Internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega reveals insights to her soul to Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp in an exclusive interview in Los Angeles for CatholicNews.
Finding beauty in urban (and rural) life
As a child growing up (in Spanish Harlem) you learn to see moments of beauty where they exist and feel grateful for them. Even if I weren't a writer, I would still notice those things. I think everybody needs some kind of beauty in their life no matter how hard their life is or how difficult.
There's plenty of poverty and bad things that happen in rural places too. Those hardships don't only exist in the city, they exist pretty much everywhere. So I think if you're in one of those situations where you're struggling really hard, you need those moments of beauty to keep you going and so you kind of train your eye to look out for them and to notice them and to be grateful for them.
The essential message of her songs
I think it's that those exalted moments that we would hope for happen every day. There are moments every day where you either see a child or you see something growing despite all the odds. Those are sort of exalted spiritual moments that exist every day. It's not just the Sunday when you go to church or for a special time when you sit at an altar. These spiritual moments don't only happen when you want them to or when you force them. I think that there's a value in every single day that you can find and that you need to appreciate because you're not going to have it forever. So I try to startle everybody, to make you aware of the fact that you're alive and that it's temporary, that you have to appreciate it and value it while it's here because it really is something quite amazing.
"St. Clare", the only song she recorded that was not written by her
I thought it was a beautiful melody and there was something in the lyrics that I felt spoke to my state of mind at that time. It's sort of like calling upon the saint for protection as you travel through the world.
It's amazing to think that someone who had such a vivid interior life had such a big effect on the world and that those vows that she made were very personal, very interior and that someone who had that kind of life can achieve so much in the real world because that quality is not something that we think of as being valued in our society today. (In society today) it's all about action and numbers, and how much are you selling and how much are you doing, and big sweeping gestures.
Meantime there's this woman in India who went through these experiences that were something you can't see from the outside; these experiences that she had were internal. So I've been just very impressed by that world that she lived in and how she was able to do this great work and not be corrupted by it and not be swayed.
It was surprising to me how she didn't believe in the penitent view of things. It was more like “make yourself well”, “make yourself healthy and go out and do God's work in the world” instead of always focusing on yourself and having penitence for yourself. It was like, well, don't think about that, that's not really the issue.
And she had that clear directive within herself no matter what and wasn't swayed by it and wasn't broken by it either. You can easily imagine that she'd go out into the street and contract some disease but she lived to be 87 and it's an amazing life and she wasn't corrupted by the realities of the world. I think that's amazing.
Her live performances
What I try to do when I'm on stage is to entertain and to make people laugh a little bit or to bring things down to earth a little bit, to give a little piece of the story that makes it more real because a lot of the songs are really pretty difficult. They are very dense, and they are about “weird” topics, and so a little explanation helps it and a little bit of laughter doesn't hurt.
Her philosophy in life
I have my own setbacks and disappointments but I think that you really need to find whatever positive thing you can from the day, from the situation, from the moment. No matter how dark it is or how depressed you're feeling, you must find a reason to get out of bed, even if it's just to make a cup of tea. And if you can find pleasure in that cup of tea, that's enough reason to get out of bed.
So that's what I'm always trying to find... those moments of pleasure or joy or happiness – just some reason to keep going. And I think that's really important.
The other thing I've learned over the years is that love is not just a personal thing between two people. When the Beatles sang about love and when people talked about love, they are really talking about a general kind of love, that you have to learn how to love your neighbour, love your family.
There's a part of loving that's impersonal and we don't really think about that much in this society; we are always speaking about romantic love and all that stuff. But there's really so much more to it and getting in touch with that kind of love is as important as the romantic part of it.
The use of Christian motifs, especially cathedrals, in her songs
I love cathedrals and to me they are very special places. I am always attracted to them. If I ever go to a city, there are certain images that repeat. There's the park, there's the cathedral, and the hotels (laughs). When I was a kid I just loved the cathedral because it's a special place, it's a beautiful place. I like this idea of getting dressed up and going to a special place on Sundays.
To me there's something timeless about a cathedral. And I think all of those images are very much in our culture. And even a song like “Penitent”... whereas maybe in America we don't think about penitence that much, but certainly if you go to France, Italy or Spain, which is where I was when I was thinking of that song, it is very much everywhere... it's in the images, it's in the paintings, it's in the atmosphere.
Most of the time when I'm singing, I'm not feeling relaxed or cool. In fact most of the time I'm singing at the top of my lungs. And it's always a shock to me to go back into the control room and hear my own voice. It always sounds cool, it sounds relaxed, it sounds serene or whatever. I don't understand why that is. I sometimes wish that it would be a little rougher so that people would understand what I'm actually feeling. I think what I'm actually feeling very often does not come through in the tone of how I sing. It's all there in the words. All the turmoil and the emotion are there in the lyrics. But most people listening to me think that I'm just some sort of laid-back singer. But I'm not. I'm bellowing at the top of my lungs but it just doesn't come out that way.
It was one of the first interviews that I was asked to do. I was doing the video for Marlene On the Wall and they wanted to know if I would do a little interview for Playboy. I felt very uncomfortable with it and I said no, and I got into a big fight with my manager about it.
The message of "Pornographer's Dream", a track from her latest album, "Beauty and Crime"
It's the deeper longing underneath it, what is it they're really longing for underneath it. The pornographer here longs for a more spiritual experience. It's a song that some people really do get and some other people don't get it at all. Some other people are like: “What are you talking about?”, “It's not true.” But I still think it is true on some level, maybe not true for each specific person, but I think that's what most people want. Most people want what's good, they don't want what's bad. They fall into having an addiction but I think ultimately what you're striving for is some kind of peace, or some kind of goodness and I can't help but believe in that.
Have you heard?
SUZANNE VEGA IS known as the “mother of the MP3” because her acapella rendition of “Tom's Diner” was the sample song used to test-improve the MP3.
Last year she was the first recording artiste to perform live in avatar form in the virtual world, Second Life.
Suzanne was born on Jul 11, 1959 in Santa Monica, California, but raised in New York City. She studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts (featured in the film “Fame”) and majored in English Literature at Barnard College.
She has been playing the guitar since the age of 11 and was writing poetry even younger. She started writing songs at 14 and performing on stage at 16. Her self-titled debut album was released to critical acclaim when she was 26. Her biggest hit, the Grammy nominated Luka, based on the theme of child abuse, continues to be a song of great comfort and inspiration to victims of child abuse.
In 1999 she released a collection of her writings in the book, “The Passionate Eye”. Her latest album, “Beauty and Crime”, a tribute to her native New York city which includes arrangements with lush strings (for the beauty) and electronic rock beats (for the crime), has received rave reviews worldwide.
Suzanne's official website is www.suzannevega.com.