CLOSE UP: A CHAT WITH SUZANNE VEGA

This article is written by MIKE RAGOGNA at THE HUFFINGTON POST

MIKE RAGOGNA: Hey, Suzanne. How’s it going?

SUZANNE VEGA: I’m good, thanks.

MR: What’s been going on with you these days?

SV: I’m looking forward to the release of CLOSE UP VOLUME 3, which is coming out NOVEMBER 1. I’ve been doing this project where I’ve been re recording most of my catalogue, so VOLUME 1 and VOLUME 2 came out last year…and VOLUME 3 was released earlier in the UK and now here in the US in November. It got great reviews in the UK, so I’m really happy about that.

MR: Let’s talk about another project you’re associated with, PIONEERS FOR A CURE, for which you contributed your take on THE STREETS OF LAREDO. October being BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH and this album is released, of course, coordinated with that. Is this a cause that you’re particularly aligned with in addition to other causes?

SV: This is in addition to other causes. Most of the time, if I have to prioritize, I work on behalf on human rights and especially children’s rights. In this case, I took this on because I love the song. I like the cause. I recently had some experience where my father in law and mother in law both passed away from pancreatic cancer within the space of a couple of years of each other. So all of the proceeds from this particular song are going to the hospice that nursed them in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

MR: I’m sorry for your loss, Suzanne. So do the royalties that come out of the sales of the project go to artists’ various causes?

SV: Yes, exactly. As the artist, you choose a charity that’s the recipient of the proceeds and it goes there directly.

MR: Some other artists on this project are TOM CHAPIN, RANDY BRECKER and TOM VERLAINE. How did it work? Were you approached by someone?

SV: Yes, it was BETH RAVEN who approached me for this. I know her from some NARUC meetings I attend in New York. She asked me if I wanted to do it and I said I would love to. So I researched this song and we got taken out to this house in New Jersey. It was all very mysterious and we recorded it there.

MR: And there are like a hundred songs involved. It’s not just about what comes out on this CD collection.

SV: I guess not. There’s a website that’s associated with it – I think it’s called THE AMERICAN COLLECTION because there’s another collection with Israeli songs. So the website is quite extensive and you can go there and check it out.

MR: A moment ago, you mentioned you were affiliated with other social causes such as children’s rights and of course you have one of the best narratives out there on child abuse in your classic LUKA. What are a couple of your affiliations?

SV: Well, of course, there is AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, which I’ve been a part of since 1988. There’s a group called CASA ALIANAZA that I’ve done a lot of work for, especially in the UK. We’ve raised money and given out leaflets. They are a group associated with COVENANT HOUSE here in America. They deal with children’s rights and they actually get involved in children’s lives, especially homeless teenagers here in New York – the COVENANT HOUSE is associated with them. Those are two of the groups I’m affiliated with.

MR: You’re in New York now, right?

SV: Yeah.

MR: You’re watching the Occupy protests that are happening right now?

SV: I am kind of watching it, I must admit from a distance. I live five miles away from where it’s going on, but I’m watching it in the news and I’m interested to see where this is going.

MR: Apparently it’s a grassroots movement.

SV: A lot of people are feeling very discontented and it’s completely understandable.

MR: It seems like the intentions are very good with everyone who’s involved, but the hard thing right now is: how do you turn everything around with who’s in place in government and who’s in place in corporations? How do you know where to begin?

SV: Exactly…and how do you frame the problem so it can be addressed? Right now, it’s sort of a vague feeling of discontent people are giving, giving vent to people that have different answers and different things they want to talk about. So eventually it can be more than just a mouthpiece for emotion. Hopefully, at some point, it will click.

MR: Hopefully, people like Obama and Boehner are watching.

SV: I’m sure they are, believe me.

MR: Obama’s election happened partly out of a grassroots movement. I wonder if he’s looking at this deciding whether or not to be front and centre or he’s just hoping it goes away.

SV: Maybe neither? Maybe he can take some of that discontent and channel it. I’m sure some of that is aimed at him. There are a few people who are unhappy with the amount of change he’s been able to affect. To be honest, I remember the night he was elected, him saying that this is going to take time. I still stand by him and I think he is still doing a good job, despite the kind of opposition that he’s had to deal with.

MR: OK…Back to the music. In addition to the PIONEERS album, you have a new one coming out soon called CLOSE UP VOLUME 3.

SV: I’m hesitant to call it a new album, because if you call it a new album, people expect new songs. I don’t blame them one bit. I would think so too. These are new recordings of catalogue songs.

MR: Though these revisits respect their older arrangements, they also breathe more. They come off more mature.

SV: They are more intimate. First of all, they don’t have some of the production they had. When I had the big record deals, a lot of the production was aimed towards “How do we get this on the radio?” so they have effects and reverb and all kinds of stuff on them. A lot of that was to be able to get it on – if we could even think about it – TOP 40 radio. So these songs are performed much more intimately and they are engineered so you can listen to them with your ear buds and it actually sounds like I’m talking to you right up close.

MR: I’m assuming you used mp3s with the ear buds to achieve that?

SV: Yes, but we’ve done them various ways. We’ve done them digitally and I don’t really remember now. I know with the BEAUTY & CRIME record, we recorded a lot of things digitally and transferred it to tape in order to get the warmth you sometimes get. I don’t know JOE BLANEY’S secrets; all I know is when I listen to my vocal on these recordings, it’s full and warm. It doesn’t have that thin bright sound the older recordings have.

MR: That supplies the intimacy – that being the mission.

SV: It’s sort of meant to humanize it. Some people have said, “Close Up? How Close Up? Are you in the room? So, you’re playing in a small club?” No, I mean close up like I’m in your face, like I’m in your ear. That’s how close. Maybe that will make some people uncomfortable, but if you listen to the new recordings, it does have this warm grainy intimate sound.

MR: And air.

SV: Yes, the air around the guitar parts and the melodies and the vocal. It’s the song that stands up, not so much production – not that I have anything against the productions. I really stand behind all of my old albums, but I don’t own them. I don’t own the actual recordings – A&M owns 6 of them and BLUE NOTE owns the 7th. So, these I actually own and I can do what I want with them for the rest of my life. That makes a difference.

MR: As you know, I come from working with catalogue for a while. From the artist perspective, it was often hard to come to an agreement on what the track list etc. might be since two different angles are at work.

SV: Well, back 25 years ago when I was a receptionist looking for a record deal, the contracts that they had available back then didn’t seem like a bad deal. It was better than answering the telephone as a receptionist, so the 12 or 16 percent deal didn’t seem so terrible. These days though, it seems if I can make more than that if I own 70 percent of my own catalogue, then why not do that, especially in this day and age when record labels are not interested in holding on to individual artists. The big companies are sort of like dinosaurs. Unless they can sell millions of records, they’re not going to cultivate you and nurture you.

MR: At A&M RECORDS, you were in a beautiful place for that.

SV: I must say I had a happy relationship with them for 18 years, so I’m not complaining about that. These days, I’m thinking how can I go forward and that’s what I’ve chosen to do. I’ve started my own record company and I’m re releasing most of my catalogue on the CLOSE UP series. Most people get it when they come and see me live. They look at me performing and they say, “Ah, what is on these CDs is what she’s doing live these days.” It might take a little while for the whole idea of re records to sink in to people who are not familiar with the record industry and how it works. I’m sure there are people who say, “We love the original. Why do we need to buy it again?” You don’t have to buy it again. But if you want to know what I’ve been up to, then you could buy it if you wanted to.

MR: That’s another interesting thing. Traditionally, people would say, “Why would I want a re record?” I think we still associate them with those awful doo wop re recordings and the like.

SV: Yeah, you would think to yourself, “Why would you want to re record?” I’m not trying to recreate some nostalgic moment. I’m trying to say, “Here’s the song in its bare bones form.”

MR: Of course, your lyrics and performance then get to pop out.

SV: And the guitar work. Whatever I need to get the song across, whatever it is I need to get the song across, that’s what it’s boiled down to. There’s no extra stuff and there’s nothing cut away too much. It’s just what each song needs to end up on its own.

MR: Suzanne, what advice do you have for new artists?

SV: Let’s see…I thought you were going to ask me what was the best advice I had ever received.

MR: Sure, let’s go there first. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

SV: One day, back in the 80s, I had the occasion to speak to PETER GABRIEL. He gave me this lovely bit of advice that I’ve sort of taken to heart. He said, “Take your idiosyncrasies and blow them up.” I have done that in my own career. Sometimes it’s been good for my career and sometimes it hasn’t been. It definitely leaves you open to more criticism. People say, “What the heck is that?” or “Why do you need to write about blood?” or whatever I’m writing about. So you leave yourself open to more criticism…but at the same time, you get to be yourself, you get to be a distinctive person in the landscape. That’s something that I would pass on to a younger artist.

First of all, have something to say and second of all, have a style to say it in. To add to what PETER GABRIEL said to me, I would say know your limitations because that becomes your style. A lot of people these days try and expand themselves. If you have an eight octave range, then good for you. But if you have a one octave range then work within that because your limitations become your style and that’s what you become known for. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, even if it garners criticism. You will get criticized but you will be remembered.

MR: It’s the antithesis of what goes on in shows like AMERICAN IDOL, where you’re there to be molded.

SV: Yes, you’re kind of fit into a machine and you come out the other end.

MR: It’s almost a reality show on how not to make a true artist.

SV: Well, yeah, although when my daughter RUBY was younger, we would watch it and there are some things to learn from when you watch it. Mostly, I learned about songwriters – I learned about STEVIE WONDER and different interpretations you can make of a song. There’s always something good to find there. But ultimately, you will get a pop star out of that system, but you won’t get a real artist.

MR: I interviewed SCOTTY McCREERY for HuffPost recently. I like him as a young talent and as a person and I was wondering what path he would take.

SV: That’s the thing. Somebody like KELLY CLARKSON? In the end, she is some kind of artist and she has tried to kick against the system and they end up resisting terribly. She’s really had to fight for the past few years for her own vision of how her albums should be. So there you are.

MR: Yeah, very true. Hey, is RUBY musical?

SV: Yes, she is. She is a vocal major at LaGuardia and she’s been doing some composing and playing a bunch of different instruments. In some ways, her musical talent comes from her dad – MITCHELL FROOM the producer. Her talent is a lot like his in the scope of what she loves.

MR: Has she thought of herself as an artist in the same way we think about singer/songwriters?

SV: Well, she writes songs, but her instincts are more like a musicologist. She is way more sophisticated musically than I am. I’m not being modest. I’m just saying she can read music, write music, she knows how to modulate and she knows how to do all of those things I used to hire her dad for. She’s written some songs, but I think her interest goes beyond being a female singer/songwriter. She’s interested in composing and right now she’s interested in reading all of the biographies of different composers.

MR: It seems like everybody’s doing well.

SV: I’m doing as well as I can in this economy as we referenced before. I definitely don’t feel above the fray as far as I’m concerned. Me myself am involved in this economic crunch we’re going through.

MR: I think everybody is to some degree. The economy is playing the most heavily on making any real future decisions for most people I know.

SV: I know…and I know people who are just starting gardens and growing their own vegetables, because it’s so much cheaper than going to the store and buying them. It’s that kind of time we’re living in. The good thing about being where you are is that you can still be in contact with the world because of the internet and the huge technological side. You can still be a part of the global consciousness; you’re not in LA, but you can still join with the world’s traffic if you want to.

MR: That’s really it. The old stereotypes don’t exist any more. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

SV: It is an amazing thing and it gives you a more global awareness. I remember for the first time realizing way back when, like 15 years ago when I first started fooling around with the internet, that there was a person in Turkey and I could hear from her. When I would go to Turkey there was somebody that I knew who would come to the shows and I could look them in the face. That was so different than just this faceless country. Turkey even today still feels fairly exotic to me, but the internet makes us all feel the global identity more than before.

MR: As opposed to boarding a Pan Am flight with FRANK SINATRA.

SV: (laughs) With FRANK SINATRA?

MR: You know, a COME FLY WITH ME reference. You know, post World War II culture flying around the world to explore mysterious and exciting cultures!

SV: Oh, I see.

MR: It was lame. Sorry. (laughs)

SV: Yes that seems terribly old fashioned to get on the plane and go there, you can learn all about it beforehand, or you can participate in parts of the world where you can see what’s going on and participate in it. You can take part in it and you can know what’s happening in ways outside of the normal media.

MR: Is there one thing about SUZANNE VEGA that we don’t know that you can share?

SV: If you want to know those things, you have to go join my Facebook page because lately, I’ve been uploading these pictures of what I’m wearing now or where I am. I’m so surprised by people who get on line and say, “This is not you,” whether it’s my pair of shoes or they’ve decided they don’t like my goggles. I did a picture of myself in a bathing suit on the beach, I posted it up and I was surprised by how many people were vicious. They were saying, “This isn’t you,” or they thought this is really great and that’s cool. So, you would be surprised by some of the things I would wear when I’m not on stage. On stage, I think I dress conservatively. You would be surprised to know what’s in my closet.

MR: Everyone, don’t forget to go to SUZANNE VEGA’S Facebook page.

SV: Yes, you can see some of those interesting items, which I suppose as I go along, I will be posting them more and more.

MR: Anything else happening in your world?

SV: Just the Facebook page would cover that and also if you go to www.suzannevega.com and you sign up there, you can find out when I’m doing the CARSON McCULLERS play, when box sets are coming out, all sorts of things.

MR: Before we leave, I want to ask you about INSTANT OF THE HOUR AFTER, the new song coming from the project that you’re collaborating with DUNCAN SHEIK on. Can you go into that a bit?

SV: The song is based on a short story by CARSON McCULLERS. I have written a play and I’m still doing some work on that play, of the life and work of CARSON McCULLERS. I wrote 12 to 15 songs with DUNCAN SHEIK and it’s gotten a great response. I think we’re going to restage the play for the fall of next year, probably in San Francisco. But as I said, if you go to the website, you can sign up for all the latest updates on that.

MR: What was the experience like?

SV: It’s been so great to work with him. I’ve known him for years and I was really hopeful this would work out and it’s worked out beyond my wildest dreams. The melodies that he comes up with are so beautiful, it’s been very inspiring working with him on this. I can’t wait for everything to be in place. So in the meantime you get a taste of it on VOLUME 3.

MR: Looking forward to VOLUME 4, Suzanne. As always, it’s been terrific. Thank you so much.

SV: Thanks, Mike.

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