"Lover, Beloved" is Suzanne Vega's tribute to Carson McCullers and it is only the beginning

Using illuminating, complex vignettes from McCuller's life, Vega crafts a multimedia nuanced tragedy

Published November 2, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Suzanne Vega   (George Holz)
Suzanne Vega (George Holz)

Author Carson McCullers led a fascinating life. Born in Georgia, she traveled to New York City after high school graduation to study piano at the Julliard School but soon switched gears and turned to writing. McCullers was a natural, publishing the story "Wunderkind" at 19 and the best-seller "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" in 1940, when she was just 22.

Still, her personal life grew chaotic even as she published more notable plays, essays and books, including "The Ballad of the Sad Café" and "The Member of the Wedding." She battled health issues (including two strokes at the age of 30) and depression — as did her husband James Reeves McCullers Jr., or Reeves, who committed suicide in 1953. She died in 1967 at age 50.

It's too easy to consider McCullers a tragic figure, however. That's the crux of Suzanne Vega's new album, "Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers," which presents illuminating, nuanced vignettes about the author's life. Stylistically, the record runs the gamut from cabaret jazz and hushed piano ballads to swampy blues and keening folk-rock.

Lyrically, it depicts McCullers' complicated, rich personality. The starry-eyed "New York Is My Destination" alludes to the author's post-high school sojourn to the Big Apple — and her determination to make life in the big city work — while the fanciful, banjo- and horn-buckled "Harper Lee" arranges her quotes about famous authors to illustrate varying levels of competitive cattiness and cheeky camaraderie. "Harper, Harper, Harper/ Lee, Lee, Lee/ Why do they always compare her to me?" Vega sings lightly on the chorus.

"Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers" is tied to Vega's forthcoming play, which is called "Lover, Beloved: An Evening With Carson McCullers." (This is different from an off-Broadway play she launched a few years ago called "Carson McCullers Talks About Love.") Vega says the world premiere of this new production is taking place next year at "a nationally recognized theater," with the location and time to be revealed at a later date. (The play was going to open in October but was postponed for "various reasons," Vega says, including the fact that an actress in it unexpectedly had to drop out due to another job.)

The day before her fall 2016 tour started, Vega checked in with Salon about both the play and accompanying album —how the two inform one another, what it was like writing music for the stage and why she's long been fascinated with McCullers' work and life.

This forthcoming play, "Lover Beloved: An Evening With Carson McCullers," is the third version of it. I read that you did the first version in college, correct?

Yeah. I did a little half-hour play with songs, two of which I'm using in the play currently — no, actually, one which I'm using in the play but two which are on this album. The two songs that were composed with Michael Jefry Stevens ["Carson's Blues" and "The Ballad of Miss Amelia"] were the ones that I did back when I was in my early 20s.

Because you are such a fan of Carson McCullers, what was the most challenging thing about writing about her?

The thing I found most challenging is structuring the events of her life in a way that would create suspense and drama for the audience. The architecture of the play is the thing I've been struggling with — not her character, which I feel I sort of got right away; not portraying her; I've always felt very confident in portraying her — but actually looking at the events of her life and organizing them.

I guess it's what anybody has to do if you're going to write a play. How do you make this meaningful to an audience? How do you reveal the information in such a way that you have the sense that something has happened on the stage in front of you?

How did you end up deciding that's what was the best way to do it? Was there anything you really wanted to include and you couldn't?

Oh, there's so much that I wish I could include, but you'd be in there, like, for 10 hours. [Laughs.] Yeah, I just think she's a really rich, fascinating, complex character. And her biography is so well-written, there were tons of things I wished I could have included. I'm trying to think of what they are now. I've had to go through it so many times and cut out so much that I feel I'm left now with the bare bones. Even now, it's still running at two hours. That's including an intermission.

I guess what was important to me was, I liked the idea of having her alone on a stage and facing an audience, so that's how I've structured it. I've structured it as that she is giving a lecture — two lectures, really, one in her 20s after the big success of "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," and the second lecture takes place a few months before she dies.

There's this sense of a very fragile, solitary figure confronting a whole group of people and that dynamic — what she reveals, what she doesn't reveal, how she plays that out and what does she need from this crowd. That's what I have found the interesting dynamic about her character in the situation that I've put her in.

What specifically about her writing and her life have you always been drawn to and loved?

First of all, I could say that it's not only her. I love all kinds of books, and I love reading, and I love biographies. I've been drawn to many women and men over the years — Simone de Beauvoir, Edith Wharton, Emily Brontë especially, Emily Dickinson. These are women that I love their interior worlds, and I'm fascinated by them.

Carson is one of many. But I love the dryness of her work. I thought there was a tough realism about her work. She's always describing the grubbier side of existence, which feels like the existentialists to me and the difficulties of being a kid.

I've always felt her characters, especially in her early work, were very fully realized, especially in "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." And the androgyny with which she writes — she can write from a male perspective or a female one. I'm very sympathetic to her worldview.

She's always rooting out these figures and writing about them, and I guess I've felt recognized in her work. You know, the gangs of kids who are always roaming around unsupervised, the older one taking care of the younger ones — I was that child. The way they do bad things; they write graffiti; they write bad words on the wall. But at the same time, there's a kind of goodness in their hearts. I feel like I know those kids. I just love her perspective.

I read elsewhere that someone described her perspective as very empathetic, and I like that.

Yeah. I think she is empathetic, especially in her work. The other thing I'm trying to do with her onstage is show that vision of empathy and love that shines through in her work was not always there in her life. She could be extraordinarily mean-spirited. [Laughs.] Which is so much fun to play.

And she seemed completely unaware of it, how mean she could be to her husband and other people around. But she, at the same time, had her reasons, and life is complicated. I try to bring that out, too, that there's this sort of ideal Carson that comes out in her work. But it wasn't always there in reality.

The accompanying record that you just released reflects that diversity. There's the playfulness but also this sadness and wistfulness. I think my favorite song is "Harper Lee," I have to admit.

And it's so much fun to sing.

You can tell.

So much of it were actual quotes that she actually said, that I sort of twisted around to make them rhyme. She actually said that about Hemingway, said that about Faulkner. Of course, the joke there is that if you know Hemingway, you know that what he leaves out, of course, is his great strength.

When she says she has "more to say than Hemingway," it's actually very funny because Hemingway had made an art out of saying less. And then Faulkner, it's the same thing. The way he spoke, the way he spoke in character was, of course, his defining strength. And, of course, she's boasting that she can say it so much better than he can.

As you were writing these songs, were there any big differences for you as a songwriter because you were writing them for that theatrical stage first?

I guess you're allowed to be a little more obvious when you're writing in someone else's character in a play. With "New York Is My Destination," I had to give the sense of her moving to New York during the course of the song. That's what I tried to do there. That's not something I would have had to think about if I were just writing an ordinary song. A lot of the songs have an element of telling and showing in it.

But mostly what I wanted to do was adapt her work in a way that made sense musically and also revealed her inner life. I guess it's the same idea as adapting anything from a text, which I've done before. When I wrote the song for "Dead Man Walking" ["Woman on the Tier (I'll See You Through)"], I used Sister Helen Prejean's text. It just jumped off the page at me. This is similar to that. It's like looking at someone's words and then making them dance and jump around until they start to fit into a rhyme scheme and a rhythmic pattern.

It's a very exciting way of constructing songs.

Yeah. I love it. It's really fun. It allows me to inhabit other worlds and get in there and play with language and images. It's really satisfying.

You worked with Duncan Sheik on the music on "Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers." What made that creative partnership so gratifying and fulfilling?

That's a relatively new thing. Two of the songs, as I said before, were done with Michael Jefry Stevens. Working with him was a little more straightforward: I would have an idea. I would sing the melody. He composed the music behind what I had sung.

Working with Duncan is more complicated. Duncan is more likely to give me, say, 90 seconds of improvised music, which I take and drag off and examine with [guitarist] Gerry [Leonard]. [Laughs.] Gerry and I go over what Duncan has given me with a fine-tooth comb, and Gerry makes me a little map of what he's done.

He'll say, "Here's your A section. Here's your B section. Here's a little tail or a little tag." He'll say, "This could be your chorus. This could be your verse." We fool around with it. Then at some point, I make a sort of fake melody over that structure. Then I sing it back to Duncan once I'm done with it.

And Duncan usually has a couple of corrections or suggestions, "Let's try this. Let's try that. Let's make the melody go here. Let's change this chord." It's very much of a back and forth process, and it requires a little bit of translation, which I get from Gerry Leonard, who's been sort of the arranger on the songs that I've done with Duncan.

There's such a beautiful, emotional richness in working with Duncan, shades of meaning. It's a different palette for me. He can write an angry song. He can write a glamorous song about coming to New York. I asked him to write me a song that was a cross between a hymn like you would sing in church and a drinking song like you might sing at a bar. That became "Carson's Last Supper," which I thought he fulfilled that really beautifully.

That's not an easy task. I loved his musical adaptation of "American Psycho."

I loved it. I loved it. I became so drawn in by that final song ["This Is Not An Exit"]. He was performing it live in some shows that we did together, and I just became fascinated by that one song, and I would stand there at the side of the stage listening to the lyrics and that slow, mesmerizing build. It really drove me back to the book because I said, "Wow, that landscape you're describing is so frightening and morally corrupt," and he said, "Well, it's all in the book." So I went back and reread it.

In terms of your upcoming tour, are you going to do different songs from the record? All of them? How are you envisioning this current tour?

The current tour is a mixture of old songs that everybody knows, newish songs, a couple of songs that were on my last album from two years ago [2014's "Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles"], and then about four songs in the middle of the show. It has its own little set.

And then for the encores, I'll do one song that everybody knows and likes, and then we close with two songs from the show, which I find have been working really well. First, we sing "Lover, Beloved," which is this sort of alienated vision of love, and then we end with "Carson's Last Supper," which is a kind of unifying, more transcendent vision of love. I find that's a really good note to send everybody home on.

I like that, and there's a good contrast to that. That's very cool.

Yeah, it was surprising. We learned that just from doing it. We didn't really plan it that way, but we just sang those two songs, and everybody seemed really, really happy with us doing it that way. Overall, it's about six of the 10 songs but placed throughout the night.

It strikes me that I don't think Carson McCullers has ever had a movie made of her life.

I don't think so. No.

I don't think so either. As you're talking about her, it strikes me that she would be ripe for having a really wonderful biopic because she's such a fascinating character.

Yeah. Well, I don't know. Maybe this will spark something. There's at least two other plays that I know of about her —three other plays where she's a character. Come to think of it, no, I think, maybe even four where she is a character in a play. But I don't think there's been anything that tries to encapsulate her life.

It also strikes me that this play would be a good groundwork for it.

We'll see what happens. There's all kinds of lovely possibilities once this play is mounted and up and running.

Do you have any other writing or music you're also working on at the moment?

Yeah, I was talking last night to management. Next year will be the 30th anniversary of "Solitude Standing" and the 25th anniversary of the "99.9 F" album, so we're thinking of putting together some sort of celebration for that. I have started working on new songs. I've got a batch of songs that are underway. They have titles and the usual mish-mosh of notes. So maybe that will come out in a couple years. We'll see.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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