A Q&A withSuzanne Vega
The Passionate I
When I told my shrink Iwas interviewing her, he laughed. Not a mean laugh, an impressed laugh. It wascool. He just didn't think I'd be into her. Most of the bands I likehe's never heard of, and they just sound angry. It turned out he'sa Suzanne Vega fan, too. I asked Suzanne if she could send him an autographedcopy of her new book, The Passionate Eye (Avon, 288 pages, $23), andshe did. She had written in it, To Dr. Owens, Take good care of Terminator. I got your book and it'sreally cool. Thank you. It really surprised mehow cool it was. It's mostly your songs and stuff, but it feels like I'mreading a whole story, a narrative. Yeah. That's interesting.Because I've felt that way, too. When I think back on it, I tried to startwith what I felt was the beginning and go through to the ending. It's notlike a memoir or anything like that, [but] it felt to me like it told a story. There's that littlepoem, "Fact": It's not the fist,not theSmack, not theBlack eye It's the unexpectedTenderness Thatmakes you cry That kind of sums itup about what I like about your stuff. And makes it powerful?what made"Luka" so powerful, as opposed to Natalie Merchant, whom I can'tstand, who did that song about child abuse. You don't spell it out: "It'sthe unexpected tenderness that makes you cry," what you wrote?andthat's the thing, that's exactly it?what makes it powerful, it'shim not saying it? Yeah, that's the wayit seems to me. In real life those are the things that are very hard to talkabout. It's what people don't want to talk about. They don'twant to hear it. So that's why, in a sense, it was a surprise when it becamea big hit, because all of a sudden everybody wanted to hear it. Which I thoughtwas very strange. (laughs) And I didn't mean to write about a topic. I didn't think, "Oh, let's see, oh, I think I'll write aboutchild abuse today... How can I do it in the most empowered way?"?I wasn't thinking of that at all. I was thinking of a person in a certain situation? Was it actually basedon somebody? Yeah... But at the sametime I didn't feel that person would say it directly. Because that persondoesn't. (laughs) So I set it up almost like a play. How would a person,if they were in that situation, if they were going to talk about something theyshouldn't talk about, how would they go about doing it? I carefully constructedthe song that way. I thought most people wouldn't understand what it wasabout. And if they did know what it was about, they wouldn't want to hearit?because it was too violent or ugly? And another thing is it'sfrom the point of view of the victim, which most people in this world and thiscountry wouldn't want to identify with. The ironic thing to me is thatmost people when they hear the song immediately assume that I'm the neighbor,that I, Suzanne Vega, am the neighbor in the song. And so a lot of people likethat, because then they can identify with me, because I'm sort of the compassionateneighbor that wrote the song about a poor child, which I suspect is why it wasso successful... Whereas a song like Natalie Merchant's is what you wouldexpect as a neighbor being outraged, taking the point of view that you wouldexpect. Where there's no ambiguity about it, where they identify with theoutrage. Personally, "Luka"pissed me off to no end. How old were you when itcame out? What year did it comeout? '87. I wasn't born. I think you're olderthan 12. (laughter) Yeah, I waslike six? Why did it make you so angry? Because that stuff wasgoing on with my mom. It took me a long time to even tell my shrink? Ilied about it for a long time. I said that I "walked into a wall,"that kind of stuff, to protect us. For years. So yeah, I remember that song!One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was "Luka," hearing ityears later, it was the first time I was able to have feelings about it, andcry. Now, I guess because of the book, they've been playing it a lot, andit always does that to me. Anyway, my shrink wanted to know?he said yourparents were Columbia teachers or something? No, they weren't actually.I grew up near Columbia. My stepfather was a teacher for a while at Hunter College,but they didn't teach at Columbia. My shrink was wonderingwhy you're interested in such dark subjects. He thought your parents wereColumbia teachers and wondered how did you go from that kind of parenting tohaving such sensitivity and interest in these subjects. My stepfather, when he wasn'tteaching, was mostly a novelist. How old was your stepfather? He was 25 years older thanme? I was nine months old when he came into my life. He and my mother weretogether for, I think, 37 years. He was pretty much the only father I knew. My mother is a computer systems analyst? So she's not a teacher atall! (laughs) My parents were very young?My mother was 18 when I was born, and my biological father was 19. And by thetime my mother was 24 she had four kids. These were the 60s also. So there'sall this politics in the air and talk of therapy, group therapy. My parentswere also involved in?rehabilitating these addicts that were in our neighborhood.I remember knowing all about Daytop Village and Synanon. I remember going therefor a weekend. It was like a whole scene where people were very concerned aboutfeelings and talking about feelings, expressing feelings, which I found verydifficult as a child, did not like. I seemed to not feel them the way otherpeople felt them. Like my sister felt her feelings [and] she'd just expressthem. If she was angry she would yell, and if she was sad she would cry. Whereaswith me it didn't really seem? I didn't seem to express thingsthe way other people did. How did you express yourself? Sometimes I didn'tknow what I was feeling. Even now, people have a hard time telling what I'mfeeling when they look at my face. Because I guess they don't come outthere. I've learned to say what the feelings are? A lot of times there'sa delay. I'll feel a feeling and then if I feel like crying it'llcome out a week later. Seems like there is a time lag for me. I don't knowwhy. I think that's why the book has the shape it does, because thingsstay with me a long time. So I don't always express things when I'mfeeling them, so they come back and hit me years later. Which means I'malways catching up. They spring up sometimes? So that's why this bookis not in chronological order. Like all the things that spring up are put together? I guess this is gettingoff the subject of how those topics happened to be in my life. I mean I justsaw it everywhere. The family I had was relatively chaotic, emotionally?eventhough we had a mother and a father, and all my brothers and sisters, but itwas still very?it was always out of control, or about to be out of control?Like dinnertime. We never knew if we were going to have dinner at 6 o'clock,9:30, 11? It depended on what was happening with my parents. If they werearguing or not arguing. So there was always the feeling things were going outof control. So it was just part of the life around me. When did you start turningto music? I started playing the guitarwhen I was 11. And I started writing songs when I was 14. The first songs werelike fantasy songs. The first song I wrote was a song called "Brother Mine,"and I was 14, and it was kind of like a fake country song. I've never livedin the country, but I was really into country music for about a couple of months.It was like a fantasy of being a country girl getting new shoes for my brother.There was this line about I have to go into town and get them Friday night,that sort of thing. We were right in the middle of Manhattan, so? Thosewere my first songs. They weren't about anything real, they were aboutthis fantastic life of escape. And there were similar songs about running away,traveling, being on the road, which I had never been. Those first songs hada big element of fantasy. Were you into a punkscene? No, actually, I wasn't.Most of my friends were. As a teenager I just never went out! (laughs) I wouldstay in and read poems and write poems, and I was very, very determined to makesomething of myself. And I had no money, so I would babysit. When I would babysitI would put the babies to bed and then I would stay up with my records and writein my journals. So I didn't have much of a social life. With the friendsI did have, they would go out, but the whole idea of going to a club and seeinga bunch of people making a lot of noise was a little scary to me and I preferredto invent my own world, sort of people my own world. But when I was 19, finally,I went to my first show. I happened to see Lou Reed, who was sort of part ofthe punk scene, around before punk, and that's when my writing startedto change. Because when I heard what he was singing about, and I realized hewas singing about this world that I thought I knew pretty well?but it neveroccurred to me that I could sing actually about it in a more direct way, whereashe was just putting it right out there. Of course, his background was very differentfrom mine, he's from a very middle-class suburban home? So his whole thing was rebellion, whereas mine was more like trying to find some sort ofsecurity and peace because my home life was so chaotic. We were coming at itfrom different angles. That's when I first started to think that I couldwrite about some of these things in a more direct way. Not completely direct,but? They're about these darknesses. So you started playingaround New York. Where did you get the balls up to do that? Well, when I was 16 I hadabout 75 songs, because I spent all this time writing them. I guess I was verydriven. I went to an audition? I was also a dancer and I used to make friendswith the musicians who played for the dance class. And one of them told me thatI should just go to the small coffeehouses that were in church basements, thatthey were very nice, people were very nice and you could just go sing. So Iauditioned at this church basement?and I got the gig, much to my surprise,and I started from there. I'd go out and sing wherever I could find something.Sometimes I got rejected. Once I started going down to the Village? I wasvery out of fashion. This was in the 70s and everyone was really into this punkthing, Patti Smith, Blondie and Television and all of that, and I was consideredvery retrospective. I was very uncomfortable onstage, and very shy; I didn'tlike people looking at me, even though I had all these songs and wanted to singthem, I felt very uncomfortable having people looking at me, and looking atan audience. It took me a long time to actually get more comfortable with thewhole idea of having an act and being onstage. Did you know that youwere going to make it, or did you think that you were going to be like a teacheror something? I tried giving it up. Itried like working in a library. I did different kinds of jobs, and even whenI came out of college I was still working as a receptionist for a publishingcompany. So I always knew that I could support myself. But I was very single-mindedabout writing songs and writing them the way I wanted to write them becauseI had something to say and was trying to make sense of my own life. I was very,very single-minded about life. Finally when I was 24 I got my first record deal.I'd been around for eight years before that. Everyone kept saying, oh,she's really young, she's only 24, but I felt like I'd been doingit forever. It's funny. Thesedays, 24's like getting over the hill?like Jewel, whom I dislike intensely. Well, It goes in waves.At the same time Bob Dylan was only about 20 when he came out with his firstrecord. And the things he was writing at that time were great. And now Jewelis like, I don't know, 23 or something, and everyone keeps saying, "Yeah,but she's so young"? But the fact is she really isn't, becauseif you compare what she's doing to what Bob Dylan was doing at the sameage?there's really no comparison. Dennis Miller, on hisshow, said, "I just read Jewel's new book and I found out prejudiceis bad." I read a few reviews of your book that bring up Jewel's book,and they always say your book is the real deal, instead of Jewel's embarrassment.Do you worry about being lost or cast aside? Like people forget so fast. Thereare older fans, but there are younger folks that won't even know who youare, but who know Jewel and think that she came before you. Not really, because I feltthat I do what I do because I have to and I always did. And those eight yearsthat I was trying really hard to just learn how to sing onstage without beingangry at the audience?I don't really feel like that same person. SoI feel that what I do is still basically a fairly solitary thing. I don'tcompare myself to her, I don't compare myself to anybody else, really. Even though I know I have to be compared to other people because I'm inthe marketplace and that's how that kind of thing is done. But when I'mby myself and writing songs I'm not thinking, "Is this better thanJewel?" or anything like that. I find it's a problem only when I haveto go out and think about myself as a product, in a marketplace, or when I haveto convince someone else about my work. When I'm on a big tour and I'mconcerned that we're not going to sell tickets or we're going to losemoney. So you do get concernedabout that? I get concerned about itwhen I'm forced to carry more than I want to. Which at different timesin my career I've done. I've had huge tours and I've had littletours. Right now I'm back at a place where I'm happy with a smallertour. I don't want to have to think about selling out 3000-seat venues?I feel better at this time to get back to a more direct way of doing things.So within myself the part that writes is still the same. The other part of myself,the business part, has grown, and yeah, I guess I think about it. I don'tfeel it affects me deeply. I keep it in mind, as a necessary evil, but I don'tfeel bitter. I don't worry about it that much. Because unfortunately thethings that I write about don't go away, they don't go in and outof fashion. The subject of child abuse, or mental illness or attempted suicide,all of those things, unfortunately they don't diminish. So anyone that'sinterested in those ideas, anyone who's drawn to my music for any reason,will find it there and it will still be relevant. Well, it seems to meyou say something much more honestly, more powerfully, than Jewel. But she'syounger, and the market will push people more toward her than you. And in fiveyears it'll be whoever's younger than Jewel. I still think that if peopleneed it they'll find it. When I was a kid I wasn't always interestedin whoever was popular. I was into Leonard Cohen, and to me Leonard Cohen wasmy private world, because he wrote about things that were complicated and dark,and kind of weird, things that most people didn't kind of write about insongs. I found him. And it didn't matter that I was 15 and he was 35, Istill found that what he said was truthful to me. So I guess I have faith thatpeople who need to hear what I'm saying are attracted to it and will beattracted to it. And that's how I think about it. (laughs) I've always felt likea little bit of an oddball, so if I'm not in the swing of things rightnow, it doesn't bother me that much. I'm in a spot where I feel familiar.Ten years ago or 12 years ago I was selling millions of records, and it wassort of overwhelming. I had a lot of people who wanted to talk to me about theirown experiences. I heard some amazing experiences I couldn't even haveimagined, and got letters from people who had been severely hurt by other people,sometimes by their parents and sometimes by the people they were living with.A lot of men wrote to me to tell me that they were abused as kids, and I feltlike I was pulling out all this pain that had belonged to all these people andeveryone wanted to share their story with me as though I could do somethingor I could put it into some kind of perspective for them or as if I had an answer.Because suddenly I was famous for this reason, for this song, "Luka."It's a strange thing, because the fame doesn't make the problem goaway, but it helps them. In my own life I have a sense of satisfaction fromthat success, but it's not as though I can go and set someone else'slife straight because I have that bit of fame. How did you deal withall those letters? I took them aside and Iwrote a note to each person who had written to me about that time. If someonewrote to me about being abused as a child I would write a note and thank themfor writing. Or if they asked more detailed questions I would sometimes getinto it a little bit with them. It was always a handwritten note and it tookme about a year to answer those letters. It was a very overwhelming time, though.On the one hand I had all this popularity for that moment, but attached to itwas this issue that was very dark. So I can't say that I miss that?it'snot that I wish I were Jewel, I don't wish for that kind of attention.As long as I can make a living and support myself and my daughter and do thethings that matter to me. Do you think having achild... You write about having to go for this photo shoot, and you can'tknow what it's like unless you have a child, being responsible for a child24-7?just the way your heart feels, like it's on the line all thetime, and your priorities change? I really appreciate your honesty, goingon that interview and worrying about how you compared to the other women rockstars in the shoot... I wrote it after Ruby wasborn... She was playing on the floor with all her animals. I had to kiss her goodbye and go run off so they could take a picture of me! I took her on tour withme for a while, for about a year. I toted her around, and I think she adjustedwell, but I had to stop doing that because she?we? (long pause) Itjust wasn't good. She was really kind of becoming very reclusive and nothaving any friends?and kind of developing a fantasy world, which is sortof what I had done as a kid. So that's why I don't tour as much... It made me more self-conscious, because that year after Ruby was born I didn'tfeel like myself. When another person is living inside your body, which is avery peculiar experience, there's nothing that prepares you for that. Ahuman being living beneath your ribcage, that's moved into you! And it'sjust really weird. You get used to it, but in the beginning it's a verypeculiar sensation. So your body isn'treally your own, because the baby takes it over and kind of moves everythingaround. And after you give birth to her your body's just like this weirdthing that used to belong to you, but it's not the way you remember it.It made me awfully self-conscious. I had also gained a lot of weight and I didn'tfit into any of my clothes. And I didn't know how I should be dressing.It was just the weirdest thing. Everything you take for granted. I mean usuallyby the time you're in your 30s you've figured out how to get dressedin the morning, and all of a sudden everything's changed. So to be judgedby your appearance when you're feeling like that makes you feel even moreself-conscious, because you feel really out of control. Which is probably whythe last album, Nine Objects of Desire, had a more glamorous feel toit, because I really felt like I wanted to look nice, 'cause I felt likea fat housewife and I didn't want to be one. I guess I was trying a bitharder than I normally would have. What's wrong withbeing a fat housewife? Well? I guess?There's nothing wrong with being a fat housewife if that's how youdon't mind being perceived. But I was feeling like a fat housewife, andalso at the same time I had to be a singer/songwriter and stand on the stageand be judged by my appearance and present myself to an audience. That must be pretty painful. It's just very weird.What you would like is to be judged by your inner character, that's whateverybody wants. Everybody wants to be loved for who they really are, not judgedby their appearance. But for some reason the way we have it set up in society,very often you are judged by it. Although to be honest with you, I think inthe long run it probably doesn't really matter. (laughing) I really thinkit's true. I think that in the long run your spirit ends up winning. Ifyou think about someone like Laura Nyro, I was sort of fascinated by her andthe way she looked, she's beautiful but also a big, heavyset woman?andin the end no one will really remember if she was beautiful or not beautiful,or pretty, but you listen to the music and you listen to her words, her spiritthere defines her. So in the long run, all that stuff about looks and stuff,it really, really, doesn't matter. But we forget it, and I forget it. There's a thingwith the starving story. My mom had a friend who worked in a restaurant thatyou were in, in the 80s, you were in Soho and were picking at your salad andthe other person was eating pasta. And this waitress person, my mother'sfriend, was bulimic and was convinced that you had an eating disorder too becauseof the way you were eating. Well, I was never bulimic,because I don't like throwing up. I think I probably had an eating disorder,even though it was never diagnosed as one. I would go through periods whereeating anything would just make me feel nauseated. Then I would just lose myappetite for anything. I went in and out of it a lot. Did it get worse whenyou got famous? Or did it matter? No, it didn't matteractually. All through my 20s, before and after I had the record deal, it wasa way of trying to take control of myself. I don't know why. All of a suddenit just changed. Also things did change a lot when I got pregnant. I reallyenjoyed the feeling of being pregnant, of eating, then, and there was a sortof joy in it and a lot of pleasure. You know, to eat two whole breakfasts isjust great! It was probably the nicest part of it all, was having this niceappetite, and really taking pleasure in things. And now that I know Ruby,now that she's here on Earth, I can see her, she's a very?robustlittle creature?not timid or delicate. She takes what she wants, she knowswhat she wants and she has a big appetite for life. So when I was pregnant withher it was like I sort of got her spirit, though I didn't know that'swhat it was because I didn't know her. Anyway, I tried to find a balanceof things. Trying how to figure out how do you make your way in the world andget what you want and help other people. In a sense I feel, at the age I'mat, I'm still going back to the main issue, which is sort of making senseout of things and putting them down the best way I can. Who does Ruby stay withwhen you travel? Sometimes she stays withher dad and sometimes she stays with the babysitter. Having a routine seemslike the hardest thing. Yeah, I don't knowwhy. I guess there are some families where it's very easy, but I myselfdo find it difficult. Taking her to school is about the most grounding thingabout my life right now, the fact that I have to get up at 7:15 to take herto school even though we never get there on time? We're always late.In a sense it reminds me of my mother, because my mother would?sometimesI'd be an hour late, sometimes two, sometimes half a day late, and veryoften in first grade I wouldn't make it? I missed more days than Iactually went. I feel guilty sometimes when I bring her in half an hour late.But usually there's some issue, like something is missing, or we have tofind something that's very important, it's not quite all laid out.But it's getting better. It's more predictable, in my life. And Ireally do try to listen to her. She's very forceful about her feelings. Did you nurse? Yeah, I did nurse. I foundit really difficult because we were always out of sync with each other. I rememberI kept a little notebook about when I would feed her and it would be up to 18 times a day. There was one day she just fed 18 times. How do other people dothis? Other people do it like every four hours and she's not like that.And some of it was just that she was crying and I didn't know what shewanted. She's kind of sensitive to changes in the environment. So I thinkthat sometimes she was just crying because she was irritated. And I thought that maybe she was hungry. So I nursed her for about four months and we allseemed just relieved when we finally gave it up and we put her on the bottle.She almost went immediately for bottle food. She was very enthusiastic for it. I like the song you wrote,"As Girls Go," the transgender thing. I think sometimes I would preferto be a girl. I struggle with it all the time, because when I grew up genderwas very fluid? I think it's really cool the way you write about gender.And it's funny, I always felt there's kind of a masculine feel toyour writing. Things have more of a boyish feel. Well, all those issues areconfusing. They were confusing to me when I was growing up, because in a sensemy stepfather was in a weird way trying to train me as though I were a boy.The idea that I may have to have someone to defend me because I'm a girldidn't seem to enter into the picture. It was more like I had to go toschool and fight people. And that was confusing to me. And plus I was a ratherboyish girl, especially once I cut off all my hair when I was 12, and then peopleweren't sure what I was. I felt like a freak... I felt like I stuck outwherever I went and whatever I did. Sometimes people would think I was a gayboy, and that was weird too, because then I would get picked on for being agay boy. (laughs) Just all horribly confusing? I think these things getsorted out when you get older and you play more of a role in society, but whenyou're young it can be confusing. I always hated drag queens,they disgusted me. I always thought they were freaks and gross. I used to hangout with skinheads and they'd go out and beat up fags and then go do tricksthemselves. I guess you kind of hate what's close to you, you know? The person I was writingabout [in "As Girls Go"] was not a drag queen. She was a girl, shewas just this very fascinating woman, and she's utterly beautiful and there'sthis odd, I don't know what you'd call it, chemistry I guess, betweenus, because she was a waitress and I would come in and she would sort of flirtwith me, which I remember feeling a little odd, especially after I found outshe wasn't really a girl. Someone I knew had gone out with her and discoveredthat she was not a girl, but no one knew how far the whole thing had gone. Butshe was utterly charismatic and she was probably one of the most beautiful peopleI had ever seen, very graceful. But it wasn't like she was a drag queen,like the whole thing you think of a drag queen. She was a person who had turnedinto a very feminine being. And in fact on the last day she worked at the restaurantshe told me that she was very confused and was going to go on a very long trip?andI just really felt for her. Does she know you wrotethat? Probably not. A lot of peopleI've written songs about, I don't tell them that I've writtenit? I mean, she'd have had to buy the record and figure it out. It'snot like I give it to them, and say, "Here this is for you." (laughs)