'All you need is the first line'

Singer, songwriter and self-professed procrastinator Suzanne Vega talks to the 'Post' about her creative process and affinity for Israel.

Suzanne Vega 88 248 (photo credit: Bert Sanchez, courtesy)
Suzanne Vega 88 248
(photo credit: Bert Sanchez, courtesy)
Suzanne Vega recently wrote an essay for The New York Times on the subject of the 10 best songs to help you procrastinate. No. 9 on the list was her own "Solitaire" from her 2001 album Songs in Red and Gray. "You are still fiddling around trying to figure out what you are doing here. Maybe you need to clear your mind. I wrote this song when I was procrastinating and found my preferred method was computer solitaire. So easy to reset after you lose! This song will help you relax. After that you can approach your problem again from a fresh perspective. That is if they don't find you in your ergonomic chair in the morning still trying to win after the 122nd game." After almost 25 years since releasing her first album, the 49-year-old sterling practitioner of edgy and literate folk and pop still experiences bouts of delays and foot dragging when she sits down to write songs. "I'm truly great at procrastinating in everything, but in songwriting in particular," said Vega during a phone conversation from her home in New York, which she shares with her husband, civil rights attorney and former street poet Paul Mills, and her 15-year-old daughter Ruby, from her marriage to musician/producer Mitchell Froom. "I think about it and think about it. But like I wrote in The New York Times list for Radiohead's 'Jigsaw Falling Into Place,' all you need is that first line. I tend to brood over things, but once you get the opening line, it starts to come out." SONGS AND words have been flowing out of Vega ever since she picked up a guitar and began writing at age 11 while growing up in New York City's Spanish Harlem and Upper West Side. Even though she attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts (now called LaGuardia High School) as a modern dance student, she continued to write songs. While majoring in English literature at Barnard College in the late 1970s, she had her bell rung at a Lou Reed concert, and started performing in small Greenwich Village clubs. After a few years of scuffling, Vega was finally "discovered," resulting in the release in 1985 of her self-titled debut album, which contained exquisite tunes like "Marlene on the Wall" and "Undertow," and drew favorable comparisons to artists like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Janis Ian. Since then, Vega's acute, cerebral observations on ordinary people and events and her distinctive, cool, whispery voice have enraptured audiences around the world. Along the way, via the blockbuster 1987 album Solitude Standing which contained the million-selling hits "Luka" and "Tom's Diner," she became, for a time, somewhat of a pop star. But whether as a novice 20-year-old folk singer with a unique voice and outlook, or as a seasoned veteran of the music business wars, for Vega, it always comes back to the song, and the songwriting process. "Songwriting is really hard," said Vega. "In the beginning, it's because you don't really know anything, and aren't sure of your voice. But if you do find your voice and end up writing good songs, it presents its own problems. The next time you don't want to repeat yourself, so that brings with it a pressure that's just as intense." A QUARTER century into her career, Vega - like many of her contemporaries - is no longer in vogue. The notion of a sustained music career is an anomaly, with pop sensations zipping in and out of cyberspace with the click of an iPod. Without radio support or record company interest (her last release was 2007's Beauty & Crime on Blue Note Records, which has since dropped her from its roster), adult-contemporary artists like Vega have been forced to redefine their goals and direction. For Vega, who in 2006 became the first major recording artist to perform live in avatar form within the virtual world Second Life, that means embracing the Internet age as an opportunity to reach her audience directly. "Since I'm not with a record company anymore, and there doesn't seem to be any interest, I figured it was time to rewrite the books," she said, citing examples of contemporary artists like Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor and Radiohead who have released music on-line without the baggage of a third party - i.e. a record company. "I'm taking a big step now. I'm recording all of my songs acoustically and creating four or five albums to sell on-line through my own record company. So, I'm going to test this decentralized system that's developed in the music business, and see if we can get the cash flow going to finance my own records." Instead of a chronological grouping, the albums will be based on themes, Vega explained. The categories include Love Songs; People, Places and Things, which will include songs like "Tom's Diner" and "Luka"; State of Being, including "Cracking"; Family; and a fifth collection of odds and ends and covers. "We plan to start releasing them next April, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the release of my first album," she said, adding that she hired manager Michael Hausman, a former member of the band 'Til Tuesday, and current manager of his old band mate Aimee Mann to oversee her new career. "One of the reasons I chose to work with him was seeing how he was able to help Aimee be in control of her music, and hoping that we would arrive at this moment when I could be in charge of my music," she said. Although her recording career is in a state of flux, Vega's pull as a live performer is as robust as ever - at least outside the US. According to her, it's because of the American mentality that if you're not on top of the charts, you're no longer worthy of consideration. "I have more of an audience these days in Europe than I do in the US. In Europe I have to spend less time explaining myself than in the US," she said. "Everything in the US is geared so much toward business. Back before I got my record deal, I had to explain to everyone why I wanted to be a songwriter - there's no money in writing songs. Once I had money from songwriting, I didn't have to explain myself anymore, but I came to be defined by how many records I sold. "In Europe, it's different. I don't have to explain or justify. Songwriters - that's just what they do. It's like being a craftsman." TO KEEP in touch with fans and strengthen her base, Vega has also embraced the written word on the Internet, posting messages, thoughts and essays on her site and various forums. She said that she found the immediacy of contact with fans to be stimulating, sometimes to the extreme. "I love it, but it runs both ways. You can't be in touch with everyone," Vega laughed. "The thing I like about the Internet is that someone in Turkey can read something you wrote and upload a response and begin a relationship. And then you go to Turkey and meet the person. It's a real eye opener. Before, when I would go to Japan, I couldn't really know who was out there in the audience, if they're getting what I say. Now you can communicate with people there before you even go there." The same model applies to Israel, where Vega has built a solid fan base over four visits here. On July 19, she returns for a performance in Tel Aviv at the Mann Auditorium. "I'm sure I'll be meeting some people that I've been in touch with on-line in the last few years," said Vega. "A lot of what strikes me about Israelis is their passion and intensity, which is distinctive. I meet Israelis all over the world, and they're always forward. They come up to me and tell me they're from Israel and say why don't I come back? They really have a sense of appreciation." Vega admitted that she was jarred by her first visit to the country in the late 1980s, saying that it felt like a country in progress, but that she has developed warm feelings on subsequent trips. "The first time I visited in the late 1980s, it didn't really have a feeling of normalcy for me. But Ruby has cousins living there, and I know from them that there's a sense of normalcy in their lives," she said, adding that her former mother-in-law visits frequently, and relatives of her husband's are planning a trip this summer. "There are still things that surprise me about Israel - children out in playgrounds at 11:30 at night," Vega said. "That took some getting used to, but I figure that it's too hot in the day to play, so why not at night?" A long-time high-profile supporter of liberal causes like Amnesty International, Casa Alianza and the Save Darfur Coalition, Vega explained that wherever she goes, she consciously differentiates between a country's government and its people. "I have to separate government policy from the people of the country. I've lived in my own country when I haven't always agreed with what the government is doing. If I were to boycott a country based on the government, I would have been forced out of my own country during several administrations," she said. "I feel a certain emotional connection to Israel because of its people, and their response to my music. Israel's a touchy subject for me. I can't condone or support everything Israel has done. On the other hand, my emotional connection to Israel speaks louder to me than its policies and actions." GIVEN HER multifaceted career and her appearances on behalf of the NGOs, it's a wonder that Vega has found the time to raise a family. But she has, pointing out proudly that her daughter Ruby is following in her footsteps as a voice major at her alma mater, LaGuardia High School. "Ruby's actually much more accomplished than I ever was. She plays several instruments and can sight read, something I never learned to do," said Vega. "In some ways, she gets her talent from her father - her wide range and ways of approaching music. I have my voice, guitar and imagination, that's what I rely on." For the last three years, Vega's also relied on her husband Mills, the culmination of a relationship that dates back to 1981, when they met at Vega's Greenwich Village haunt, Folk City. According to Vega, Mills initially proposed to her in 1983, but she didn't accept his invitation for 22 years. "He asked me for the first time in '83; I told him I needed to think about it, and we ended up splitting. Over the years we would stay in touch, but there'd be a postcard sent to the wrong address, and one time a letter of his ended up in my fan mail and got lost for two years. He got angry that I didn't respond and we lost touch," said Vega. "Finally with the Internet, we reconnected. He sent me an e-mail in 2005 - which I received immediately. We started corresponding again and talking on the phone as well, since he was living in California." The two quickly rekindled their romance and the next year Mills moved to New York and they got married. "The first time he asked me to marry him I was 23 years old," said Vega. "By the time I accepted, I'd lived more than another life of that length." It's proof The New York Times must have known what it was doing when it asked her to write about procrastination.