A Q&A with Suzanne Vega
The Passionate I
When I told my shrink I was interviewing her, he laughed. Not a mean laugh, an impressed laugh. It was cool. He just didn’t think I’d be into her. Most of the bands I like he’s never heard of, and they just sound angry. It turned out he’s a Suzanne Vega fan, too. I asked Suzanne if she could send him an autographed copy of her new book, The Passionate Eye (Avon, 288 pages, $23), and she did. She had written in it, To Dr. Owens, Take good care of Terminator.
I got your book and it’s really cool.
It really surprised me how cool it was. It’s mostly your songs and stuff, but it feels like I’m reading 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 start with what I felt was the beginning and go through to the ending. It’s not like a memoir or anything like that, [but] it felt to me like it told a story.
There’s that little poem, “Fact”:
It’s not the fist, not the Smack, not the Black eye
It’s the unexpected Tenderness
That makes you cry
That kind of sums it up about what I like about your stuff. And makes it powerful–what made “Luka” so powerful, as opposed to Natalie Merchant, whom I can’t stand, who did that song about child abuse. You don’t spell it out: “It’s the unexpected tenderness that makes you cry,” what you wrote…and that’s the thing, that’s exactly it…what makes it powerful, it’s him not saying it…
Yeah, that’s the way it seems to me. In real life those are the things that are very hard to talk about. It’s what people don’t want to talk about. They don’t want to hear it. So that’s why, in a sense, it was a surprise when it became a big hit, because all of a sudden everybody wanted to hear it. Which I thought was 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 about child 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
Was it actually based on somebody?
Yeah… But at the same time I didn’t feel that person would say it directly. Because that person doesn’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 they shouldn’t talk about, how would they go about doing it? I carefully constructed the song that way. I thought most people wouldn’t understand what it was about. And if they did know what it was about, they wouldn’t want to hear it…because it was too violent or ugly… And another thing is it’s from the point of view of the victim, which most people in this world and this country wouldn’t want to identify with. The ironic thing to me is that most 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 like that, because then they can identify with me, because I’m sort of the compassionate neighbor that wrote the song about a poor child, which I suspect is why it was so successful… Whereas a song like Natalie Merchant’s is what you would expect as a neighbor being outraged, taking the point of view that you would expect. Where there’s no ambiguity about it, where they identify with the outrage.
Personally, “Luka” pissed me off to no end.
How old were you when it came out?
What year did it come out?
I wasn’t born.
I think you’re older than 12.
(laughter) Yeah, I was like six…
Why did it make you so angry?
Because that stuff was going on with my mom. It took me a long time to even tell my shrink… I lied 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 it years later, it was the first time I was able to have feelings about it, and cry. Now, I guess because of the book, they’ve been playing it a lot, and it always does that to me. Anyway, my shrink wanted to know–he said your parents 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 wondering why you’re interested in such dark subjects. He thought your parents were Columbia teachers and wondered how did you go from that kind of parenting to having such sensitivity and interest in these subjects.
My stepfather, when he wasn’t teaching, was mostly a novelist.
How old was your stepfather?
He was 25 years older than me… I was nine months old when he came into my life. He and my mother were together 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 at all! (laughs)
My parents were very young… My mother was 18 when I was born, and my biological father was 19. And by the time my mother was 24 she had four kids. These were the 60s also. So there’s all this politics in the air and talk of therapy, group therapy. My parents were also involved in…rehabilitating these addicts that were in our neighborhood. I remember knowing all about Daytop Village and Synanon. I remember going there for a weekend. It was like a whole scene where people were very concerned about feelings and talking about feelings, expressing feelings, which I found very difficult as a child, did not like. I seemed to not feel them the way other people felt them. Like my sister felt her feelings [and] she’d just express them. If she was angry she would yell, and if she was sad she would cry. Whereas with me it didn’t really seem… I didn’t seem to express things the way other people did.
How did you express yourself?
Sometimes I didn’t know what I was feeling. Even now, people have a hard time telling what I’m feeling when they look at my face. Because I guess they don’t come out there. I’ve learned to say what the feelings are… A lot of times there’s a delay. I’ll feel a feeling and then if I feel like crying it’ll come out a week later. Seems like there is a time lag for me. I don’t know why. I think that’s why the book has the shape it does, because things stay with me a long time. So I don’t always express things when I’m feeling them, so they come back and hit me years later. Which means I’m always catching up. They spring up sometimes… So that’s why this book is not in chronological order. Like all the things that spring up are put together…
I guess this is getting off the subject of how those topics happened to be in my life. I mean I just saw it everywhere. The family I had was relatively chaotic, emotionally…even though we had a mother and a father, and all my brothers and sisters, but it was 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 were arguing or not arguing. So there was always the feeling things were going out of control. So it was just part of the life around me.
When did you start turning to music?
I started playing the guitar when I was 11. And I started writing songs when I was 14. The first songs were like 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 lived in 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… Those were my first songs. They weren’t about anything real, they were about this 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 had a big element of fantasy.
Were you into a punk scene?
No, actually, I wasn’t. Most of my friends were. As a teenager I just never went out! (laughs) I would stay in and read poems and write poems, and I was very, very determined to make something of myself. And I had no money, so I would babysit. When I would babysit I would put the babies to bed and then I would stay up with my records and write in my journals. So I didn’t have much of a social life. With the friends I did have, they would go out, but the whole idea of going to a club and seeing a bunch of people making a lot of noise was a little scary to me and I preferred to 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 of the punk scene, around before punk, and that’s when my writing started to change. Because when I heard what he was singing about, and I realized he was singing about this world that I thought I knew pretty well…but it never occurred to me that I could sing actually about it in a more direct way, whereas he was just putting it right out there. Of course, his background was very different from 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 of security and peace because my home life was so chaotic. We were coming at it from different angles. That’s when I first started to think that I could write about some of these things in a more direct way. Not completely direct, but… They’re about these darknesses.
So you started playing around New York. Where did you get the balls up to do that?
Well, when I was 16 I had about 75 songs, because I spent all this time writing them. I guess I was very driven. I went to an audition… I was also a dancer and I used to make friends with the musicians who played for the dance class. And one of them told me that I should just go to the small coffeehouses that were in church basements, that they were very nice, people were very nice and you could just go sing. So I auditioned 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 was very out of fashion. This was in the 70s and everyone was really into this punk thing, Patti Smith, Blondie and Television and all of that, and I was considered very retrospective. I was very uncomfortable onstage, and very shy; I didn’t like people looking at me, even though I had all these songs and wanted to sing them, I felt very uncomfortable having people looking at me, and looking at an audience. It took me a long time to actually get more comfortable with the whole idea of having an act and being onstage.
Did you know that you were going to make it, or did you think that you were going to be like a teacher or something?
I tried giving it up. I tried like working in a library. I did different kinds of jobs, and even when I came out of college I was still working as a receptionist for a publishing company. So I always knew that I could support myself. But I was very single-minded about writing songs and writing them the way I wanted to write them because I 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 doing it forever.
It’s funny. These days, 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 first record. And the things he was writing at that time were great. And now Jewel is 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, because if you compare what she’s doing to what Bob Dylan was doing at the same age–there’s really no comparison.
Dennis Miller, on his show, said, “I just read Jewel’s new book and I found out prejudice is 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. There are older fans, but there are younger folks that won’t even know who you are, but who know Jewel and think that she came before you.
Not really, because I felt that I do what I do because I have to and I always did. And those eight years that I was trying really hard to just learn how to sing onstage without being angry at the audience–I don’t really feel like that same person. So I feel that what I do is still basically a fairly solitary thing. I don’t compare 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 in the marketplace and that’s how that kind of thing is done. But when I’m by myself and writing songs I’m not thinking, “Is this better than Jewel?” or anything like that. I find it’s a problem only when I have to go out and think about myself as a product, in a marketplace, or when I have to convince someone else about my work. When I’m on a big tour and I’m concerned that we’re not going to sell tickets or we’re going to lose money.
So you do get concerned about that?
I get concerned about it when I’m forced to carry more than I want to. Which at different times in my career I’ve done. I’ve had huge tours and I’ve had little tours. Right now I’m back at a place where I’m happy with a smaller tour. 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’t feel it affects me deeply. I keep it in mind, as a necessary evil, but I don’t feel bitter. I don’t worry about it that much. Because unfortunately the things that I write about don’t go away, they don’t go in and out of fashion. The subject of child abuse, or mental illness or attempted suicide, all of those things, unfortunately they don’t diminish. So anyone that’s interested 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 me you say something much more honestly, more powerfully, than Jewel. But she’s younger, and the market will push people more toward her than you. And in five years it’ll be whoever’s younger than Jewel.
I still think that if people need it they’ll find it. When I was a kid I wasn’t always interested in whoever was popular. I was into Leonard Cohen, and to me Leonard Cohen was my 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 in songs. I found him. And it didn’t matter that I was 15 and he was 35, I still found that what he said was truthful to me. So I guess I have faith that people who need to hear what I’m saying are attracted to it and will be attracted to it. And that’s how I think about it. (laughs)
I’ve always felt like a little bit of an oddball, so if I’m not in the swing of things right now, 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 was sort of overwhelming. I had a lot of people who wanted to talk to me about their own experiences. I heard some amazing experiences I couldn’t even have imagined, 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 felt like I was pulling out all this pain that had belonged to all these people and everyone wanted to share their story with me as though I could do something or 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 go away, but it helps them. In my own life I have a sense of satisfaction from that success, but it’s not as though I can go and set someone else’s life straight because I have that bit of fame.
How did you deal with all those letters?
I took them aside and I wrote a note to each person who had written to me about that time. If someone wrote to me about being abused as a child I would write a note and thank them for writing. Or if they asked more detailed questions I would sometimes get into it a little bit with them. It was always a handwritten note and it took me 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 it was this issue that was very dark. So I can’t say that I miss that–it’s not 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 the things that matter to me.
Do you think having a child… You write about having to go for this photo shoot, and you can’t know what it’s like unless you have a child, being responsible for a child 24-7–just the way your heart feels, like it’s on the line all the time, and your priorities change… I really appreciate your honesty, going on that interview and worrying about how you compared to the other women rock stars in the shoot…
I wrote it after Ruby was born… 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 with me for a while, for about a year. I toted her around, and I think she adjusted well, but I had to stop doing that because she…we… (long pause) It just wasn’t good. She was really kind of becoming very reclusive and not having any friends…and kind of developing a fantasy world, which is sort of 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’t feel like myself. When another person is living inside your body, which is a very peculiar experience, there’s nothing that prepares you for that. A human being living beneath your ribcage, that’s moved into you! And it’s just really weird. You get used to it, but in the beginning it’s a very peculiar sensation.
So your body isn’t really your own, because the baby takes it over and kind of moves everything around. And after you give birth to her your body’s just like this weird thing 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’t fit 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 usually by the time you’re in your 30s you’ve figured out how to get dressed in the morning, and all of a sudden everything’s changed. So to be judged by your appearance when you’re feeling like that makes you feel even more self-conscious, because you feel really out of control. Which is probably why the last album, Nine Objects of Desire, had a more glamorous feel to it, because I really felt like I wanted to look nice, ’cause I felt like a fat housewife and I didn’t want to be one. I guess I was trying a bit harder than I normally would have.
What’s wrong with being a fat housewife?
Well… I guess… There’s nothing wrong with being a fat housewife if that’s how you don’t mind being perceived. But I was feeling like a fat housewife, and also at the same time I had to be a singer/songwriter and stand on the stage and 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 what everybody wants. Everybody wants to be loved for who they really are, not judged by 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 in the long run it probably doesn’t really matter. (laughing) I really think it’s true. I think that in the long run your spirit ends up winning. If you think about someone like Laura Nyro, I was sort of fascinated by her and the way she looked, she’s beautiful but also a big, heavyset woman…and in 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 spirit there 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 thing with the starving story. My mom had a friend who worked in a restaurant that you were in, in the 80s, you were in Soho and were picking at your salad and the other person was eating pasta. And this waitress person, my mother’s friend, was bulimic and was convinced that you had an eating disorder too because of 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 where eating anything would just make me feel nauseated. Then I would just lose my appetite for anything. I went in and out of it a lot.
Did it get worse when you got famous? Or did it matter?
No, it didn’t matter actually. All through my 20s, before and after I had the record deal, it was a way of trying to take control of myself. I don’t know why. All of a sudden it just changed. Also things did change a lot when I got pregnant. I really enjoyed the feeling of being pregnant, of eating, then, and there was a sort of joy in it and a lot of pleasure. You know, to eat two whole breakfasts is just great! It was probably the nicest part of it all, was having this nice appetite, 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…robust little creature…not timid or delicate. She takes what she wants, she knows what she wants and she has a big appetite for life. So when I was pregnant with her it was like I sort of got her spirit, though I didn’t know that’s what it was because I didn’t know her. Anyway, I tried to find a balance of things. Trying how to figure out how do you make your way in the world and get what you want and help other people. In a sense I feel, at the age I’m at, I’m still going back to the main issue, which is sort of making sense out of things and putting them down the best way I can.
Who does Ruby stay with when you travel?
Sometimes she stays with her dad and sometimes she stays with the babysitter.
Having a routine seems like the hardest thing.
Yeah, I don’t know why. I guess there are some families where it’s very easy, but I myself do find it difficult. Taking her to school is about the most grounding thing about my life right now, the fact that I have to get up at 7:15 to take her to 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–sometimes I’d be an hour late, sometimes two, sometimes half a day late, and very often in first grade I wouldn’t make it… I missed more days than I actually 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 to find 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 I really do try to listen to her. She’s very forceful about her feelings.
Did you nurse?
Yeah, I did nurse. I found it really difficult because we were always out of sync with each other. I remember I 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 do this? 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 she wanted. She’s kind of sensitive to changes in the environment. So I think that 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 all seemed 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 prefer to be a girl. I struggle with it all the time, because when I grew up gender was 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 to your writing. Things have more of a boyish feel.
Well, all those issues are confusing. They were confusing to me when I was growing up, because in a sense my 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 girl didn’t seem to enter into the picture. It was more like I had to go to school and fight people. And that was confusing to me. And plus I was a rather boyish girl, especially once I cut off all my hair when I was 12, and then people weren’t sure what I was. I felt like a freak… I felt like I stuck out wherever I went and whatever I did. Sometimes people would think I was a gay boy, and that was weird too, because then I would get picked on for being a gay boy. (laughs) Just all horribly confusing… I think these things get sorted out when you get older and you play more of a role in society, but when you’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 hang out with skinheads and they’d go out and beat up fags and then go do tricks themselves. I guess you kind of hate what’s close to you, you know?
The person I was writing about [in "As Girls Go"] was not a drag queen. She was a girl, she was just this very fascinating woman, and she’s utterly beautiful and there’s this odd, I don’t know what you’d call it, chemistry I guess, between us, because she was a waitress and I would come in and she would sort of flirt with me, which I remember feeling a little odd, especially after I found out she wasn’t really a girl. Someone I knew had gone out with her and discovered that she was not a girl, but no one knew how far the whole thing had gone. But she was utterly charismatic and she was probably one of the most beautiful people I 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 turned into a very feminine being. And in fact on the last day she worked at the restaurant she told me that she was very confused and was going to go on a very long trip…and I just really felt for her.
Does she know you wrote that?
Probably not. A lot of people I’ve written songs about, I don’t tell them that I’ve written it… I mean, she’d have had to buy the record and figure it out. It’s not like I give it to them, and say, “Here this is for you.” (laughs)