Suzanne Vega interview
TMF caught up with Suzanne Vega ahead of her show at Salford Lowry. Her new album, Close-Up Vol 1 - Love Songs is out now on Cooking Vinyl records.
You've got a series of albums coming out. I can't imagine you waking up one day thinking 'I'm going to re-record most of my back-catalogue' ...
Depends what happened the day before! It came about because about eight years ago, I did have the idea - when A&M were thinking of their restrospectives. I thought it would be so nice not to take what everyone expects: the greatest hits. I thought why not release them by theme? We could release all the love songs on one CD, all the edgy songs on one CD, and I proposed that to A&M. They were excited by that, then I was dropped.
So, when I was dropped again by Blue Note I went to my manager and suggested we re-record some of the favourite songs. That way it takes them out of the context everyone knows them in, takes them out of the year they were recorded in, takes it away from that nostalgic "I love the first album". That way it makes people see the songs differently, they get to hear songs they've never heard before right next to songs they know, and they can see the themes that run through it. It gives me something to sell for the rest of my touring life. It's very intimate and warm, and sounds different to what the fans have already.
In terms of the albums, what are the themes? This one was Love Songs, what's next?
The next one is People and Places, it's got Luka, Tom's Diner, New York Is A Woman, In Liverpool, Queen & The Soldier, Calypso. Some of the songs I wanted didn't come out as well, Caspar Hauser's Song, was a little hard to get into the acoustic format that sounded natural. Maybe I'll have that ready for the box set at the end of next year. Right now there's 12 songs.
The third is States Of Being. That's the intense, internal songs like Cracking, Blood Makes Noise, Solitaire, As A Child, Undertow, Penitent. It's the very introverted ones. The ones coming from the inside of your soul. As opposed to the more journalistic ones of People and Places.
The fourth one - strangely enough, the songs that didn't fit the other categories, turned out to be about family.
Each album has its own palette of sounds. The next one has strings, cello on the Queen & The Soldier, percussion. The intense one is more electronic, distorted. The last one will be very folky, very traditionally folk. Silver Lady, Blood Of Mine from the beginning of my writing career when I was into the whole folk thing. Also songs like Tired Of Sleeping, and songs to my Mother, Brother, Father, Uncle, Ex-Husband... that's the four, then I'll put it together as a box set.
At the same time, are you writing new songs as well?
I am. Very slowly. Next year, we'll start recording some new songs. I have to say last year I've recorded 50 out of the 70 songs. The second one will be out in October, the third one will be out early next year, and the fourth one will be out at the end of next year. Then we'll be done with that project. Hopefully I'll have raised some money for the next album.
Is that the model you want to take on going forward - being an independent artist?
Yes, unless I get a fabulous deal, but that doesn't seem likely. The labels - they're so fickle - you have one great meeting and then find out everyone's been fired. Everyone who was going to sign you got fired. That's the atmosphere we're in right now. It's something I have some control over and can engage the fans. Whatever happens, at least I can have control over my catalogue.
Eventually what I'd love to have is what Trent Reznor's done, where people remix his tracks. So I want to have an element of the website where people can remix songs, reproduct them, upload them. Maybe we can get that kind of thing going. Trent Reznor seems like he spends 24 hours a day building the Trent Reznor kingdom - I'm not as dedicated as he is, but it's intriguing.
You mentioned your first album earlier. You recently performed that in full. How was that? Presumably you hadn't played some of those songs in quite some time.
That's true. Some of it was daunting. Straight Lines was one that I used to love in it's day but hadn't thought about much since then. Queen & The Soldier I've done pretty much every tour. But there was something very interesting and cathartic about hearing the whole thing, because we used to listen to albums, put it on at the beginning and run through to the end - there's nostalgia for that.
You're touring for a while. You just did the Isle Of Wight festival - how was that?
It was great, it was really fun. The main stage was great - a bit sleepy. We had the Sunday morning spot - bleary eyed, out for three days, they're happy to see you, but they just can't stand up. Later on we played the acoustic stage and that was maniac time - it was really great. I was playing opposite Pink on the main stage, so I got the dedicated fans and they went mental. It was great.
I think my favourite time at the Isle Of Wight was when I saw The Who and David Bowie, and I sang in the afternoon before David Bowie went on.
Going forward in time with your touring, you're about to go back to America to play Lilith Fair, one of the few artists to do that twice. Do you remember the first tour fondly?
I do. I love Sarah and think she's a brilliant woman. I love her vision, and I love the way that she's able to take all this money and funnel it down from the big corporations through Lilith Fair to benefit all these women and these local charities. I remember being part of the tour where every day at three o'clock, she'd give away a cheque between $10,000 and $20,000 to a local charity, every single day. It was terrific, and a lot of the time the people who were receiving the money were so grateful. Over the years she must have given away millions of dollars. I love her for that and I'm looking forward to it.
Is there anyone you're looking forward to seeing?
I want to see Tegan & Sara. There are some pictures I have of myself from the 80s, where I'm like "Oh, there's similar styling going on here, the haircut and the striped shirts and the whole thing."
A couple of your songs have taken on a life of their own. Homer Simpson even sang Luka. That must have been an odd moment.
It was great. They asked permission first, so it wasn't just a random thing, but it was fairly random. It had nothing to do with the plotline, he's just driving in his car and happens to sing "My name is Luka".
But it must be great to have songs that are so ingrained in the public consciousness
Most people are charmed or amused by it, but there's also people who are irritated by it - both Tom's Diner and Luka, you get some of that. I don't care about that.
It's the 25th anniversary of the first album. How have things changed? Are things better now? Worse?
It's different. And in some ways, it's a little healthier. That may sound weird, because it's dying, but in the 80s, I remember thinking "How can a person on a major label make so much money, and there's so much money being spent, and other artforms are neglected." I remember thinking "This is so unbalanced", and you go out to dinner with these record executives who spend $350 on one bottle of wine, and you're thinking "that's insanity." That's the tip of the iceberg, it's what you see. That was my view when I was starting out.
Now people are much more in control of their own productions, you have kids on Myspace, where you upload music and you have more control. You also unfortunately have the possibility of exploiting. Some company will find an artist and license the song very cheaply for three months, saying "We're doing you a favour". Whereas a more established artist could have demanded a higher fee, someone just starting off gets exploited. But you have the one-on-one contact with your fans. You upload a sentence, and reach 25,000 people. That's a great way of monitoring what's out there, and if nobody responds, I know it's the wrong thing. And it's all over the world. If Jerry does a blisteringly great solo for Blood Makes Noise at SXSW and a fan uploads it to my Facebook page, within 24 hours we have 100 people saying thumbs up, that's great. You get information out very fast. That gives the artist more power and control.