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Suzanne Vega, photo by Noel Buckley

With little over 10 minutes to enquire about a 25 year career, Pete Feenstra kept the questions coming thick and fast to contemporary folk artist and wordsmith Suzanne Vega. Promoting a brand new re recorded collection of love songs 'Close-Up Vol 1' the focus was mainly on her career retrospective.

You are celebrating your independence as a recording artist by re–recording your back catalogue and splitting it into 4 Volumes?

Yes we're currently touring behind the 'Love Songs' collection and then we're going to follow that with Volume two called 'People and Places', then 'States of Being' and finally 'Songs of Family'.

The first one is a stripped down affair with songs I consider to be love songs. The second volume will be a musically broader collection with strings, percussion etc and Volume 3 – 'States of Being' - is what I call the weird songs. That one will feature more diverse sounds and will probably have more distortion etc. Then the last one will be a basic folk album.

You started last night's Cadogen Hall show in London with 'Marlene on the Wall'. Was that because you wanted to get it out the way as quickly as soon as possible? Is it an albatross much like Don McClean's American Pie, in that you always have to play it?

No not at all. I'm still very fond of it. But the reason we start the evening with that song is that it's quite upbeat compared to a lot of my songs (laughs).

It's also in a major key and is a good starting point to the evening. We love playing it, sometimes we alter the arrangement a little to keep it fresh and interesting.

Suzanne Vega, photo by Noel Buckley

And again going back to last night's show, you made it clear that you consider it to be a love song?

Yes, I've had some discussions recently with journalists who tell me it's about angst etc, but the subject is right there in the first line and the song fits in with in with the different ways I view love in the new collection.

You once said 'Songs brand us as part of a tribe. We can pick and choose what tribe we belong'. What tribe would you describe yourself as belonging to?

I'm not sure really, I wouldn't say I fit into any category easily and not one identifiable tribe. I'd have to think back to why I said that but I guess I'm more of a mixture really and I draw from different elements and have done so through most of my work.

So are you a singer song-writer first and poet second?

Well I guess professionally I'm the former but I started as a poet and I still consider myself that way outside of what I do. I still write poetry but the songs are the way I express my thoughts.

Before you started this 4 volume thematic retrospective you have also said you'd like to present a collection of songs in a different way, so people could experience them in different ways. Is that really possible with love songs that deal with meaningful relationships, feelings etc?

Again I'm not sure if I remember what I meant by that at the time. But in terms of taking the music on the road when I'm touring songs do get presented in different ways, if only because sometimes I have a band, and other times I play in a duo or trio format.

On the other hand some of the songs stay fast to what they have become down the years. But we do try and play around with some songs in terms of keys and chords etc and try and keep them interesting for both us and the audience. I always try to think of the best way to present songs and a collection seems a good way of doing that.

Suzanne Vega, photo by Noel Buckley

How did you decide which ones to include and which to leave out?

I chose the songs I liked and thought about the ones that maybe the audience would like to hear again. Then I thought about how they might sound sonically in the various formats I was going to present them.

For example, some songs don't necessarily lend themselves to a simple acoustic arrangement. I was also thinking in terms of how I'd play them live.

Does 'The Queen And The Soldier' fall into that category? It could possibly have been included in the love songs album?

Yes I did think about that one in those terms, but 'The Queen and The Soldier' will appear in Volume 2 under 'People and Places'.

Do your songs come from first hand experiences?

A lot of them are yes but not always. They are about feelings as well. But 'Song in Red and Grey' and 'Bound' are very much from personal experience.

Two questions in one. Is the purpose of the new CD to reach newer fans, or do you wish to drag old fans to their minimal arrangements? And in going back to your older songs does that mean your newer material is put on the backburner?

As regards re-recording the material, it's really a bit of both. The four volume collections will all come out before I issue a new CD.

I've got new songs forthcoming but before I put them out I was thinking about who I'm aiming all this stuff at. When I parted company with Blue Note a couple of years ago I thought now what should I do?

Should I look for a new label, record some more material. I had more songs that I could have put out but I thought am I going to release these to the world and to an audience I don't really know?

So part of the plan was to re-focus on my old songs through the thematic collections. By doing that I thought I could rebuild a new audience and find some of them on line for example.

That way I could get to know where they are, what they like and in some instances reconnect with existing fans as well as maybe discover new fans. So that will take a while. There's also the question of financing all of this and the plan is to reinvest any money I make from the collections into paying for a new album. Meanwhile I'm enjoying going back to my older songs and redoing them.

Suzanne Vega, photo by Noel Buckley

Did you pay particular attention to the sequencing and the idea of a coherent set of songs on 'Close-Up?

Yes very much so. That was the idea to present the songs in a way that made sense. I was looking for a balance in presenting the songs, a flow, some variety and coherence.

You've also used a very tight segue between '(I'll Never be) Your Maggie May' and 'Harbor Songs'. Was that deliberate?

Yes that was deliberate especially as '(I'll Never Be) Your Maggie May' finishes with a long major key. The end of that song is really the beginning of 'Harbor Songs'. They are linked musically and thematically.

The album finishes with 'Bound' which is hardly optimistic? Is that part of your general view of things now?

No. Both 'Song in Grey & Red' and 'Bound' just happened to be the last ones I wrote on love from that perspective. There are lots of ways of looking at the subject and that's what I try to do on the collection.

'Gypsy' for example, is what I consider to be is my most innocent song on the album.

You played 'Gypsy' as a solo last night, but for the rest of the night you had Gerry Leonard on guitar and Mike Visceglia on bass, as well as a string quartet. This was something of a pleasant surprise given the minimalism of 'Close Up'?

Well you have to think about a number of things when you tour, ranging from the sonic qualities of the hall to the material you wish to play. And I am playing a lot of different songs, not just the 'Close Up' stuff, so you have to sometimes look for that wider sound. In fact I'm using a string quartet on volume two of the collections.

Thinking about lyrics, you once said you liked the curve of Bob Dylan's words, particularly his use of images instead of narratives. What triggers a song for you?

Images do yes but there other things too. In the case of 'Tom's Diner' it was lyrics, while on other occasions it's been something as simple as a title as in 'Cracking'.

On 'Small Blue Thing' it was a visual thing, the idea of some small blue thing exploding in the air. So there are also musical elements involved, but I take things from everywhere.

Suzanne Vega, photo by Noel Buckley

You have mentioned Dylan, Laura Nyro, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen as influences, When did you first realise you had found your own voice?

Quite early on really. I had written poems to start with and then I wrote a folk song to my brother called 'Brother of Mine' and I also wrote a song when I was 15 called 'The Silver Lady' and another one about a father and his daughter. 'Cracking' was also written in my 20's ...

You also used to go to the Songwriters Exchange in the early 80's. Was that to present your work or to help gain confidence by sharing it?

Actually it was a great place to test your songs in front of people who know about things like lyrics, melody, philosophy, politics or whatever. In fact I did that again about 10 years ago with 'Songs in Red and Grey'

Did songs like 'Marlene On The Wall', Tom's Diner' and 'Luka' seem like outstanding songs to you at the time?

No not at all, I'm really not very good at choosing which songs to put out. Of course it is different going back to redo a collection of songs, but back then it was the record company that decided what would be released.

Going back to your debut album, what prompted the decision to work with Lenny Kaye? Was it because he's worked with another Patti Smith who was also poet and performer?

He worked with Patti obviously, but originally A&M my then label wanted me to work with someone other than just Steve Abbaddo. And he's been a really great guitarist, producer, friend and we've had some great moments together.

It was really great connecting with Lenny, we're still in touch now all these years later.

Were you surprised you initially broke in the UK first and not in the US until later?

I really wasn't so surprised. I've never particularly felt that American sensibility. And anyway it was a lot of fun back then, there was a lot going on, I played a lot of shows and I just seem to be part of everything.


Interview © June 2010 Pete Feenstra

Photos by Noel Buckley/GRTR!

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