It's not hard to understand why Suzanne Vega's "Blood Makes Noise" went over so well with new music fans. Not only is it wonderfully catchy, with its breathlessly simple vocal line laid over an insinuatingly tuneful rhythm arrangement, but it's builtIt's not hard to understand why Suzanne Vega's "Blood Makes Noise" went over so well with new music fans. Not only is it wonderfully catchy, with its breathlessly simple vocal line laid over an insinuatingly tuneful rhythm arrangement, but it's built around such an odd array of sounds -- clanking anvils, diesel-engine bass, mattress-spring guitar -- that it stood out even against the usually quirky sound of alternative rock radio.
"It wasn't like we were trying to get wacky," says Vega of the strange sounds. "We were just trying to do what each song demanded, really."
Maybe so, but it left a lot of listeners (and even a few reviewers) wondering if Vega hadn't gone industrial on them -- which, given the folk-oriented sound of her earlier work, would have been quite a departure for the singer.
As it turns out, Vega had no intention of joining the ranks of Ministry, Front 242 and Nine Inch Nails. In fact, she wasn't even aware that there were ranks to join.
"See, I didn't even know there was any such thing as industrial music," she says, over the phone from a tour stop in San Diego. "What we were trying to do was re-create the sound in someone's head. We weren't trying to pretend that we were Nine Inch Nails or anything."
That "sound in someone's head," by the way, is quite literally what Vega means by blood making noise. "I was thinking of the blood that you hear in your ears when you're afraid or when you're feeling anxious, when your life is threatened, when you're provoked," she explains.
Is this something she herself has experienced? "Yes," she replies. "It doesn't happen often. It's only happened a couple of times in my life. You have this sensation of speaking very clearly through this tremendous roaring noise in your head, and you see black spots floating in front of your eyes.
"I mean, it's not something I would go put in my publicity kit. But yeah, it's happened a couple of times."
It ought to be added that most songwriters, when addressing an episode of personal terror, would describe the incident itself -- being threatened at gunpoint, cornered by hoods, whatever. But tellingly, Vega's song focuses on the feeling itself, emphasizing the internal drama instead of the external threat.
"It's true, a lot of people would write about the circumstances," she agrees. "But I am in a peculiar position, because the things that I'm attracted to are things that tend to be more often hidden than not. So it means I can't really describe the circumstances.
"I'm like a spy -- if I told everybody what the circumstances were, it wouldn't work. So the only thing I can do is sort of describe what the feelings are in that situation, make the person feel the anxiety, and then leave the rest of it up to them. It's kind of a deductive way of doing it."
It's also an approach that allows Vega to address her personal feelings with maximum honesty. Granted, not every listener understands this. As Vega puts it, "People say, 'Well, why are you so detached?' But the reason I'm detached is because it's right in my face -- which may sound weird, but it's the way it is. If I'd gotten it from the newspapers, maybe I could be more outraged, but because I'm describing a world that I live in and that I see, I have to be objective."
And in a way, that makes songs like "Blood Makes Noise" or "Tired of Sleeping" much more affecting than if they were given the sort of full-throated, over-the-top performance of a Whitney Houston ballad.
"There's some kind of acting lesson that says in order to show great emotion onstage, it's more effective to restrain it," she says. "Because that's what most people do in real life -- they restrain their great emotion. It's very rare that you actually see someone give way to it. But other people would like to have everything top volume."
Not that Vega's Shaker-plain voice would be much good at Whitney Houston-style singing. "No, not at all," she laughs. "Usually I am honestly singing as loudly and passionately as I can. It's just that I have a very limited voice, and I use it the best way that I can. And I think as I get older, it's starting to become more emotional. I think the new album has more range in it than the other albums.
"But I don't pretend that I'm anything else," she adds. "I don't pretend that I'm Whitney Houston. I guess my voice is like a pencil. It's very utilitarian -- you use it and it's not a big deal. But it's perfectly useful, and I like it that way."
Suzanne Vega When: Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, North Charles and 34th streets.
Tickets: $19.50, $16 with student ID
Call: (410) 481-7328