Interview: Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega Discusses Her Album, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories
For some folks, New York City is a place they’ve only seen in movies or read about in books; a mysterious, mystical place full of danger and excitement where fame or fortune - or failure - might be lurking around any corner. For those of us familiar with the Big Apple, we know that description is mostly true. No one, however, has characterized New York City in a song quite like Suzanne Vega. Vega began her career as part of the neo-folk scene that was taking hold in Manhattan in the early 1980s, but she broke through to the big time with her songs, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” the latter of which was famously remixed to become a global phenomenon.
Vega has, of course, continued writing and performing; crafting a catalog of music that is poetic, clever and adventurous. Location is of paramount importance to Vega and the thread of her body of work always ends up somewhere in New York City. This leads us to Suzanne’s latest project and release, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories which was the encapsulation of a run of shows Suzanne performed at New York City’s famed Cafe Carlyle. Like many projects in the last year, or two, the release and tour to support it was hampered by the pandemic, but Vega is ready to get back out on the road to share this song-cycle focused on New York, New York.
Suzanne was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss not only her latest record, but also her career from its humble folk beginnings to finding herself on the international top singles charts. Certainly, we discuss New York City and how events like 9/11 and the recent pandemic have shaped her both personally and as an artist.
Suzanne has a string of shows approaching, as well. Our New Jersey listeners can see her at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on September 11th. Our Long Island listeners can see Suzanne at the Sufffolk Theatre in Riverhead, NY on September 12th. Before embarking on a European tour, Suzanne will also return to New Jersey to perform at the The Vogel in Red Bank on October 14th and at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, NJ on October 16th before performing in New York City’s City Winery on November 26th and 27th.
Prepare to be allowed to peek inside the mind of a very special songwriter, to get a glimpse of what makes her tick and how she’s able to process the mystery and madness of New York City; its people, its trials and its tribulations. You don’t have to have ever set foot in New York City to appreciate the music of Suzanne Vega, but if you ever come to visit, it wouldn't hurt to have “Tom’s Diner” playing in your headphones as you step out of the airport to hail a taxi cab.
Evan Toth So I just wanted to start with some show and tell just to show you something from from the background here. We've got this of course and then the next thing is really one of my prized vinyl possessions. Excellent. Is is my copy of, 99.9 f.
Suzanne Vega That is, yes. That's very rare.
Evan Toth Yeah, this was tough to find, I think it's a European copy. You've never done a vinyl reissue of this yet, right?
Suzanne Vega No, because I do not own the masters. A&M own the masters to my back catalogue, I re-recorded everything, but I do not own that. So if we need to reissue them, you'll have to talk to A&M which is now Universal.
Evan Toth Okay. And, come on, what's the story with the bandage on the finger on the cover of this one? (99.9 f)
Suzanne Vega Well, the night before the photo shoot, I tried to open a beer. I thought it was a screw off top. It was not. So the Band-Aid is actually genuine. I had it on my finger and I just thought you know, the whole album has these themes of doctors and pain, so I thought we'll just keep it on.
Evan Toth Right. Oh, see, that was a much cooler answer than I thought it was gonna be.
Suzanne Vega What did you think it was?
Evan Toth I don't know. I just thought it was, well, I don't know. And of course, the album that we're here to talk about, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. It sounds great. It's a beautiful gatefold and cool. I like to show people what's behind me on the shelves there.
Suzanne Vega Just all vinyl, you don't do CD at all?
Evan Toth I do. Yeah. No, you don't want to see that wall. Let's just get into one wall at a time. Because all the different walls make my wife very nervous. But I've got all different kinds of things going on down here. So we're here also to talk about three gigs coming up for you as we come into this post pandemic world. September 11, you'll be right here in New Jersey, where I am, at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. And the day after on the 12th you'll be at the Suffolk Theatre in Riverhead, New York, and then down to the Birchmere in Virginia, which is in the Vinyl District's area over there, too. And so this album came out in September 2020, right before the pandemic, tell us what happened there, it must have obviously gotten in the way of a fully realized release or tour for this record.
Suzanne Vega Yeah, we had it all set up. We're going to be on tour in May of 2020. And of course, everything closed on March of 2020. So at first we were just stunned. Like, really seriously, is this really happening? Like we're all gonna just stay home? And yeah, it was really happening. So we made a decision to have it come out in the fall. See what happened then. And so yeah, it did come out in the fall. But of course, we weren't able to tour them. So we're touring now, a year after the release, right?
Evan Toth I've spoken to songwriter Sam Phillips about you know, the filmic and sometimes cinematic quality of some music and I definitely categorize your music that way. And like a good film, our understanding of it changes as we get older or things you know, change and, you know, listening to "Luca", it really hits a lot differently. Nowadays, at least in this arrangement, at least in my age, you know, I was like nine years old when the song came out. So I knew "Luca", but I didn't know what was going on. Can you talk a little bit about the ways in which songs changed for you or for your audience? How would you see Luca now?
Suzanne Vega Pretty much the same as I did back then. I mean, I still sing it with a lot of feeling it's a song that means a lot to me personally. And it also I note, it means a lot to a lot of people all over the world. I still get letters from people, some people have just discovered it. Because unfortunately child abuse - which is what the song is about - is not something that goes away. So I think it's as I said, it's meaningful, I always sing it It hasn't changed for me.
Evan Toth And the album was recorded at the famous and fabulous Café Carlyle on the Upper East Side and it's a love letter to New York of course and my opinion: New York City is the best city in the world and it but it can be a very difficult. It could be a wonderful magical place but it can be a difficult place to live and work. Tell us a little bit about your relationship with New York City and, is it true? If you make it there, can you make it anywhere?
Suzanne Vega I think so. I think if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere because it is really difficult and that is something that has changed; my relationship with New York City has changed from the time I was a young girl all the way through my career. When I was very young, I lived in East Harlem. I lived there for five years, my family lived under the poverty line. I, myself lived under the poverty line until I was 24 years old. And within two years, suddenly, I was playing Carnegie Hall and playing Radio City Music Hall and selling millions of albums. So my rise in New York and all over the world was very quick. And it happened in my 20s. So that was a whole different side to New York, you know, suddenly, I had access to the museums and these places that I that I wouldn't necessarily have gone to before. And I love New York for that. I love it. Because, you know, for example, anyone can go to Central Park, and it's beautiful. It's like a work of art. It's something that's accessible to rich people, poor people, all kinds of people. It's a very democratic city. But you know, you also have to keep your eye on your pocketbook and your wits about you all the time. No matter who you are.
Evan Toth The Café Carlyle is perhaps one of the greatest cabaret rooms in the world. How was it similar or different to those early coffee house, coffee shop experiences that you you grew up with in the early folk days? Both are very intimate. Both are very quiet. But one is much different from the other.
Suzanne Vega Yeah. Very different. I'd say. You know, the Speakeasy and Folk City. I mean, that was really my crowd. That's where I learned how to give a show. I was there most nights, I watched a lot of other people there. We could all hang out. Even if you had no money. You could still stand at the bar and have a drink and stay there pretty much all night and watch Rick Danko. You know, whoever was was there. The Carlyle is different. It's a very, very small club. It's about 70 people, but those people have paid high ticket prices. And it's not casual. It's not a casual place, we could hang out, you know, they've come to see a show. They want to see a show, and you better give one. It's a lot more like that. They're like we're here to see, you know, the best you can do. So it's you have to kind of do a little a little extra for the Carlyle crowd.
Evan Toth A little extra homework for the Carlyle...
Suzanne Vega Yeah, more feathers, more lipstick, more secrets, more chat, you know, just like more of everything,
Evan Toth And your music is perfectly suited for a cabaret or some kind of salon or something like that. I'm a musician too. And when I started playing cabarets in New York City, in the late 90s, it was unthinkable at that time to perform contemporary music, which I was always trying to do. At the time, it was very strictly Broadway show tunes and classic stuff, you know, from the American standards. And now anything goes; in fact, I just looked in prep for this interview this month at Don't Tell Mama there's a performer, her name is Alexis Molnar and she's doing a show called The Fiona Apple Songbook. So, you know, what is the American Standard? I know how the American Standard evolved over the last few decades, you know, where is your music now? It's a part of the what's the American Songbook?
Suzanne Vega I would be thrilled to think that a few of my songs would make it into the American Songbook. I am a person who grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald sings, Rodgers and Hammerstein. I love those songs. I'd love it if a song like "Carmel" could make it into that kind of song well, and in fact, the songs that we've chose for the Carlyle were songs that had a loungy jazzy kind of feeling, which I love that song like "Thin Man". Those are songs I don't usually play. If I'm in a rock venue, they're not going to go over and if I'm in a super intimate folky venue, it's not going to go over so well either. But the Carlisle was the perfect place for a song like that.
Evan Toth "New York is My Destination" definitely felt like one of those songs that just you know, very seamlessly slipped into that cabaret swanky world. Can you tell us a little bit about that tune? It's a great number.
Suzanne Vega Thank you. Yeah, I love singing that song. It's a song that I wrote with Duncan Sheik, who wrote a chorus of music for Spring Awakening. And it comes from a play that I wrote with music based on the life and work of Carson McCullers, the great writer from the south. So, this song is a song about coming to New York City having dreams of going to New York City being recognized by all the people there by the literati, which is exactly what happened. She went there at the age of 22 and had this massive bestseller, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and ended up living there and eventually moved to Nyack which is where she she ended up.
Evan Toth I read a review of this album by a writer. His name is Nicholas Magenham. I think I'm saying that right. And he says, "Suzanne Vega's musical world involves stories in which characters hold as much importance as the setting they find themselves in." And I've done a lot of writing and research about William Carlos Williams, who had a career with a long focus on New Jersey. How important is setting to you and your writing? Are you like the William Carlos Williams of New York City? What if you moved to Nebraska tomorrow?
Suzanne Vega Nebraska would be difficult for me because when I'm not in the city, if there's another theme in the songs besides New York City, it's the ocean. So I have a lot of like water song songs about being by the water, you know, "Harbor Song", all that kind of thing, "Calypso". So, Nebraska would be tough, because, you know, there's no ocean there. Right? And no city. I mean, there's probably a city, but it's not like New York. What would I write about if I were there? I think I'd probably find something to write about, some kind of interior life or some kind of metaphoric thing. But I do feel that I have been deeply influenced by New York City, by its characters, by its width, by its struggles, and its pain. By the perspective, and the history of everything that's happened there, the layers of things that have happened all in that one place, especially if it's Manhattan that I'm talking about, because that's why I've lived here since I was two years old. I've lived in all the different neighborhoods. So it's very alive to me with, with characters in history and the architecture itself. Also, I love, I'm fascinated by all the different eras that lives side by side.
Evan Toth And, you know, it's funny listening to this record to you, I didn't even realize, I knew New York City played a big role. But it seemed like you were setting up for this this show and this album for years and years. Was it very conscious for you to write about New York? Or, was it just something that it's just kind of your muse that was just there, and it was just the setting for you and or was it a little more conscious?
Suzanne Vega I think the idea that I have a relationship with New York City, personally, kind of came into vision after 9/11. That affected me so deeply, and it affected my family, it affected my brother. And I couldn't believe that it had happened. And it took me a few years to write the following album, which was Beauty and Crime, which is basically like a mosaic of of songs about different issues in that happened in New York, in the aftermath of 9/11. So that's where I think it really crystallized for me, I thought I want to write about me, or I want to write about the lives here. And so that's kind of stayed with me. I've done a couple of albums since then, you know, the Carson McCullers album and then there's a more spiritual album called Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, which is kind of more about the spiritual life. But it was really after 9/11 that it really touched my heart and I felt like I am from here. I want to chronicle what I've seen and what I felt.
Evan Toth Right, and how different was your experience with the pandemic. You know, one of the things that broke my heart - as I mentioned a few times - I'm in New Jersey here, just across the river and, you know, growing up we we love New York City and I have a very strong love for it myself. But it really broke my heart during the pandemic hearing about all these New Yorkers, everybody's leaving, they're all going to you know, we're getting out of the city. I was like, "well, honey, let's get an apartment because I want to get in there if everybody else is getting out." But, you know, with those moments, like 9/11, and this pandemic, did you you feel any similarities or differences? Or, you know, how did you feel about New York? Maybe you've got an album cooking right now. I don't know.
Suzanne Vega Oh, I do. I always have ideas for songs. I'm always writing things down and it hasn't gelled yet for me. But I'm sort of trying to put things into words that happened in the last few years. Yeah, I remember that moment when everybody fled. I mean, members of my family came by to say goodbye. And then they said, "we're leaving," and I'm like, "you are?" And they said, "what about you, are you staying?" And I'm like, "yeah, I'm staying," I mean, this what I know. I know my neighborhood, I know how to get groceries. I don't drive. I mean, I used to, I had a driver's license, I let it expire. And, you know, hey, I'm here. So I did, I stayed, and it was an eerie, eerie time. Because there were times where it was so quiet in the street, everyone was home, everyone was frightened. All you heard were ambulances, day and night. I still get a chill when I think of that time. And I've stayed through all of it. I mean, I've had day trips, here and there and visited here and there. But I've basically stayed there all through the whole thing. So it's a lot to process. And, you know, it'll all come out in some form or another. So yeah, I'm thinking of that next album, and trying to, you know, just slowly working on it, along with everyone else,
Evan Toth Listening to you perform "Tom's Diner" on the record felt like one of those moments from a film, you know, like: New York City, a million stories happening in each apartment window, and I pictured the cameras sort of passing through your show to catch you singing and then go on to the next thing. And "Tom's Diner" to me is a very New York City tune. It just represents everything that's great about New York, it's got a great cool vibe, you've got a glancing interest in the events of the day, a favorite restaurant and stuff like that. Do you feel that's one of your most New Yorkish tunes? Or, how has that song changed your view of the city? Or maybe vice versa?
Suzanne Vega Well, "Tom's Diner", I wrote it so long ago. I mean, I wrote it in 1981, which is 40 years ago. I hate to say it, but it's true. And it was when I was just forming my own relationship with New York City. I had been two years on my own. I bought the New York Times, you know, used to read it or actually, I don't think it was the New York Times in the beginning, my family was a Daily News. And so there were funnies. And so that's what I was writing about. So I was trying to figure out my own relationship to New York back then. And then of course, we had the DNA remix, which kind of put the groove on it, which I thought was great. Because I grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, and that's the kind of music we listened to. And I thought, wow, these people took it and made it into one of those cool songs. So I was very happy about that.
Evan Toth There's a there's an interesting - some kind of wiki page - that really breaks down the whole song, "and well, Suzanne was reading the Daily News because that had cartoons in it and," or something like that. It was William Holden was the actor. They figured out that. And it wasn't raining that day. But, uh, you know, it was sort of overcast. Anyway, that's a great tune.
I loved your your Lou Reed cover of "Walk on the Wild Side". And if you could just talk about your influence from Lou Reed. And in that song made me think of his song, "New York Telephone Conversation", which is also very New York, New York kind of tune, but can you talk a little bit about Lou Reed and his take on New York?
Suzanne Vega Yeah, I mean, New York, Lou Reed's take on New York was very different than mine. I grew up in the middle of a heroin epidemic in East Harlem. So my parents raised us to be very anti-drug. I'm very aware of drugs. I lost my brother to drink and drugs. So, I myself have never been tempted by that world. I like to have a drink now and again, but I very aware of all the damage that drugs and drink can do. Whereas Lou, I mean, that's kind of where he lived for years and years. That's what formed his first art. But what I loved about Lou was his drive to tell the truth in his art and to be confrontive about that, and his song "Caroline Says II" was very meaningful to me personally. I couldn't believe he wrote it, and I couldn't believe it was in a female voice. I it really solidified his presence in my life pretty much for life. I mean, I bought the Berlin album, and then I just became a disciple. You know, I would just listen to his music and figure it out for myself what I liked what I didn't like. And even the sound of his voice and the way he sang, I don't know I've just felt this really deep connection to his art.
Evan Toth The live recording sounds good. Very good. And your album Beauty and Crime had a vinyl release on Classic Records in 2010. It was sort of a reissue copies of which are now selling $200 plus dollars and more, which I didn't, I didn't buy when it came out. Do you think about sound a lot, especially since you're known as the the mother of the mp3? Are you kind of, you know, an audiophile type of person? Do you? Do you love digital stuff? Or do you have a feeling about vinyl?
Suzanne Vega That's a great question. And so few people ask it. And I'm here to tell you that no, I'm not. I'm not a kind of a sound snob and way. But I have surrounded myself over the years with people who are who care deeply about the subwoofers and the tweeters and all that stuff. I've had boyfriends who came in with all of their components and then took their components when we broke up. But I myself grew up listening to transistor radios, and other like crappy systems that were lying around my parents apartment. So I just like what touches me and what moves me. But I am deeply aware, there's a lot of people who really love that whole world of sound.
Evan Toth And that to that album, that pressing in particular has quite a following. You know, if you look up on Discogs there's people saying, "this is just the greatest recording in history." And you know, people really love the sound of it. The reissue of Beauty and Crime on Classic Records, it was like a clear vinyl reissue.
Suzanne Vega Well, actually, Beauty and Crime, I think got a Grammy for Best Engineering: non-classical. So we recorded it, analog and then digitized it. So we had the best of both worlds. We had all the warmth of the analog world. And then we had the the ease of the digital world. So the production team there was great. I mean, I thought that was a great idea.
Evan Toth As you said, you're you're maybe cooking up some new stuff. Can you give us a little hint about what's coming down the pike...
Suzanne Vega You never know what's really going to happen. You know, that's why I would love to do more of a rock album. I mean, more of an album about, say, I don't know. I did some shows a couple of years ago for for a Lou Reed tribute. And I played with Lenny Kaye on guitar, and Jerry Leonard on guitar, and the drummer from this means and the bass player with Patti Smith, and I loved playing with that group. I thought, "wow, this is so cool." We did four or five Lou Reed songs with that lineup. And I loved it. And so I keep thinking in the back of my mind, maybe that's the kind of record I'll make. Now. It's like a bunch of three minute punchy songs about like crazy things that we've all been going through.
Evan Toth Cool. I love that. I would be very excited to hear that.
Suzanne Vega That's what's in my mind. That's what seems to want to come out and we'll just have to see whether or not it actually happens.
Evan Toth Well, Suzanne Vega, you're here in New Jersey again, September 11. At the South Orange Performing Center, you're in Long Island at the Suffolk Theatre on September 12. And down to Virginia and, and quite a string of shows after that, of course going back overseas and everything. Are you excited about getting back on the road?
Suzanne Vega I am I really am excited to get out there and play. You know, get into I mean, that's it's my life, my lifestyle. It's my chosen path. Being at home has been great. You know, I love my family. I love my dog. And now it's time to get back out.
Evan Toth It's time. Well, Suzanne Vega, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it and I'm a longtime fan. And it's real pleasure to speak with you.
Suzanne Vega Thank you. Thank you very much.