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April 16, 2008

Suzanne Vega on Songwriting


from New York Times Online


April 15, 2008, 9:27 pm
Teen Beat

By Suzanne Vega

When I was a teenager, I used to have a neat sort of formula for writing songs. It worked over and over, and I got about 60 songs out of it. Now it doesn’t work so well, and I am forced to write in all different ways. But what worked for so long was this:

I would start to write a song sometime late Saturday afternoon. Then, after dinner, when everyone in my family was doing other Saturday-night things, I would go into my room by myself and fool around with the guitar for several hours, usually managing to hammer out some kind of idea. In those days the chords came first, and they depended on what I was singing about. Then the melody, and lastly the lyrics.

Each chord told a piece of a story, and by putting the chords together in a certain way you had a musical narrative. Major chords = happy. Minor chords = sad. Sevenths were sort of sexy and bluesy. Augmented and diminished chords were spooky and spiritual, so I had a lot of those.

Most of the time I didn’t know the names of the chords or what kinds of chords they were; I learned that later when I worked with a band and producers. But in the beginning I worked from a book called ”Pop Songs of the Sixties” that had little pictures of the fretboard and showed where to put your fingers. (Actually, I have never learned to read music and still don’t to this day. I have always depended on the kindness of arrangers! Hahaha.)

So I would string together a few chords that worked with whatever the idea at hand was, or whatever the mood of the day was. And then repeat them. The chords made a safe home for the melody, a bed for the melody to lie down on, sort of. So you had to shape the melody to the chords in some cool way. The idea that a melody could be its own clear idea didn’t really occur to me until much later. Melodies have always been hard for me. What I love is rhythm.

A digression: Recently I was asked by the producer Hal Willner to sing “Cruella de Vil” at a fund-raiser. I was already going to sing “Stay Awake.” (This was a 20th-anniversary concert for the album “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films.”) I jumped at the chance. I would much rather be Cruella de Vil than Mary Poppins. I showed up to rehearsal and the band began to play. I sang what I remembered of the song. It’s a pretty well known song, and you could probably hum some variation of it yourself if you wanted to.

“Actually, Miss Vega, according to this chart right here, the melody goes like this,” said the guitar player, playing it for me crisply. Part of me wanted to shout, “Who cares? You know what I meant!” But that was not the intention of Mel Leven, who wrote the lyrics and melody, that I just hurl forth some approximation of his notes because I couldn’t remember the beginning.

It occurs to me that a melody is as precise and inviolate as a skeleton. You can vary it a little, but not much, really, if you want it to be recognizable. And that particular melody is a wonderful mix of dangerous unresolved intervals and jazzy light hearted vaudeville. Ultimately, we all decided that if I spoke the beginning, that would work dramatically.

But back to the teenage formula. Usually I would get say 80 percent of it done on Saturday night. I would work until about 1:00 in the morning. Most of the time there was a piece eluding me that I would sleep on. Maybe it was a final lyrical detail. Maybe it was a chord in the bridge that had to go somewhere unexpected. What I found was that by sleeping on it, some dream logic would creep into the song and give it an extra sparkle.

Now it’s different. I don’t have the hours at home that follow one after the other. I can’t imagine working from 8:00 until 1:00 in the morning without some kind of interruption, and when I wake up on Sunday morning I am not running over to the guitar to see what the missing piece was. Usually I am thinking, “Where’s Ruby? What does she have to do today?” (Ruby is my daughter.) Or answering the phone or staring at my husband in his sleep.

What worked for the last album was getting out of the house. I was having so much trouble concentrating at home (”I need to clean the closets!”) that I hired an engineer (Britt Meyers) to come to my house to work with me for three hours a day, three times a week. Those first days were agony, and when I sang the opening lines of “Bound” to Britt for the first time, I felt as though something crazy and weird were coming out of my mouth, like snakes. Now it is a real song, and though I still sing it with heartfelt emotion, it feels finished. But any song in the beginning is raw and uncooked and wobbly.

Eventually Britt persuaded me to come down to his studio to work, and we got a lot done. In fact much of the last album was created there at Great City Productions. So this year, when I came off the road, I thought, “Great! Let’s get right back to work!” — and booked myself a bunch of studio time. Which now I have been steadfastly avoiding. I mean, I had jury duty and everything. But we have two days booked at the end of this week. So let’s see what comes slithering out.


Posted by will at April 16, 2008 03:07 PM


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