Suzanne Vega

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Read this document on Scribd: Growing in Contemplation with Suzanne Vega


You have this great ability to capture a moment or an event, reflect upon it, go deeper, and express your reflection in the most literate words, in metaphors and music. When did you realize that this is something you could share with the world and how was this gift developed and nurtured?
Well I think I was about 11 when I started to play the guitar. And I was 11 in 1971 and so it was a time in music where there was a lot going on. You know, Bob Dylan was being played on the radio and I was always impressed with his songs which weren’t like the typical pop songs. Not that ...I also loved pop music, I was always listening to the radio but I remember hearing Bob Dylan and thinking I really love that and I would like to be like that kind of writer. And since I was already writing poetry, I sort of found a way to set it to music and then when I was 14 I started writing songs and then when I was 16 I started performing on stage and that was a big leap to grow from being very introspective which is sitting in my room creating songs to actually going on stage and performing them for the people was sort of a big transition for me.

And how did you develop and nurture it further?
First of all, my parents were always… interested in what I was doing. I would talk about the lyrics with my step father and he took it seriously and they certainly never stood in my way in terms of my going out to audition. I would go anywhere in the city as a teenager. They didn’t exactly take me there you know I would go and do it myself but they never stood in my way and they were always interested in it. And then I sort of nurtured it through just the people who would come up to me after an audition and say your lyrics really meant a lot to me. Usually one or two people in a crowd that would come up and say what you said really got me thinking and so that was usually enough to get me going to the next day.

When your early albums came out, your contemplative lyrics and rhythmic sounds were attributed to your Buddhist background and chanting (Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism). To what extent was that a major influence and is it still an influence today?
I chant from time to time. I sort of stopped practicing Buddhism full time in somewhere around ’91 or ’92. Recently I have been doing it again because my daughter has suddenly taken an interest in it and she and my mother have been practicing Buddhism which is really interesting so in an effort to help my daughter in her spiritual quest I have been sort of getting back to it again myself, not quite to the degree that I was when I was younger. But I find it really interesting and it is a nice bond between my mother and my daughter and they do some of the Buddhist activities together, and study meetings and that sort …..
Hmm I think actually what it was is that both elements – it’s not so much the Buddhism influence in music, it’s really more that I’ve loved things that are rhythmic and both of those happen to be rhythmic and so because I have that in my character you know, I just like both of those things.

So do you give yourself some quiet time to contemplate?
Structured? I don’t. I mean I have quiet time because I have a lot of it in the bus. There’s a lot of time where I can either be in my bunk or I can be looking out the window and I tend to not to want to pass the time by watching television. All the guys are in the back watching TV shows that they have on dvds and I prefer just to sit in the front and sort of look out the window and write or go on the computer. So it’s not structured but it’s just something (that I think about) and on the road I do get some amount of it.

One of the things I appreciate about your music is that it has an edge – it doesn’t shy away from the gritty urban setting. It brings one to confront the realities of life. Growing up in Spanish Harlem is probably a factor. Yet how are you able to see the beauty amidst the urban setting? To make poetry and music out of the city life which can be pretty rough, pretty tough at times?
Well I think you have to. As a child growing up you learn to see moments of beauty where they exist and you feel grateful for them. Even if I weren’t a writer or trying to write it all down, I would still notice those things. I think everybody needs some kind of beauty in their life no matter how hard their life is or how difficult and there’s plenty of poverty and bad things that happen in rural places too. Those hardships don’t only exist in the city, they exist pretty much everywhere. So I think if you’re in one of those situations where you’re struggling really hard, you need those moments of beauty to keep you going and so you kind of train your eye to look out for them and to notice them and to be grateful for them.

You don’t try to make any explicit social commentary or political statement with your songs – but besides entertaining and moving your listeners, is there a message that you hope your songs will be able to convey? Or one that may inspire listeners?
If it’s a message I think it’s that those exalted moments that we would hope for happen every day. There are moments every day where you either see a child or you see something growing despite all odds. Those are sort of exalted spiritual moments that exist every day. It’s not just the Sunday when you go to church or for a special time when you sit at an altar. These spiritual moments don’t only happen when you want them to or when you force them. I think that there’s a value in every single day that you can find and that you need to appreciate because you’re not going to have it forever. So I think that’s the sort of …I try to startle everybody … there are some writers who do it really well …to have this ability to make you aware of the fact that you’re alive and that it’s temporary …not to be morbid but that you have to appreciate it and value it while it’s here because it really is something quite amazing.

St Clare is the only song among your solo albums that was written by someone other than you -Jack Hardy- and it’s probably the closest among your songs linked to the Catholic tradition. What is it about the song that you like and who is St Clare to you?
First of all I think I have the same birthday as St. Clare – I think she was born on July 11 which is sort of an aside. [St. Clare's actual birthdate is July 16, 1194. She died on Aug 11. 1253. The Church celebrates her feast day on Aug 11.]
St. Clare – I’m trying to remember now.. it’s been so long…
I thought it was a beautiful melody and again I can’t remember what my state of mind was I was singing this song. There was something in the lyrics that I felt spoke to my state of mind at that time. (sings Call on the saint) It’s sort of like calling upon on the saint for protection as you travel through the world. I have to look at the lyrics again but there was something in the lyrics that made me feel that it was something that I was looking for myself at that moment.

[ St. Clare by Jack Hardy

call on that saint
and the candle that burns
keeping her safe
until her return

plaster and paint
holding the fire
a poor woman's saint
holding all man's desire

bold little bird
fly away home
could I but ride herd
on the wind and the foam

all of the souls
that curl by the fire
they never know
all man's desire

watercress clings
to the banks of the stream
in the first grip of spring
when the snow melts to green

barefoot and cold
and holding a lyre
by the side of the road
holding all man's desire

call on the saint
when the white candle burns
keeping her safe
until her return ]

Lately I’ve been reading about Mother Theresa and her inner life. It’s a book that came about that got a lot of discussion in the press about her doubts and how she lived with her doubts and how she continued in spite of the fact that she felt this darkness inside of her and that’s been a very interesting book to read. I haven’t finished it yet but I’m about three quarters through. It’s amazing to think that someone who had such a vivid interior life had such a big effect on the world and that these vows that she made were very personal, very interior and that someone who had that kind of life can achieve so much in the real world because that quality is not something that we think of as being valued in our society today. It’s all about action and numbers, and how much are you selling and how much are you doing and big sweeping gestures. Meantime there’s this woman in India who went through these experiences that were something you can’t see from the outside, these experiences that she had were internal. So I’ve been just very impressed by that world that she lived in and how she was able to do this great work and not be corrupted by it and not be swayed.

What she was experiencing is described in Catholic spirituality as part of the maturing of faith where one seeks the God of consolations rather than simply the consolations of God.
I guess you’re seeking to be the consoling presence and you don’t receive it yourself.
Ya, it was a very interesting book and some of it was surprising to me…
For example – that she heard voices and saw visions but that that was not impressive to her superiors – they sort of said yes you may be experiencing those things but you have to put that aside, it doesn’t mean you’re special and that you need your work to be done because of that…most people would think that that is something that would qualify her to do the work but instead they are saying that that’s not that qualifies you, you have to put that away.
The other thing that was surprising to me was that she specifically asked for girls who were cheerful and healthy in their bodies. We think of spiritual girls as being sort of penitent – they want to deny themselves food, or they are very thin, or very pale and they are not very hardy and actually she was asking for the opposite kind of girls. She wanted someone sturdy, strong, cheerful who’s capable of hard work.
And also how she didn’t believe in the penitent view of things. It was more like make yourself well, make yourself healthy and go out and do God’s work in the world instead of always focus on yourself and having penitence for yourself. It was like well don’t think about that, that’s not really the issue.
And she had that clear directive within herself no matter what and wasn’t swayed by it and wasn’t broken by it either. You can easily imagine that she’d go out into the street and contract some disease but she lived to be 87 and it’s an amazing life and she wasn’t corrupted by the realities of the world. I think that’s amazing. It’s very hard to do that, it’s very hard not to be corrupted by all that.

Many people who buy your albums have not had the chance to hear you live – what would you say you bring to a live performance that is different to listening to studio recorded songs?
I think that the live shows add a lot. Anyone who listens to the records and has not been to a live show would think that I’m very serious and sad and that I use very long words and I’m always thinking about things which is true to some degree but what I try to do when I’m on stage is to entertain and to make people laugh a little bit or to bring things down to earth a little bit, to give a little piece of the story that makes it more real because a lot of the songs are really pretty difficult, they are very dense, and they are about “weird” topics and so a little explanation helps it and little a bit of laughter doesn’t hurt.

What’s your philosophy in life? Your attitude in living, given your experience of setbacks and disappointments in life?
I have my own setbacks and disappointments but I think that you really need to find whatever positive thing you can find out of the day, out of the situation, out of the moment, no matter how dark it is or how depressed you’re feeling, you must find a reason to get out of bed, even if it’s just to make a cup of tea, and you can find pleasure in that cup of tea. That’s enough reason to get out of bed. So that’s what I’m always trying to find, is that those moments of either pleasure, or joy or happiness – just some reason to keep going and I think that’s really important.
The other thing is I think I’ve learned over the years that love is not just a personal thing between two people, that when the Beatles sang about love and when people talked about love, they are really talking about a general kind of love, and that you have to learn how to love your neighbour, love your family and there’s a part of loving that’s impersonal and we don’t really think about that much in this society, we are always speaking about romantic love and all that stuff and there’s really so much more to it and getting in touch with that kind of love is as important as the romantic part of it.
The beauty and the value is in the person not the view of love. I think as I’ve gotten older, the songs are starting to be less about alienation and a little more about love that is not just usual man woman, sexual love….
(at this point I mentioned to Suzanne about an independent film, Bella)

Even though you’re not a Christian, you have many Christian images like cathedral, belfry, themes of repentance (like the song Penitent) – how did these images unfold?
Well I love cathedrals and to me they are very special places. I am always attracted to them. If I ever go to a city, there are certain images that repeat. There’s the park, there’s the cathedral, (and the hotel). When I was a kid I just loved the cathedral because it’s a special place, it’s a beautiful place. I suppose my grandmother had taken me to church when I was very young in Puerto Ricorico and I don’t remember enough to know what sect it was particularly but I like this idea of getting dressed up and going to a special place on Sundays. To me there’s something timeless about a cathedral. And I think all of those images are very much in our culture. And even a song like Penitent whereas maybe in America we don’t think about penitent that much but certainly if you go to France, Italy or Spain which is where I was when I was thinking of that song, it is very much everywhere, the ideas, it’s in the images, it’s in the paintings, it’s in the atmosphere.

You also wrote a song for the film, Dead Man Walking by Sr. Helen Prejan called Woman On The Tier (I'll See You Through). Tim Robbins who directed it is also Catholic as is Susan Sarandon – how did you get involved with that?
He sent me an email one day and just said, would you like to write this song for this movie. And they sent me the movie and I watched the movie and thought it was very interesting. Then when I read the book, I was just very impressed by the writing, by the quality of the writing and then those pages that I wrote about just jumped out of me. I thought they were really beautiful. Basically he just invited me.

And how do you feel about capital punishment?
I have mixed feelings about it. My husband is a criminal defense lawyer and he’s told me about many cases where people make a mistake or the prisoner is not guilty or that they’re not as guilty as they’re assumed to be. So that’s kind of changed my view, not that I was pro capital punishment, but I think the fact that I’ve had these discussions with my husband has sort of changed my view on it. I think that I probably am more against capital punishment.

When you sing, you sound so relax and cool, does that come naturally or do you tell yourself you want to sound this way?
Not at all! Most of the time when I’m singing, I’m not feeling relaxed or cool. In fact most of the time I’m singing honestly at the top of my lungs. And it’s always a shock to me to go back into the control room and hear my own voice. A song like Ludlow Street or Angels Doorway when I was singing it, I am honestly singing at the top of my lungs and when I go back and listen it always sound the same – it always sounds cool, it sounds relax, it sounds serene or whatever. I don’t understand why that is. I sometimes wish that it would be a little rougher so that people would understand what I’m actually feeling. I think what I’m actually feeling very often does not come often come through in the tone of how I sing. It’s all there in the words, all the turmoil and the emotion is there in the lyrics. But most people listening to me think that I’m just some sort of laid back singer but I’m honestly not. I’m honestly bellowing at the top of my lungs but it just doesn’t come out that way.

Among all the songs you’ve written, which would you say is the most spiritual, or at least brought you to a spiritual level?
I think Penitent and Bound right after that. Especially Penitent – I honestly was feeling exactly that way and it’s a moment that I still think about. And it’s a song I almost feel isn’t quite finished. I was talking to my friend, Jack Hardy about this. We were talking about the idea of the mystic and the mother and the matador and how the three of them are confronting their mortality. The mother is giving birth and is sort of at that gateway between life and death. The matador is facing that animal and the mystic is facing God…it’s just one tiny line in the song but ...
....Or maybe three separate songs…one from the mystic point of view, one from the mother, one from the matador

[ Penitent by Suzanne Vega

Once I stood alone so proud
held myself above the crowd
now i am low on the ground.

From here i look around to see
what avenues belong to me
I can't tell what ive found.

Now what would You have me do
i ask you please?
I wait to hear.

The mother, and the matador,
the mystic, all were here before,
like me, to stare You down.

You appear without a face,
disappear, but leave your trace,
i feel your unseen frown.

Now what would you have me do
I ask you please?
i wait to hear
your voice,
the word,
you say.
i wait to see your sign
would i

I look for you in heathered moor,
the desert, and the ocean floor
how low does one heart go.

looking for your fingerprints
i find them in coincidence,
and make my faith to grow.

Forgive me all my blindnesses
my weakness and unkindnesses
as yet unbending still.

struggling so hard to see
my fist against eternity
and will you break my will? ]

Some comments on a couple of songs from Beauty and Crime ....
"Pornographer’s Dream" – when I first saw the title, I did wonder what you were going to sing about.

I see that from the audience too – they look so worried at me so I just try to explain beforehand what it’s all about.
Yes I was sure it was a deeper reflection on pornography since some time back you had actually refused an interview with Playboy magazine.
Yes it was one of the first interviews that they had asked me to do. I was doing the video for Marlene On the Wall and they wanted to know if I would do a little interview for Playboy. I just felt very uncomfortable with it and I just said no and I got into a big fight with my manager about it.
So "Pornographer’s Dream" reflects on the deeper issues behind pornography?
Yes it’s the deeper longing underneath it, what is it they’re really longing for underneath it. The pornographer here longs for a more spiritual experience. It’s a song that some people really do get and some other people don’t get it at all. Some other people are like “what are you talking about?” “it’s not true.” But I still think it is true on some level, maybe not true for each specific person but I think that’s what most people want. Most people want what’s good, they don’t want what’s bad. They fall into having an addiction of various kinds but I think ultimately what you’re striving for is some kind of peace, or some kind of goodness and I can’t help but believe in that.

I have to say I really love "As You Are Now" – when I first heard it, I was really touched by it, and the string arrangements makes it even more moving.
I really liked it when I wrote it. I was really worried that people would see it as just being overly sentimental and dismiss it. But I really felt it strongly. I felt that it really showed what I wanted to show about humans – not just because it’s Ruby - but I think that any mother could sing it to any child and that anybody who…I guess it really is a love song …..if you have a child and feel that way about somebody, that they really are special, that they really are precious in the good sense of the word. I’m glad that I wrote it. I don’t sing it all the time but I am happy I wrote it. Ruby likes it but she thinks that the hair and the teeth are creepy and her friends think its creepy too.

1 comment:

  1. Wendy,
    This is the deepest and most insightful interview I have seen about Suzanne. You have such a convergence with her psyche, and I love the way you have drawn her out. I hope you can do this again with her sometime.

    Thanks, Ed (islandflyer)