Veteran singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega took a novel approach to her back catalog with her self-released Close Up album series, re-recording stripped-down versions of her songs and grouping them by theme (Love Songs, People and Places, States of Being). The latest, Songs Of Family, just hit stores. We asked Vega about her approach to her craft, getting good feedback, going to Tom’s Diner and more.
Where did the idea to do the Close Up album series originate?
I always liked the idea of regrouping the songs by theme, which is something I do when I perform live. When I found myself without a record deal in 2008, I decided to record my songs simply without the production of the different decades. This gives me a way of owning a physical copy of my life’s work, since I don’t own the original recordings. Those are owned by A&M and Blue Note.
Has putting these Close Up albums together changed how you view your career and oeuvre, or revealed any truths to yourself?
No, I am very familiar with my career and work, but I think the audience has enjoyed the different themes. They have seen similarities that they wouldn’t have before.
I met you once a million years ago at a Jack Hardy songwriting circle. From what I understand, you would frequently attend and interact with these amateur songwriters and give and receive feedback. What did you get out of the experience? Do you do anything similar now?
I met Jack Hardy when I was 20 years old. So the group wasn’t “amateur” to me at that time. Even after I was successful, I knew that Jack would tell me to work on my melodies, that he would pick out and praise a good metaphor, turn of phrase or stretch of alliteration.
Regardless of the business side of things, I knew the best people in the group would be honest with me and I valued that. Lately I am starting to get to know a different group of songwriters whose opinions I value.
When’s the last time you ate at Tom’s Diner?
I ate there a few months ago. I only go there when dragged there by the media these days.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
The big three for me are Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen with a large helping of Paul Simon and Laura Nyro. From Lou Reed, I learned to be blunt and tell the truth. From Leonard Cohen, I learned not to be afraid of the dark and melancholy. From Bob Dylan, I learned to expand my mind and the power of the image and metaphor.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was called “Brother Mine”. It was about my brother and how I would always love him even though he got into fights. I liked the song “Liverpool Lullaby” as sung by Judy Collins and I wanted the song to have that tough tone to it. It took me three years to finish it. I finished it at the age of 14.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
It’s a song called “Song of the Fool” and I sang it for the first time two nights ago.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
If they say what I want them to say, they rhyme, they are truthful and it feels right coming out of my mouth, then it works for me.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
80%. I waste very little.
What’s a song on Vol. 4 you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Brother Mine”, my first song, is on there. The most recent song is one called “Daddy is White”, which I like also.
What’s a lyric or verse from Vol. 4 you’re proud of?
When bloods sees blood of its own/It sings to see itself again/It sings to hear the voice its known/It sings to recognize the face.
It’s about meeting my birth father for the first time.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I like “equivocate” in certain contexts.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is…
The music industry.
Does it get easier or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It gets harder because the standards are higher.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
I think Laura Nyro is a great songwriter. Her songs should be studied as great words of poetry and music.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
“America” by Paul Simon is a great blend of personal and universal vision. And so many others of his.
“And When I Die” by Laura Nyro” is a great, powerful song about mortality. It’s cheerful, powerful and uplifiting.