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Friday, February 15, 2013

Fingerprints, On Me From You: the lyrics of Suzanne Vega

I like a good lyric. There, I've said it. Yes, primarily for me music is about the chemical reaction of voice to ear, but it's also important that what that voice is saying has power too. Maybe that's why I've never really gotten into scat jazz signing: I need words. At its best, a song lyric is a piece of poetry. It can work its magic read on a piece of paper, as much as being transformed with the addition of notes and instruments. Any writer knows the challenge of finding that perfect word, that ultimate sentence to convey the precise meaning they intend. It's easy to tell when a lyric has been painstakingly crafted, when a writer has pored over every word, poking it and prodding to make sure it fits exactly into the void it replaces. One of the best lyricists in music has to be Suzanne Vega, which is why I was not surprised to find her performing as part of the Whittier College Writers Festival here in LA last Sunday.

"Observe the blood, The rose tattoo, Of the fingerprints, On me from you..."
(from Marlene On The Wall, 1985)

I've seen Suzanne live a few times and have collected her works since I was first captured by Marlene On The Wall, a song so alien to the pop charts it invaded you had to stop and listen. I remember studying the lyrics to try and work out why it moved me so much, working out the metaphors and marvelling at her choice of phrase. Over the years Suzanne has written many more songs that have similarly caused me to pause and reflect on a lyric and there is often a particular line or phrase that is so resonant with me that it takes permanent root in my mind. I know music is a highly individual sport, but I wanted to share a few of those lyrics and try and explain what it was about those words that moves me. In the process I hope it makes you listen to Suzanne's songs and give yourself the time and space, so rare in our busy lives, to really hear what she is saying.

"If you lie on the ground in somebody's arms, You'll probably swallow some of their history..."
(from In Liverpool, 1992)

You know that feeling when you are in a strange city? There are buildings and people and nature and light and shade, but they are not your buildings, people, nature, light, shade? Everything is knowable, yet unknown, strange and unsettling. In this song Suzanne finds herself in Liverpool in that state of mind, except there are things that seem oddly familiar, landmarks described by a Liverpudlian boy she once had a romance with, that cause her to reflect on the power of memory and longing. How she knows these things is because of the kind of osmosis that happens when you are physically close to another person, how you accidentally and incidentally "swallow some of their history".

Apart from being my favourite Suzanne song, this lyric is for me the perfect explanation of the invisible transaction that happens between lovers and is a possible explanation of why, years after an affair has ended, that person still has a connection with you. Quite often we wish this wasn't so, that we could leave those ghosts to the past, but it is that act of bonding that lingers, that tangential exchange of histories that creates an indelible link between two people that echoes down the years.

"And they'll never know the gold, Or the copper in your hair, How could they weigh the worth, Of you so rare..."
(from World Before Columbus, 1996)

For Suzanne this is a love song to her daughter, a brave attempt to imagine a world where that love was taken away; how flat, colourless and dark it would be. She describes the treasure of her daughter as riches beyond the understanding of those piratical men that plundered the New World for its precious metals. I've always thought it challenging for a parent to write about their love for their children, it is so easy to gush and slide into sentimentality (as so many have). Suzanne's beautiful poem, set to a lush and lilting arrangement, shows it can be done with finesse and quiet power.

Like any great love song it is easy for the listener to fit their own autobiography into the lyrics. I remember lying with my husband one afternoon, he had a rare length of beard, so it must have been on holiday. I noticed his beard had little flecks of blond and ginger, unlike the hair on his head, like precious secrets revealing themselves to me only. This line came into my head and I understood. Love.

"She's happy that you're here but when you disappear, She won't know that you're gone to say goodbye..."
(from New York Is A Woman, 2007)

Although born in California, Suzanne grew up in New York and like many artists before her the city has had a profound impact on her work. Like any great city there is an unspoken tension between those that call it home and the many millions who pass through, for business or pleasure (or both). As an immigrant Londoner for many years I understand the frustrations of battling straggling tourists on your way to work, but I also appreciate the wonder and majesty of these world cities and why outsiders are drawn there. In this song Suzanne imagines New York in the form of a femme fatale and describes how a visitor from suburban America is drawn in to "her beauty and her crime".

I love Manhattan, I visit whenever I can, but I've always had a peculiar feeling when I'm there. New York City is amazing, it is simply the most electric place on the planet. Yet I always feel strangely uneasy there, insignificant almost within the hive of humanity. I'd always struggled to explain this feeling until I heard this song, then I realised the truth: 

"New York is a woman, She'll make you cry, And to her you're just another guy".

These are just a few examples of the many times a Suzanne Vega song has enriched my understanding of life. She is a true poet, as adept with words and she is with crafting subtle melodies to set them in, and possessing a soulful, singular voice to communicate them. Happily Suzanne debuted new material at her show, with the promise of a new album later this year. I'm excited to see what new insights and adventures await.

There is a volume of the collected writing of Suzanne Vega, "The Passionate Eye". Suzanne has also re-recorded her back catalogue and released as a four volume collection called "Close Up", available from 

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it or linking to it from your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts above or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Fingerprints

Friday, February 1, 2013

Essex Girl: the Alison Moyet story, part one

Loyalty is rare commodity in life, but for some reason we happily bestow it on musicians, perhaps because of the indefinable and immeasurable richness their music contributes to our lives. One of the great joys of becoming a fan of an artist early in their career is the opportunity to be part of their journey. You are there through the white heat of stardom, the inevitable difficult periods and, hopefully, through to their triumphant blossoming into the artist they always wanted to be. I have loved Alison Moyet since I saw her debut appearance on the legendary BBC show Top of the Pops in 1982 and have kept the faith ever since, despite some lengthy gaps in output (hey, I'm a Kate Bush fan, time means nothing to me). With breaking news that she has signed to the very cool Cooking Vinyl label, home of such individualists as Billy Bragg and Marilyn Manson, Alison is sure to further push the boundaries of her music.

Alison's story is truly a game of two halves (she'd love the football reference), the first of an artist struggling to find her voice, while also navigating the narrow expectations of her record label. In the second act of Alison's career, she has finally seemed to achieve her vision, both in terms of the material she has recorded, but also as a vocalist. In this two-part retrospective I shall try and map the journey Alison has taken to become the artist she is today through her songs. First, let me take you back to that Borehamwood studio, where Alf and Vince are causing a stir in Britain's living rooms.

Only You (1982)

It's hard to believe that Yazoo (Yaz in the US) were together for only 18 months, such is the lasting legacy of their music. They only released four singles and two albums and toured once in that brief window of time and it was not a happy union, but nonetheless there was something alchemical about the combination of Vince Clarke and  Alison "Alf" Moyet. Alison has said she modeled her voice on male singers and loved old-style rhythm and blues and it is this vocal rawness combined with Vince's electronic mastery that gives Yazoo its unique edge.

Vince had just left Depeche Mode, who at this time in their career where one of the hottest "new wave" pop bands in the UK. Vince was unhappy with the "darker" direction the group wanted to take, so he left to pursue his own unique brand of pop. At the same time fellow Essex native Alison was looking for a band. An ad she placed in Melody Maker led to the two joining forces, though rather than Alison's stated ambition of moving from third pub act on the bill to top pub act, Vince's connections and reputation led to an instant contract with indie label Mute, the attention of the music press and radio and, very quickly thereafter, a big hit single.

Only You is a classic Vince Clarke composition; a deceptively simple, yet instantly memorable melody paired with an equally straightforward, yet poetic lyric. His arrangement of the song, though very 80's in its synthtasticness, is masterful in its careful layering of sounds, creating the perfect tone for the heartache of the song. Then there is Alison's vocal. For a first attempt at professional recording it is pretty astounding. The first thing you notice is the strength of her voice, it has depth and warmth and a real presence. The next thing you realise is that this is an emotional singer, by which I mean she is not simply performing the song, she is connected to it on an emotional level. A singer in command of their emotions does not need to rely on histrionics, so the vocal is restrained, yet Alison takes us right to the edge of her pain and shows us the hurt. A perfect moment in pop.

The single peaked at no. 2 and the follow-up Don't Go was another piece of pop perfection, this time an up-tempo plea for love and, with the most ridiculously infectious hook I have ever heard, it reached no. 3. With the album Upstairs At Eric's peaking at no. 2 there have been very few bands who experienced such instant success, but then for Alison that was the problem.

Nobody's Diary (1983)

The circumstances and speed of the formation of Yazoo sowed the seeds of its destruction. Alison and Vince were strangers with little in common and their very different musical styles and interests meant there was no real meeting of the minds on a creative level. Vince wanted out, but was persuaded to make another album, ironically entitled You And Me Both given Vince and Alison worked separately in shifts in the studio to complete it. However this dissent was not apparent in the quality of the music and one of Alison's compositions, Nobody's Diary, was chosen as the lone single.The haunting ballad has a similar vibe to Only You, but is more intense in both melody and lyric. Vince again produces a mesmeric backing track and Alison delivers a powerful and gut wrenching vocal.

With the group's break-up announced even before the album was released the song seemed almost like documentary. Although Alison made an attempt to get Vince to reconsider, he was adamant that Yazoo was over. With no clear plan for what was next she was persuaded to sign with a major label, CBS, by her lawyer and accountant, who advised her she had no ties with Mute. This was true for the UK, but a deal with Sire records in the US to release Yazoo's output meant Alison's deal with CBS left her in breach of contract. A long year of legal wrangling left Alison unable to record and she was forced to agree a punitive deal with Sire to move forward. Alison was severely isolated at this time, having lost her punk mates, who thought she'd sold out, and with her professional advisers proving less than competent, she finally embarked on making her first solo album.

Love Resurrection (1984)

Few people knew at the time what Alison had been through, so her solo launch seemed like a fluid, inevitable step to superstardom. CBS clearly thought they had signed a singer, rather than an artist, and simply wanted Alison to work with the hottest producers and record an album that would satisfy the mainstream pop audience. With little leverage to argue, Alison agreed to work with top producers Swain and Jolley and the result was Alf. The lead single was the lyrically playful Love Resurrection, whose double entendres sailed over my teenage head for a while. The song is tough and uncompromising and Alison sings it with relish, no doubt relieved to be making music again.

Love Resurrection was a top ten hit and was followed by the power ballad All Cried Out, which seemed tailor-made to showcase Alison's mesmerising voice. The album hit no. 1 in the UK, selling well over a million copies. Alison also had respectable success in the US, particularly with the track Invisible, written by the legendary Lamont Dozier and perfect for US radio. The album was definitely a departure from Yazoo, with a smoother, more mainstream production. Despite the success, for long afterwards Alison saw Alf as something of a millstone around her neck, creating an image and expectation that seemed far from the vision for her career she had for herself.

That Ole Devil Called Love (1985)

Thrilled with the success of Alf, CBS decided it would mould Alison into the Streisand of her generation, a power singer of other people's songs. Alison herself was experimenting with jazz at this time and recorded a TV special where she played with a big band. Out of this period came Alison's biggest chart hit, a cover of the Billie Holliday standard, That Ole Devil Called Love. It is a brave singer that takes on Billie, but Alison succeeds because her recording is authentic and natural, revealing her own heart in the way Billie templated for every singer that followed. It was perhaps the staggering success of the single that made Alison pause to consider what she was doing with her career. Was she really destined to be a standard-singing diva, or would her inner punk reassert itself in her music...

Is This Love? (1986)

With hindsight it is easy to see how Alison's next album is a compromise between managing the expectations of CBS and her pop fans and going with her instincts as a musician. Raindancing seems to tick all the boxes: radio-friendly pop hits, check; stirring ballads, check; hit producers, check. But a few of the songs are also rawer than on Alf, dare I say it, almost punky in their attitude. Alison co-wrote the lead single Is This Love? with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart and it is a great melding of their talents. It sounds genuinely happy, like Alison is singing it purely for her own enjoyment rather than meeting some external need. The album is full of astonishing moments, like the sparse ballad Blow Wind Blow and the orgasmic duet Sleep Like Breathing. The album was another international success, reaching no. 2 in the UK and staying on the charts for a full year.

By now Alison had some clout, nothing makes a label sit up and listen like selling millions of records, so she decided the time had come for her to take stock of her career and really think about the type of album she wanted to make. It took her four years and when it came it certainly took everyone by surprise.

It Won't Be Long (1991)

From the second the indie-rock guitar swirls into the mix it is clear that It Won't Be Long is the calling card of a very different Alison Moyet. Gone is the polished pop production to be replaced by a grittier vibe, the suggestive lyrics are now single entendres and the vocal is no longer constrained, but raw, guttural and completely fabulous. Over twenty years later it sounds as fresh to these ears as it did when I first listened to it with my jaw literally dropping - not from disappointment, but from excitement. This felt like Alison unleashed, inhabiting her own skin and owing her artistic power. She sounded like a veteran rock singer who'd clocked up a few decades on the road, while still dripping every syllable with meaning. By the end of the track you are left in no doubt of her feelings, it is a total tour de force.

The album Hoodoo followed in the same vein, from the bluesy Footsteps to the raucous title track, each song feels like a statement, basically Alison saying "this is what I sound like". I was lucky enough to see Alison live for the first time in 1991 at the intimate UEA in Norwich and I was down the front singing along with every lyric... unlike most of the audience who seemed slightly bemused by this leather-jacketed rock chick, when they had expected an evening of light entertainment. I didn't care and neither did Alison who totally seemed in her element. Her voice live was every bit as impressive as on record, actually more so, it is simply a force of nature. Hoodoo quickly became my favourite album and I bored many a friend with my endless extolling of its virtues. Sadly neither CBS nor mainstream radio seemed as impressed and airplay, promotion and sales were not forthcoming. Only one of the singles scraped into the UK top 40 (just) and the album stalled at no. 11. Alison's label and contract had by this time been bought by the mighty Sony corporation, who were less than impressed with this new direction. The scene was set for an epic struggle over the future of Alison's career.

Whispering Your Name (1994)

Alison was but one of Sony's artists struggling to fulfil a new commercial drive as the suits sought to make good on their investment. You may recall a certain George Michael was having similar issues. Not willing to compromise Alison delivered a new album to Sony, affectionately entitled for her native Essex. The album developed the rawer, edgier sound she had unleashed on Hoodoo, but this time the vibe was more relaxed, as demonstrated by the glorious lead single Falling, a trippy mix of mysticism and euphoria. However, when it stalled at no. 42 Sony called a halt and demanded that Alison remix some of the tracks on Essex to create a more commercial product.

The prime example of this was the makeover given to Alison's plaintive reading of Jules Shear's Whispering Your Name. The original version, kept on the album, is an acoustic unplugged affair, allowing Alison's voice to soar. It is a stirring performance, given extra power by Alison's "so what" decision not to change the personal pronouns in the lyrics from female to male. Lesbians of the world rejoiced! For the single release Sony required a pop makeover, with a full-on synth backing track and an almost Stock Aitken Waterman drum machine. Frankly, you wonder whether Alison was taking the piss when you listen to the two versions side-by-side. Infuriatingly though it became Alison's biggest hit in years, not hindered by a totally hilarious performance in the video from Alison's mate Dawn French.

Alison remained unmoved by a return to the pop limelight, she knew how to have a hit single, it was simply that she was no longer interested in making music just to sell records: it had to mean something. Despite the compromises she had to make, Essex is one of Alison's strongest albums, featuring gems like Satellite, one of the best songs Alison has ever written, like an adult lullaby mixed with a torch song. It was though to be her last album for eight years as she decided to fight Sony for her freedom rather than compromise any further. When she re-emerged it was clear that her time away had allowed Alison to fully reflect on the kind of music she wanted to make, but more on that another time.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it or linking to it from your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts above or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Essex Girl