HOW WE MET: SUZANNE VEGA AND MITCHELL FROOM

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The Independent Culture
The singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, 37, grew up in New York City. She started her career on the Greenwich Village folk circuit and released her debut album in 1985. Since then she has recorded four more albums, including the recent Nine Objects of Desire. Married to her producer Mitchell Froom, she has one daughter, Ruby, aged two and a half, and lives in Tribeca, New York. Producer Mitchell Froom, 44, was born in northern California. After studying music at Berkeley he played keyboards in psychedelic bands. Since 1985 he has worked as a producer for acts such as Crowded House and Elvis Costello. He now divides his time between LA and New York.

Suzanne Vega: I first met Mitchell in December, 1991, when I was auditioning producers for my fourth album, 99.9F. It was a formal record-company meeting at a restaurant in Los Angeles. I was with my manager and an A&R guy, and none of us knew what Mitchell looked like. He was late. When he finally did come in, it made me laugh because he was so un-Hollywood. He was dressed all in black, looking mournful with his big glasses on, a lot like Elvis Costello. I'd wondered about his character before I met him and found my guesses were pretty accurate: he was a little bit eccentric, but his productions never got out of hand or dissolved into chaos. I wasn't sure if we'd like each other, though I was sure we'd work well together.

We fell in love while we were working on the album. I started to have really strange dreams and a weird feeling I couldn't put a name to. I knew I liked him, but didn't think about being attracted to him. I felt myself being drawn into something against my will. It was like he cast a spell, and I resented it. I didn't want to be involved with a keyboard- playing producer who was married with a child. I felt it would wreck everything. It started to dawn on me a couple of weeks into the recording process, when we went out for a drink; we got into the back seat of a car and he took my hand. Most guys if they take your hand are looking to see your reaction, but he was just holding it really tight and scowling out of the window.

Months went by and we weren't talking about this, until one night I said to him, I hope we can be friends for life. With that he pulled the car over to the side of the road and blurted out that he loved me and he'd never felt this way before, but felt a commitment to his wife and daughter. I was genuinely shocked because any woman who has been around a while has heard those things. My wife doesn't understand me, blah, blah. But this didn't have that quality to it. At that time I had a bird for company, a beautiful big yellow parakeet called Lulu who was always diving at Mitchell's head, trying to go for his glasses. Right at the moment he made his declaration she started flapping round the car, shrieking wildly. It felt like all hell was breaking loose.

It was very intense. I didn't want to be responsible for splitting him up from his wife, so I told him to stop saying things like that. But even though we weren't having an affair, there was this quality of strange old-fashioned romance, this thing happening to our souls that was very difficult to explain to anyone else, especially in America where everything is so casual. After we finished recording I didn't know if I would ever see him again. He needed to resolve things with his wife, so I just stayed away from him. There was this strange feeling of going through a trial, that if I loved him I had to stay away from him. I'd never been in that position before, and I was wretchedly miserable for several months, sobbing all the time.

Then one day I called him in the studio and he said in very cryptic terms: "I'll call you when I see a little light." I sent him a present, a small flashlight on a keyring which I wrapped in a handkerchief, and put in a little bag. He was in the studio, so it was a little embarrasing for him, thinking the package was somebody's demo tape when it was in fact a love object. We spoke a few times on the phone and some months after that I got the summons. He had formally separated from his wife and was living in San Francisco. I went there in September, 1992, two days before the album was released. Then everything happened at once. We'd decided to get married and that first night we went out to dinner. He'd lost a lot of weight and looked completely different. We had a couple of drinks, walked back to the hotel holding hands and all these street bums were screaming "True love, true love!" It was really weird.

Now we're married the difficult parts are caused by mundane things. The bickering over who's working or not working, who'll take care of our daughter Ruby, who'll feed the cat, all the daily-life nitty-gritty that eats away at a relationship. What's different about Mitchell, compared to former lovers, is that even when we were working together there was very little discussion. We both have very strong internal landscapes and it was almost as if we'd found each other there. His inner landscape is very vivid to him, like an aquarium where these musical ideas swim by. He's in there mesmerised by beautiful brilliant colours, and if I need him to do something horribly boring I have to sort of rap on the window to get him out.

I think there will always be this tension between the two of us, and in 20 years' time I don't expect we'll be settled, but expect we'll be together. He's a challenge and a bit of a puzzle to me, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Mitchell Froom: Before I met Suzanne I received a tape from her that had been recorded with a band. I had other ideas about her music, though, so we had a fairly confrontational phone-call to begin with. If she wanted to do what was on the tape there wouldn't have been room for us to talk. However, she was very open and seemed excited about my ideas. At our first meeting, I showed up late because I was sick, and when I got there she was sat with her manager on one side and her record-company guy on the other, so it was fairly stiff.

I thought that she was pretty and dignified, and had a nice way about her. Later, when we walked back to my car, an old beat-up 1976 Cadillac, she thought that was pretty funny. I liked that about her. It's the largest car ever made and I like it a lot, even though it barely runs.

When we started working together I realised there was a musical chemistry. She has been misunderstood in the past because she has a very soft voice and plays acoustic guitar. The tendency is to see it as quiet folk music and have a very soft, unobtrusive backing. But her music and melody lines are actually quite rhythmic, with R&B and Latin influences. As a producer I look for clues in the music a person grew up listening to, and she had heard not just Leonard Cohen but also Astrud Gilberto, the Four Tops and the Beatles. If you're over-respectful to the sound of someone playing guitar and singing, you get a mellow studio recording that has no impact, so I wanted to help her get something that was more stark and rhythmically in the right place.

I was pleased to find not just that I could work with Suzanne, but she also turned out to be a friend. Both of us had the absolute assumption that our relationship was just work - and the last thing I wanted was to live with a singer/ songwriter - but when we finished recording and realised we may not see each other again, the painful feelings came as a shock. I don't take personal things lightly, and I believe that you have to respect whatever relationship you're in even if it's not the best. That meant that my marriage, which hadn't been in the best of ways for years, had to come to a head and be resolved before Suzanne and I did anything. So I worked it through and the situation is now quite amicable with my ex-wife. The only thing I still find difficult is the separation from my eldest daughter. I'd be much happier if she could somehow live with us, and I see her as often as possible.

When Suzanne and I finally got together it was very intense, and had an inevitable quality about it. It took a long time. If Suzanne and I entered something like that quickly we may not have survived, we may not be together now. That wouldn't have been showing respect either to Suzanne or my ex-wife. You have to be very careful.

It was funny working with her again on her latest album. It's about desire, and some songs she wrote for it refer to past affairs. I'd ask her about a few things, but as far as her past is concerned I don't really care at all. It sounds corny, but I feel I benefit from a woman's past. I have no desire to be with someone who's young and innocent. Experience is a very good thing. As an older man I don't understand the attraction to a virginal 18-year-old, that sounds like a nightmare to me.

Working together is still very easy and inspiring, but the difficulty is in accommodating two different careers and caring for Ruby, who also needs additional personalities like nannies and baby- sitters. A lot of my work involves travelling and being in the studio at set times, whereas Suzanne's work is about being somewhere she feels creative enough to write. Sorting through that has been kind of difficult.

We do have strong inner landscapes - in my mind I'm obsessed with musical phrases, whereas her world is more about poetry and words. Suzanne may say mine is an aquarium, but one time she described it as a rat's nest! She's deeper water than I am, she's got a very fine mind. There's parts of her character I understand and parts that remain a mystery. She's very complex and I think that's the way it should be.

I hope we will always be together. This is the first time in my life I've had this feeling about anybody. I didn't think it was possible in my life to feel this way. I tend to stick with things well beyond the point of them working, and if this didn't work I'd be at a total loss. I don't think it's possible to be with anyone else.

'Nine Objects of Desire' (A&M) is out now. Suzanne Vega will be touring 19-28 Mar.

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