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Suzanne Vega
by Chris Flisher © 1996 /
(first published October 1996 Worcester Phoenix)

Suzanne Vega
By the time Suzanne Vega and I connected, we had pushed the envelope of modern-day communications until they broke. We tried telephone, we tried e-mail, we even tried to connect as she rolled along in her tour bus via a cellular phone. Everything seemed on track until she hit a spot on the South Carolina highway that threw the cell phone technology into a tailspin and stopped an otherwise simple interview. Finally at 9:00 at night from her hotel in Washington D.C., we chatted after she put her two-year daughter, Ruby, to bed. When all was said and done, we laughed about how our attempted and ultimately successful conversation, reflected Suzanne’s life and craft as being anything but predictable.

On the road to promote her coolly spontaneous and clever new album, Nine Objects of Desire (A&M) Vega talks at ease about how much her life has changed since the last time she sped around the country in the back of a tour bus.

“Well, it’s been four years since the last album and three years since I’ve been on the road, but I haven’t been lounging around,” she chuckles, “Two months after I stopped touring the last time I had Ruby, got married to Mitchell (producer, artistic cohort, and father of Ruby) and basically changed my life completely. So, yes, I’ve been busy.”

Hard to believe that it’s been four years since “99.9F” hit the charts, but in 1992, Vega was concentrating on simply establishing herself and her music. “Before all of this I had been single-mindedly pursuing my career since I’d been about 16, and, of course Mitchell had been doing the same with his career and then we find each other and try to work around each other’s creative impulses and career obligations and stuff,” she pauses, “But, being married changed my perspective, to say the least.”

Needless to say, an even bigger change came when Suzanne gave birth to her daughter, Ruby. Whatever creative experiments and artistic focus she had previously pursued, quickly faded with the responsibility of a motherhood. “I always thought babies were more pliable, but that’s just not the way it is,” she offers laughing. “I always thought that I’d be the mom and she’d be the child, but it just doesn’t work that way, so I couldn’t be creative and work while I had that responsibility. At the end of the day I’d just collapse on the sofa and watch “American Movie Classics” or something on TV.”

As Ruby became more manageable; a sporadic sort of thing with any child, Suzanne began to write again, stealing away for hours at a time. “I rented the apartment below us in the building we live in and I’d go down there every afternoon for about two hours,” she laughs. “The first half hour I’d just fool around and get that restlessness out of my system, then I’d get down to work and before long I’d have ideas again. Then Mitchell and I would get together and I’d bring my ideas which were usually just a few chords and some phrases and we’d be very experimental from there on. Spontaneous.”

While the recording process may have been unplanned, the outcome is a smoothly coherent collection of songs that deal with desires as diverse and unrelated as maternal desire, sexual desire, to nostalgia and longing. With a cool, rhythmic, urban undercurrent, the songs are modern and propel Suzanne’s wistful vocals while drawing upon a wide variety of influences including bossa nova (Astrud Gilberto), jazz, pop (The Beatles) and folk.

“I worshipped Astrud Gilberto as a kid in the ‘60s,” she offers. “I loved her voice with that sort of whispery, monotonic delivery with no vibrato. But it’s her phrasing that influenced me the most. So we’d use that and pull a Stevie Wonder bassline from the ‘70s and some other weird sounds and came up with a record. It’s not sampling. It’s kind of your own personal kind of sampling that comes from you and that feels kind of modern to me.”

The word modern almost sounds old-fashioned within the context of Vega’s songs, in the same way that George Jetson was “modern.” Yet, no other term really applies when describing the tone of the album. Drawing from the past and her favorite influences, these songs present her future while briefly lingering in the past.

“Every era has a definite sound,” she offers. “So I take a little from each decade and combine them to make something modern. It’s kind of a look back, but forward.”

Wrapped in her own whispery sort of delivery, Suzanne dips in and out of her favorites and comes away sounding like none of them. “Stockings,” which deals with sexual desire and recalls the work of French author, Anais Nin, uses Middle Eastern textures to underline the animal allure and vaguely summons up the Revolver-era Beatles, while “Caramel” poses hunger within a swaying bosso nova framework reminiscent of Gilberto and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

While Vega borrows images from her favorite eras, she never openly shows her hand. The subtle inferences to her influences only surface with repeated listenings and even then, appear merely as passing glimpses or feelings instead of broad embraces. The flavor is cool and collected, subtle and, yes, modern. At the same time the songs represent human feelings as basic as need.

“I wanted to sit down and try and write about desires, I guess because I was desirous,” she offers, recalling. “There were two themes that kept jumping out of me; one was desire and the other was traveling and every time I tried to sit down and write something, the desires just kept coming. So I mulled this over and decided to just go with the desires. It wasn’t until afterward that I counted up the ideas and came up with the title and I liked it. I had tried a couple of other titles like “Slice Of Life” or “True Confessions” but they seemed to artsy for me, they weren’t precise enough. This title was precise enough but vague, like some weird European film title with a slightly ‘60s feel to it. And I think it fits, don’t you?”

Chris Flisher

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