Suzanne Vega: New album, ‘Tom’s Diner’ and being ‘Mother of the MP3’

Suzanne Vega celebrates almost three decades of singer-songwriter success with a world tour, the last of her “Close Up” retrospectives – and a new album waiting in the wings.

Suzanne Vega (Courtesy Suzanne Vega)

Suzanne Vega (Courtesy Suzanne Vega)

This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the “Cape Argus” “Good Weekend” section of 2013/10/13

Suzanne Vega was catapulted into the international limelight when two songs from her second album, “Solitude Standing” (1987), hit the global Top 10. “Luka” and the a cappelaTom’s Diner” propelled the album towards Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of The Year and Best Female Vocal Performance, earned her an MTV Award for Best Female Video and launched her international touring career. Since then, she’s toured consistently and released a new album every three to four years, all of them charting on the USA’s Top 200 and on Europe’s Top 100. In 2010 she conceived the “Close Up” series, which saw her revisiting material written over the past twenty five years and re-casting it as an acoustic series. She’s also taken the role of interviewer for print, radio and television, most notably getting the elusive Leonard Cohen to sit for a lengthy interview, and hosting “American Mavericks“, a radio series about key American composers that earned a coveted Peabody Award for Broadcasting.

Suzanne Vega comes to Cape Town on an ongoing world tour that takes in America, Europe, Russia, Belarus, Hong Kong and Japan, and follows the final “Close Up” release, subtitled “Songs of Family” and the release of a new album, slated for 2014. How difficult was it for the singer to reprise her material, and what prompted it?

“‘Ironbound‘ had the biggest change of perspective since I was avoiding marriage when I wrote it and now I’ve been married for nearly 8 years.”

– Suzanne Vega on rediscovering her own songs for the “Close Up” series

“I think the song ‘Ironbound‘, from 1987’s ‘Solitude Standing‘ (and featuring the lyrics ‘Fancy poultry parts sold here / Breasts and thighs and hearts / Backs are cheap and wings are nearly free / Nearly free’) had the biggest change of perspective since I was avoiding marriage when I wrote it and now I’ve been married for nearly 8 years,” Vega says from her tour hotel in Europe. “Sonically, the biggest change was probably the song ‘Bound’, which had a full orchestra and was stripped down to just voice and guitar.”

“Bound” came from the singer’s seventh studio album, “Beauty & Crime” (2007), which was released on Blue Note records and won a Grammy for Best Engineer (Non-Classical Music). The “turbulent, string-driven number” is also, incidentally, an intensely personal one, about the seemingly fated reunion with the street-poet turned civil rights lawyer that would become her husband – more than two decades after he had first asked her to marry him.

“He came back to New York once he realised that I wasn’t seeing anybody,” Vega explained. “I had just broken off a relationship. He asked if I wanted to go ice-skating and within two weeks he asked me to marry him again, and this time I said, ‘Yes’. It took twenty-three years to get from ‘I’ll think about it’ to saying yes. That song is about that moment.”

With the record deal with Blue Note a thing of the past, a new Suzanne Vega album is promised for 2014, most likely to be released independently. The singer, who is famously open about her creative process, has used social media to preview acoustic versions of a song that might be called “Road Beyond This One” or “Horizon“. Will it be on the new album, and is it’s rootsy, but contemporary feel, and sense of space, a cue to the content of the forthcoming record?

“It’s one of the songs, certainly,” she says. “And, yes, it fits with the theme of the album – ten songs that are based loosely on the idea of spirituality. My relationship with Blue Note was sadly short lived, and then came the ‘Close Up’ series, which has been fun. I am curious to see what happens with the new album, obviously. So far I like the more direct contact with the fans and the sense of freedom that I have.”

“I really enjoy the online relationship with my fans and followers. Soon, I plan to figure out how to work Google Hangouts and then do weekly concerts from home.”

– Suzanne Vega, on upcoming plans for her fans

Part of that new found freedom sees Vega communicating almost daily with her fans on Facebook and Twitter, and via her website – she posts pictures from her world tours, previews snippets of songs and even invites comment on them. Recently, she posted pictures of herself dressed as a Tarot card deck’s “Queen of Pentacles” – a pin-up of a very different sort.

“I really enjoy the online relationship with my fans and followers,” she says. “I love choosing what picture to put up every day. Sometimes I find an image more expressive than a bunch of words. Soon, I plan to figure out how to work Google Hangouts and then do weekly concerts from home.”

Suzanne Vega interview in the 'Cape Argus' 'Good Weekend' of 2013/10/13

Suzanne Vega interview in the ‘Cape Argus’ ‘Good Weekend’ of 2013/10/13

 

A career spanning almost three decades naturally has many highlights. What are some of these, and did the starry-eyed teen writing poetry and songs as she grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem and Upper West Side ever imagine she’d do things like share her poems and lyrics as a published book (“The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writings Of Suzanne Vega“, Avon, 1999), interview Leonard Cohen, become the first major artist to perform live as an “avatar” in the “virtual reality world” of Second Life – or that her voice would be used by German programmer Karlheinz Brandenburg, as the template for perfecting the audio compression techniques we now know as MP3.

“My highlight was opening for Bob Dylan,” she says “Childhood hero, way more friendly and kinder than I could have imagined. Also receiving words of encouragement from Paul Simon recently. Joni Mitchell once offered me a drink. And any time I see Lou Reed I am reminded of how much he has meant to me as an artist.  I love books and always hoped I would have one; maybe one day I’ll have another. To be honest, yes as a teenager I did imagine more or less the life I live now.”

It is impossible to interview Suzanne Vega without asking about “Solitude Standing” and its two massive global hits. We decide to do it as a word association test, and I present two words to Ms Vega: “Tom’s Diner“.

She responds: “Coffee, eggs, newspaper. Rain, cathedral. Familiar. Party song about alienation!”

This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the “Cape Argus” “Good Weekend” section of 2013/10/13


Suzanne Vega, supported by Nakhane Toure, plays at the Paul Cluver Amphitheatre on Friday 1 November at 8pm and Saturday 2 November at 7pm (Paul Cluver, De Rust Estate, N2 Kromco turn-off, Elgin / Grabouw; tickets R450 from Computicket.com or 083 915 8000; gates open two hours prior; bring picnics; Paul Cluver wines on sale, no BYO), before playing Johannesburg’s Montecasino on 3 November. More on SuzanneVega.com and Cluver.com.

Suzanne Vega (Courtesy Suzanne Vega)

Suzanne Vega (Courtesy Suzanne Vega)

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