Suzanne Vega was kind enough to take a little time out from her very busy schedule to answer a few questions about the coming tour and album over the telephone.
Q1 Lover Beloved the tour starts off on 25th September in New York then moves to Europe and the UK before returning to the USA in late October and the new album takes songs written by yourself and Duncan Sheik from your “An evening with Carson McCullers” play due out October 14th. Given that Carson McCullers is probably far better known in the USA as one of the great Southern gothic writers, was it always planned from the start to open the tour in Europe where her work is perhaps less well known?
A1. The tour dates are really down to scheduling and Carson McCuller’s profile as a writer is currently about the same in Europe and the USA. Although songs are about Carson, her life and her work, you don’t have to be familiar with that to just enjoy the songs and music in their own right.
Q2 Literature and theatre have been life long interests of yours, but when did you first become aware of the work of Carson McCullers and how long did it take before this current work and the earlier "Carson McCullers Talks About Love" came into being as projects?
A2. Carson McCullers work has spoken to me for many years and the previous project and this one have been with me since my college days and developing with me until now.
Q3 Here in the UK we are probably more familiar with writers such as Tennessee Williams and his Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie and of course Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird than Carson’s The Member of the Wedding or The Ballad of the Sad Café. Do you hope that this tour will help raise the profile of her works here and in Europe?
A3. Partly. The music and the shows have to stand on their own as works , and if new people discover Carson McCuller’s work then that is good and a bonus.
Q4 The new album has ten songs written by yourself and Duncan Sheik. What was the writing experience like between the two on this album, and was it difficult to find a time in both your schedules to sit down and work on this project? How collaborative was the process and how did you find merging your two writing styles lyrically and musically
A4. Working with Duncan Sheik on this project was a great experience but a very different way for me to work than I usually do. We co-wrote 8 / 10 of the songs on the album together and Duncan would often give me pieces of music which I would then de-construct and then re-construct. Sometimes he would be happy with changes and let them run, other times he would stick to his original vision. The result is a collaboration which sometimes took me into new ways of working and different vocal ranges for my voice than I would usually use.
Q5 How do you prefer to write – from notes maybe in a book that you keep, perhaps developing a song over a longer period while working on other songs, or does it arrive pretty much fully formed?
A5. I always keep notebooks, writing down in them ideas that come to mind, observations of things. Songs can sometimes be developed over a long period, so the notes might sometimes be used quickly, or much later. You never really know when or how something in a notebook will be of use.
Q6 I’ve played the Lover Beloved album now more than a few times, and it is a work that has so many musical flavours, styles and colours to it as well as some wonderful lyrics that carefully explore not only the life of Carson McCullers, but her lovers such as Annemarie as well as her novels and characters in her novels, and some of the songs are written directly from the viewpoint of Carson herself. Was it difficult at times to tell the difference at times between who was telling the story once you got into that character – yourself or Carson McCullers?
A6. It was really a bit of us both. I had this feeling throughout the process that somehow a part of the spirit or essence of Carson McCullers was there with me in some way that is hard to describe.
Q7 All good song-writers like yourself have the ability to somehow notice the little things in our daily lives that most of us take for granted and pay not enough attention to, and the ability to write with words the stories and almost paint with words scenes of people’s lives and emotions. Carson McCullers could do that in her stories, but had the luxury of space to do it in. How difficult was it to distil that imagery down into the economy of words that a song needs?
A7. There was no problem here, these songs were a joy to write and the material was a joy to work with. Things just flowed easily here.
Q8 Carson McCullers was a very complex writer and individual who was never afraid of tackling subjects such as sexual identity. We have already mentioned one lover Annemarie, and her personal life could at times be a complex combination of relationships. Do you think she would have had a happier life now in a society where many of the taboos of her time are now either broken or more openly embraced and discussed?
A8 Carson McCullers achieved a great amount in her lifetime, both in her work and her private life. She was very fulfilled in both, but yes there have been changes in attitudes in modern society that I think she would have been happy to see and more comfortable being able to bring some things more into the open.
Q 9 Lover Beloved is the title track release from the new album and it is one of those songs that hauntingly grows on you to the point that you eventually find it hard to imagine that it has not always been there, but that track is just one of ten on the album, and each one seems to have a completely different musical identity as it tells its part in the narrative. Do you have any personal favourites here...for me it is probably the whimsical “Harper Lee”.
A9. I’m pleased to hear that you like the album so much...Harper Lee is actually a free bonus track when you pre-order the digital download from iTunes
Q10 The one thing that is often inescapable in the works of the great Southern Writers is their observations of just how “normal” and accepted by so many a society totally segregated by colour around them was. Is that element of their works one that is difficult to deal from a current point of view , looking back with hindsight of a 21st century viewpoint where that clear division has hopefully now become a thing of the past? Carson McCullers after all left all of that behind partly because of her inability to conform and accept the society around her.
A10 Sadly many of those issues are still with us, and I have never looked the other way from discussing them in my work, and people have often commented on that in my work, and been pleased that the issues are still being highlighted and challenged.
Q11 Carson McCullers is obviously a writer and a person whom you respect enormously. If there was one message that you think she would have to give to everyone today if still alive, what would that be?
A11. That’s a big question. I think it would be something like “We all have a right to be here”.
Q12 If this was a reversal and Carson McCullers was writing about you, what sort of questions would you maybe hope that people would be asking about your music and writing, and how would you like to see that work perceived by future generations?
A12. Another big question. I need to think about that one for a minute. Probably something like “This is a woman who had her own unique perspective”.
A big thank you to Suzanne Vega for not only her time, but courtesy in answering these questions. It was a pleasure talking to you Suzanne..
Also, a big thank you to Scottish singer - songwriter Lorna Reid for helping out with some of these questions. Lorna was going to be doing this interview, but unfortunately other schedules prevented that.happening.
Interview by Tom King