"Solitude Standing" established Suzanne Vega as one of the more ethereal singer-songwriters of the modern era. While her 1987 sophomore album leaned toward soft-spoken ethnographies like "Luka," Vega also beatniked her way through postmodern witticisms like "Tom's Diner" (later remixed into a hit by DNA). "Luka," which breached the Top 40, had the distinction of being one of the first popular songs about child abuse, influencing peers (see 10,000 Maniacs' "What's the Matter Here?") to reach beyond the typical paradigms of pop music blandness.
Vega's post-breakthrough output has included everything from experimental hip-hop (1992's brilliant "99.9 F") to wry ruminations on the oddities of everyday life. Regardless, the thread running through all of her work has remained the same: plaintive vocals, lyrics that aren't afraid of four-syllable words and her rock-steady acoustic strumming.
Vega's marriage to high-profile producer-musician Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam) ended in divorce in 1998, a topic explored on "Songs in Red & Gray," Vega's first album in five years.
"Time helps everything, and this all happened three years ago," she says of the split. "But there is a certain sense of release in putting something in perspective and being able to let it go."
In addition to providing lyrical fodder for her most intimate effort to date, Vega's marriage gave her a daughter, Ruby, who remains the most important figure in her mother's life. Of course, full-time moms tend to have their hands full, which helps explain why Vega has been flying under the radar for the past several years. She also took time off to compile a book of her poems and prose, "The Passionate Eye." When she does take the stage, though, the 42-year-old singer-guitarist has no problem playing old favorites.
"Having kids and having worked with kids for much of my life, you get used to singing the same song over and over again," she laughs.
This album seems much more personal than some of your previous work. Was it hard to go from writing so many songs in third person to first?
"The writing of it wasn't so difficult; what I have found difficult is doing all the promotion, just because people start to ask questions, and you have to expect them to do that. But on the other hand, sometimes I have to explain that some things are still off limits, or that they've got something wrong. Some guy will say, 'When you and Mitch were separated ...' and I have to explain to the guy that Mitchell's name is Mitchell, it's not Mitch. No one's ever called him Mitch. And (the reporter and I) don't have that kind of intimacy, even though it is a personal record."
What's the biggest misperception people have about you?
"I don't know at this point. When the first albums came out, there was this image of the fragile waif. I could never quite get that. I suppose looking at the photographs, that's a good thing, but it wasn't the way I perceived myself. These days, I don't think I look like a fragile waif and nobody seems to call me that anymore. The misperception about this album is that all the songs are about the breakup, which they're not. Actually there's only three songs that are specifically about the marriage or about my ex-husband. And the rest of them are either to other men or composites of people and other relationships from the past. Some people think that even 'Harbour Song' is about Mitchell, even though he doesn't smoke. So I guess I hadn't really thought about it in terms of the way that people are going to perceive it."
When you get around to doing another record, will it be as personal as this one?
"Probably not. I'm actually looking forward to writing another group of songs that are completely about social issues and have nothing to do with my personal life -- which actually I do feel an itch to write in that way. When I do interviews in Europe and overseas, people always want to know what one's views are on politics and the social issues that are happening. And there seems to be this need. People want a new Dylan or someone to really talk about the social issues in depth, which I think on the one hand is kind of curious because people expect their songwriters and their entertainers to be political and they expect their politicians to be entertaining, which I think is kind of a weird state of things. But on the other hand, it's true that people want some kind of moral leadership that they look for in songwriting. So I think it would be an interesting thing to explore. I think it's difficult to write about social issues and not just write slogans. We've all heard those kinds of songs and most of them are really tedious, I have to say. But if you're a great poet -- if you're like Bob Dylan or Peter Gabriel, who can write a song like 'Biko' -- you can still write from an individual viewpoint and still have it have social impact. I think there's a way to do it."
Do you think becoming a mother changed your music or your lyrics?
"I think being a mother has changed my lyrics; it's made me more direct. You just have less time, and you have less time in your own mind. You have more time in the real world. There's a big part of your time saying, 'OK to get up' or 'Time to go to bed' or 'Let's take a bath.' Everything is short and simple and direct. You don't have time to sort of stand around and ponder everything. So in some ways, the new directness of the songs has something to do with that mindset that you get into when you're a mom. I tend to write after she falls asleep -- she was still at that age where she would want me to lie down with her before she fell asleep. So that was a great preamble, actually. When I was lying next to her, sometimes my mind would go off on interesting tangents, and that's how a couple of the songs got written. 'Last Year's Troubles,' I was lying there thinking about something -- probably some old movie or something -- and I was thinking how beautiful the pirates looked. And the only reason they look beautiful is because that happened a long time ago and we have this romantic image. If they were happening now, they wouldn't be beautiful, they would be troublemakers, they would be criminals and we would hate them and dislike them. So your mind goes off on weird tangents when you're lying next to your daughter with nothing to do."
Do you think that issues related to children are among the most important today?
"I don't know that they're the most important political issues today, but they're the ones that I can speak to most effectively. And I've been doing it for a long time, so my work just naturally fits into that area. I think the area of human rights is one of the most important political issues today. And of course, everything's changed since Sept. 11. But I think the whole idea of human rights is one of the things that marked the last century. We began the century with no idea of human rights, and we ended it with a very clear concept of human rights, with a whole charter that's written down and that people are attempting to live up to. So I think that's one of the defining moments of the last century. That's why I stick with it. It's where I feel I'm most effective. If I were in a perfect world, or could choose the perfect political agenda, maybe I'd go write about something else. But it's where I feel the most wanted and the most articulate."
What drew you to that cause?
"Being a child, being a child in the '60s. I guess I learned somewhere that even children have rights. There was a big movement in the '60s in New York City for children to express themselves -- there was a show on Broadway called 'The Me Nobody Knows.' At that time too, Kenneth Koch was a poet who was going to different schools and teaching children how to express themselves in poetry. So I grew up in that environment, and my parents were always taking us to political rallies. So I just had the sense that children also have a voice. It's where the root of human rights are planted, as it were. You can't have human rights without children's rights. But even some people who campaign for human rights, they don't see that children have their own particular needs. So that's why -- because of the climate I grew up in."
(Vega's manager interrupts and informs her that it's time to go.)
"I wish we had more time to discuss that last issue, because it's a good question and it's not one I get asked often. If I had a little more time, I could think about it and be a little more articulate."
Partially, I was wondering if there was something that occurred in your own childhood that drew you to those topics? I know for a lot of people who write about these topics, that's the case.
"Well to be honest ... I get asked that question in a very oblique way, and I always take the oblique answer. It's not what I feel is the important thing. The important thing is what's in the songs and what comes out in the songs. I don't feel that what happened in my own particular life is important for everyone to know, in spite of the fact that this last album is so personal. As I said before, I plan to go back to third-person, journalistic writing. I do believe that it's really more important what's in the songs than what you come out with. Oh Christ, the phone's ringing."
-- Assistant Mag editor Geoff Harkness can be reached at 832-6352.