Choice logoNot Just Another Folk Singer: SUZANNE VEGA Revives an Old Tradition With Urban Style

Hear part of the interview! Listen to Suzanne Vega discuss her musical influences, how she goes about writing songs, and more...

By David Zeiler (Published June 1985)

Suzanne Vega doesn't mind being classified a folk singer. What she does mind is the assumptions people make about folk music and, more to the point, her music.

"People who are expecting a folk album are surprised," Vega said in an interview conducted in the 8 x 10 club a few hours before her May 12 concert there, "and people who are expecting a rock album don't quite get it."

Suzanne VegaVega's music deceptively contains most of folk music's chief characteristics-- acoustic guitar, little percussion, poetic lyrics and soft vocals--while reaching beyond the common perception of folk music in a way that Vega herself finds hard to describe.

"I like contemporary music and I like old-fashioned music, so I take things that I like from each of those and mix them all together," she explained. "I suppose it confuses some people, but I like it."

Vega's style combines the American folk tradition of such artists as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan with the quirky independence of other female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Rikki Lee Jones. She distinguishes herself with her insightful, image-laden lyrics and an uncanny ability to compose very forceful songs on an acoustic guitar.

We're sitting in what you might call the 8 x 10's living room-it contains several sofas and a fireplace, and is virtually cut off from the rest of the club. Vega sits opposite me, in her plain white blouse and her characteristic loose-fitting black slacks and jacket. Her hair is cut very short, a few strands of it dropping casually across her forehead. Only the make-up on her plain but innocently attractive face keeps her from looking like a New York street waif.

Vega's gig at the 8 x 10 is part of a warm-up mini-tour of smallish East coast clubs. A larger tour will follow the tentative June release of her first single, "Marlene on the Wall," with a video of the same soon to follow.

She is soft-spoken but intelligent, with the sort of girl-next-door charm rarely seen in a music world populated by such outrageously stunning creatures as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Just a tiny bit shy, she laughs easily. Several times she leans over the table between us to peek at my list of questions.

Although Vega's self-titled album on A & M records has only been available for a month, sales have gone very well. Critics, she said, have raved over it. Vega also said the album has been selling well in spite of some problems with its classification in record shops

"It's a little frustrating to go into a record store in New York and see that it's in the folk section," she complained "which is always either way in the back or upstairs or buried somewhere down some hole. I feel a little bad about that. I don't want it to be misrepresented, but I still want it to be what it is.

Vega studied dance and filmmaking while in school, but got out of dancing because she has "a hard time working under people. If they said, 'Come out and do this,' my first instinct would be to say, 'No thanks, I think I'd rather do some thing else.'"

In the studio, she found she had similar problems. "If they'd say, 'Come out and sing it again,' I'd say, 'I don't want to, I sang it alright the last time,' or 'You sing it yourself," Vega laughed. "Steve (producer Steve Addabbo) has told me there were times he wanted to really throttle me, but then I never would have sung again."

Vega's uncompromising attitude surfaces in her music as well. Her unlikely synthesis of her harsh New York background, an affinity for musical styles from cabaret to Lou Reed and the heightened sensibilities of an English major (Barnard College) inspire many reactions, and indifference is not one of them.

"When they're enthusiastic," she said "people go for it all the way. It's not like 'Yeah, we think you're good,' it's more like, 'We love you.' They're completely effusive about it."

People who do not like Suzanne Vega reject her completely. "Some people say 'I just can't understand' or 'Who wants folk music back?' and that's a mistake," Vega said. She attributes their rejection to intellectual laziness. "Some people just don't want to think or make judgment for themselves. People want things to be clear for them."

Vega's lack of clarity derives more from her lyrics than her music. Like any poet, Vega rarely realizes all of the implications of her lyrics when she write them. "There's a lot I don't know about my songs," she admitted. "What I have to say is not always clear. I think I speak for a lot of people, I'm just not sure who they are yet."

Vega said she wants to avoid redundancy in her songs, instead concentrating on "trying to explore points of view that haven't been explored before. It bugs me to hear so much music lately that's repetitious. How many ways can you say, 'I love you, baby' or 'I think you're fine'? I just figured, why should I do that? There are enough people doing that."

She offered "Small Blue Thing" as an example. "That day, I felt like a small blue thing and I said, OK, no one has ever said that before, so I would like to give this thing a voice."

Vega said she can't explain where her inspiration for songwriting comes from, that ideas like the one for "The Queen and the Soldier" seem to materialize in her head. "I remember being 12 and thinking, 'Wow, it would be really cool if I could write songs. All the cool people write their own songs,'" she recalled. "When I sat down to do it, it was as if something else took over and I was able to write songs, especially if I didn't think about it too hard.

"I couldn't tell where the ideas were coming from," she continued. "It was almost like I didn't have a choice--I would get the idea, and I would write it down. Then I would think to myself, 'Where did I get this from?' and I couldn't really tell. So I just kept going with it."

Vega traced her interest in music to her father's guitar playing and to an early interest in Bob Dylan, among other things. "Dylan was big in 1969, when I was 9," she said. "He was an influence, but I also liked people like Simon and Garfunkel. I remember thinking that I wanted to be like that. I also found an collection of old folk music, Woody Guthrie-type records. It was really rough--one-take things. I was real impressed with that. After the first couple of songs, it struck me that it was much easier than I had thought to write songs."

At the age of 16, Vega began playing the New York-Boston coffee house circuit, which has been her artistic outlet for most of the past nine years. Some people were not especially encouraging.

"It wasn't exactly the fashionable thing to do when I was in high school," she recalled. "I looked around and saw what my peer group was doing, and it was all glitter rock. It was stuff I couldn't get into at the time."

Vega's career moved up a notch when she landed a gig at Folk City at age 20. "I got a lot of criticism until I was 20," Vega said. "At Folk City, I found a group of people who were really receptive. Instead of saying 'You'll never get a Top 40 hit' or 'Learn how to type,' they were encouraging. I also found a group of songwriters in the Village that seemed to have a sense of what I was trying to do. It was a great time for me. I must have written 15 or 20 songs that year (1981)."

Still, her career did not take off until last April, when she quit her job as a receptionist and began shopping a demo tape. She instantly drew rave reviews, and by September A & M had signed her. "A & M has high hopes," Vega said. "They think it can be accessible. You don't have to be like Madonna to get across."

She said she hopes the folk label that's been stuck on her won't hinder her career. "People should listen to it and decide for themselves," Vega said, "because there's a lot of kids who won't listen to it if they think that it's folk."

Whether she wins the fancy of the record-buying public or not, Suzanne Vega has already staked her place as a truly original artist amidst the wasteland of mainstream 80's rock'n'roll. If it's at all possible to shake the average rock fan out of his AOR-induced coma, Suzanne Vega should be spinning on more than just critics' turntables this summer.