Great songs from heartache

Suzanne Vega will perform at Mass MoCA on November 9 at 8

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 5, 2002) – When Suzanne Vega’s most recent album, “Songs in Red and Gray,” came out last fall, listeners could not help but link the themes that ran throughout many of the songs to her well-publicized divorce from Mitchell Froom, who was also her producer and the father of her daughter, Ruby. Nor could listeners help but note that the album marked a return to a more acoustic approach for Vega, whose Froom-produced albums experimented with his trademark electronic textures and synthesized sounds.

But more than these changes, listeners couldn’t help but note that the dozen new compositions on “Songs in Red and Gray” ranked with the best material from Vega’s career. Divorce, it seemed, inspired the singer-songwriter – who performs at Mass MoCA in North Adams on Saturday, November 9, at 8 -- to her own “Blood on the Tracks”-like heights of creativity.

Listeners will also have to forgive Vega if next time around, she pulls back from the naked pain and autobiographical heartache of songs like “Widow’s Walk” and “Last Year’s Troubles.”

“The last album was a bit more personal than the previous ones, and that’s a direction that I’m not planning to return to in a hurry,” said Vega in an interview earlier this week.

Speaking on her cellphone in Manhattan as she walked north on Eighth Avenue from 52nd Street toward home, Vega said the songs she has been writing recently are more “public-minded.”

“There are more story songs and more characters,” said Vega. “They’re more about what’s happening out in public life.”

Whether she writes outward-looking songs or introspective ones, in the end what matters is if she feels they are good.

“I felt that they were really good songs and that’s what I look for,” said Vega, who last performed in the Berkshires in May, 1999, at the National Music Foundation in Lenox.

“If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have put them out. That’s what’s more important to me -- do the songs hold up on their own. ‘Widow’s Walk’ was a song a lot of people could relate to. They didn’t have to know my situation with my husband in order to get it.”

Vega grew up in New York City, where she studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts. While at Barnard College, she began performing in Greenwich Village folk clubs, gradually working her way up the then-thriving New York folk scene – a scene that no longer exists.

“There are some really great songwriters out there, but there are no venues to play in anymore,” said Vega, who continues to take part in the Greenwich Village folk community by attending the weekly Songwriter’s Exchange at folksinger Jack Hardy’s apartment.

“I think it’s sad, because there aren’t any that I can see as far as a real legitimate club on the par of Folk City. There’s not that kind of stomping ground at the moment. But people still come in and try and sing and write and hang out. Eventually there’ll be an outlet.”

Vega released her first album on A&M Records in 1985. Her second album, “Solitude Standing,” contained the top 10 hit “Luka,” a song written from the viewpoint of an abused child and accompanied by a groundbreaking, award-winning video. Released in 1987, it garnered her the first of two Grammy nominations.

Since that time, Vega has recorded four subsequent albums, including “Days of Open Hand” and “Nine Objects of Desire,” contributed to several movie soundtracks including “Pretty in Pink” and “Dead Man Walking,” and collaborated with such artists as Philip Glass, David Bowie, Elton John, the Grateful Dead and Joe Jackson. In the mid-to-late 1990s, she was a mainstay of the all-female, Lilith Fair concert tour, having been something of a pioneer for the intelligent, commercially-successful folk-pop music that the tour embraced and perpetuated.

In 1999, “The Passionate Eye,” a collection of Vega’s lyrics and other writings, including poems, stories, interviews and essays, was published by Spike. Vega continues to use her concerts to read selections from her book. She would like to write a follow-up, but can’t find the time. “That’s mainly the issue right now,” she said.

While often described as a “folkie” or a “new Joni Mitchell,” Vega has taken her lead as much from the tradition of the gritty, urban male rock poet as embodied by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed as from any female forebears. From Dylan she gets her penchant for verbal effusion and surrealism; from Cohen she gets her gift for poetic imagery and metaphor; from Reed she finds support for her street-level point of view.

“Because I’m a woman and they’re men and they’re more overt about some things, some people find it a surprise that I was listening to Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ album on the day that I wrote ‘Luka’, probably to sharpen and focus myself,” said Vega.

The biggest surprise of her career came not with failure but with success. “My couple of jaunts into the top forty were very different than I thought they’d be,” she said. “Success was much bigger than I expected it to be, and it was the type of success I assumed I wouldn’t have.

“The annoying thing about it is that people want you to keep doing it. That was never my intention in the beginning. The rest is how I imagined it – the traveling, doing it for a long time, changing styles. I’ve had a really good, long career and really enjoy what I do and that’s what I expected.”

Vega doesn’t buy the line that says great art is the product of great personal suffering, either. “I’ve never really subscribed to that,” she said. “It’s not as though I can write while that stuff is going on. I tend to need quiet and predictability in my life to get down to writing.”

Vega admits, however, that in her case, the breakup of her marriage, which coincided with the folding of her record label and the end of a long association with her manager, produced some pretty remarkable songs.

“Going through hardship sharpens your senses and your mind and your whole being, really,” she said as she approached Lincoln Center at 64th Street. “I think it’s possible to write joyous songs, too. I just haven’t figured out how yet.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 8, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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