Suzanne Vega: Days Of Open Mind
There are precious few artists who have both musical ability and lyrical insight; fewer still have a sincere desire to communicate both as effectively as possible. Suzanne Vega is one of those few. Bursting on the scene in 1985 with her self-titled debut album, she was heralded as being at the forefront of the "New Folk" movement. 1987 saw the release of a new album, Solitude Standing, with its top-five single, "Luka," and an accompanying video that etched itself permanently into your mind with its stark look and vision. It would have been the path of least resistance for her to simply clone that successful album, but she's hardly the sort of person to revel in the past. Her most recent album release, Days of Open Hand, is distinctly Suzanne Vega, yet very different from any face she's shown the public to date.
While still an album for the thinker in us, with Open Hand Suzanne is exploring more of the world around her. "The characters on this album are a lot more interactive," says Vega. "There's much more of an extension, like extending your hand towards the audience. The characters in the songs are more interactive with each other or with another person, and the album is not so much about solitude. I think the whole band took a step forward in terms of the production of the album. I feel we kept the root of the acoustic guitar, but basically expanded it in all possible directions. We've always tried to do that - keep what made it me, but make it as diverse as possible at the same time."
"Diverse" is an understatement. Besides her regular band (Anton Sanko, Marc Shulman, Michael Visceglia and Frank Vilardi), she had the pleasure of working with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants and noted avant composer Philip Glass... all on the same release. "Philip and I met in 1985. He was looking for another songwriter to work with for Songs Of Liquid Days, and someone told him about me. He came to check me out at Folk City and asked if I would give him some lyrics to work with. Of course, I was just absolutely thrilled! We became very friendly after that, because he's a very inclusive guy. He said he would do a string arrangement for me at some point if I needed one in return for those lyrics. He's not sentimental at all - that's why I picked him to do that particular song ("Fifty Fifty Chance"), because I felt it would be sort of bracing." It was a pleasurable experience that she'd enjoy repeating. "He's a great guy to work with. We've done benefits together and hung out together. I also think I'd like to work with They Might Be Giants again, just because I think it would be fun to work in a more humorous way. I do have a humorous side to my personality, but it doesn't come out on the records. There's lots more - I'd love to work with Chrissie Hynde or Lou Reed, among others."
It's not surprising that her third release is adventurous in regards to album production. On her first two albums, she had worked with Lenny Kaye then Steve Addabbo as producers. Wait a minute - Isn't Lenny Kaye the punky guitarist from The Patti Smith Group? He's hardly someone you'd think of as a producer of what is essentially acoustic music, but he's exactly what Suzanne wanted. "In my own music," she explains, I was trying to fuse some of the energy that was happening in '82 or '83. I was coming from a very traditional folk world, trying to make it meet what was contemporary at the time. The original idea was to meet in between where Patti Smith was and where my roots were. It seemed that by working with Lenny, we could create something new. We wanted something that had the passion of a Patti Smith!"
Suzanne is the type of artist who is not content just to do something without learning from the experience, and she absorbed a lot from working with both producers. "From Steve, I learned to make things technically smooth, and to make sure that everything was in tune and in time. Lenny - well, he basically taught me to surprise myself, just go for things and constantly push the limits." In keeping with that philosophy, she decided to handle the production herself for Open Hand, assisted by bandmate Anton Lanko; "I just felt that it was time to take the reins myself and see what would happen!"
The results, as you can hear for yourself, are a triumph. Though she doesn't yet know whether she'll produce the next album herself ("It depends on what the new songs come out like")**, she's already kicking around new ideas for it. "I've been writing stuff here and there. I haven't finished the songs I've started - I've got about 20 half-baked ideas. I'm not even sure what direction they'll take. Sometimes it's like that - after it's done, you can analyze it and say, 'Oh, that's what happened.' Some of it might actually be about the places we've been to recently; a lot of cities have been hitting me in different ways. That might lead to something, although you just never know what's going to come through."
Of course, the lyric's are only part of a song's presentation. If you listen to her albums in the order recorded, it's easy to hear the progress she's made with her voice. Is this a result of some specific training or simply the inevitable reward that comes with confidence and experience? Suzanne replies, "Neither, really. It's just that I'm thinking about it more. I used to get so frustrated with my voice and felt that I had no control over it whatsoever. Back in '84, I wasn't touring as much as I am now, so my voice was okay but I never really thought about it. More recently, I'm thinking that it's more important to sing in tune. Plus, as I get healthier and stronger, I find that I have more energy. That and concentrating real hard on the songs are making my singing get better."
What a delight - a great artist working hard to further improve on her craft! She's quite proud of the recent tour and reports that her show is a real tribute to the band's versatility. In addition to full band segments and Suzanne working solo on stage, there's a part she calls the "intimate section of the show - everyone sits together on the stage and plays different instruments from what they usually play and it's very quiet and wonderful!" Of her audience, she asks only one thing; "Come and see me without any preconceptions. Have an open mind about the music and what I stand for... and be prepared to be surprised!"****
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** She chose not to; her next album, 99.9Fº (September 1992) was produced by Mitchell Froom, as was Nine Objects of Desire (September 1996).
* * * * A short time after this article was published, I saw her in concert at the Bob Carr Auditorium in Orlando. As described, the show was magical, her audience devout and enthusiastic, and I was very impressed with her diversity and intimacy on stage. She's still at the top of my list of "must see" performers.
First and foremost, I have to say that I just hate how this article was edited! No disrespect intended to my editor at the time; he was under a lot of pressure to shorten the feature articles to make room for bigger pictures. That said, it feels (especially in retrospect) like the article jumps around a little too much for the sake of brevity. I've gotten older and more sympathetic to the difficult job editors can have (like, say, keeping grumpy writers happy), but I know at the time I did a lot of BPMing about this one (and some of it justified)! With that out of the way...
By the time I did this article, I was already a pretty experienced journalist. I had interviewed heroes of mine, including Patti Smith, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me that I was a bit nervous before I talked to Suzanne. That was completely unfounded. I've conducted close to 500 artist interviews in my career and I'd put her very near the top of the list insofar as "ease of conversation" is concerned. She put me at ease very quickly, which I doubt was even an intentional gesture on her part; it was a simple byproduct of talking to her. First, she's very respectful of anybody who writes, no matter the discipline, so there was never even a hint of "artist snobbery" on her part. Second, speaking to her really wasn't a standard interview type situation where I ask questions, she gives answers, repeat repeat repeat; it was an honest-to-goodness conversation. She put thought into her answers, laughed, and even asked questions of me during the course of our speaking. Suzanne made me feel like she was honestly interested in my opinion as both a fan and a professional as to which were my favorite songs on the album. She asked what else I had heard recently that I enjoyed, much like you would with a music pal when you find some common ground. It was during this conversation that I first learned of the music of Hildegard of Bingen, who I still listen to and enjoy to this day. Also, the entire interview wasn't completely about music; we talked about writers, life situations, little joys and petty annoyances; it was honestly like talking to your friend.
Days of Open Hand was, as mentioned, her third album; her next, 99.9Fº, provided me with both one of the absolute highs and one of the absolute lows of my writing career. I loved the album from moment one and still do, and gave it a very in-depth, glowing review, which the magazine printed. You can imagine my joy, I'm sure, when her publicity company actually contacted me about two weeks later, thanking and complimenting me on the review and asking if I'd like to do (another) interview with Suzanne. This almost never happens; unless you're Rolling Stone, chasing an artist interview can often be a long and difficult task, especially for someone of Vega's stature. Of course, I did the interview, and I have to say, it was even better than the first one. We talked for over an hour, again about a wide array of subjects. She was going through a lot of life changes at the time, her music had taken a very different direction... there was a lot worth talking about, and again, she was open, honest and a very good conversationalist. I learned more about her writing process and how she approaches the creation of a new song, and I also remember talking a lot about why she prefers to be an observer in her lyrics as opposed to a preacher. I wrote the article, and upon completion, let it sit for a day or two; upon re-reading it, I felt it was among my best pieces of writing to that point. The low point? The magazine flatly refused to print it. The reason? "We already ran an article you wrote about her." I think it's safe to say that was the angriest moment of my career as a professional writer. Among writers, I'm probably the world's worst archivist... so no, I don't have a copy of what I wrote, and it was never published, so of course I never will.
One of my current fondest hopes as a writer? To have the chance to interview her again. I'm doing my best...