do, so I’m going to write one.