FOR someone who has sold millions of records and whose name is known by music fans the world over, Suzanne Vega is surprisingly unrecognisable.
At the height of her fame in the late 80s she says she could stand in a record store next to a copy of her album with her photo on and nobody would notice. “People know my name and they know my voice, but they tend not to know what I look like. But that’s fine with me,” she says.
The 52-year-old is back in the UK this summer with a new tour that lands at the Grand Opera House, in York next month, when she will be performing songs from her latest album, Close-Up Volume 4, Songs of Family, as well as crowd-pleasing hits such as Luka and Tom’s Diner.
“I’m lucky to have such a loyal fan base in the UK. It was the first place where I was really successful and that means a great deal to me,” she says. It’s more than 30 years since Vega started plying her trade in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, following in the footsteps, like many before and since, of her hero Bob Dylan. “I remember listening to Positively 4th Street and that was the moment I knew I wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” she says. “I went down to the Folk City, where Bob Dylan started out, and I felt I wasn’t good enough to go in. But eventually I did and I found a tribe of people like me.”
Back in the early 80s, however, folk music was in the doldrums. “CBGB’s was the place to go back then and Folk City had become a bit out-dated. But it was still a great place, you could go to the bar for a few drinks, talk about politics, poetry and metaphor with like-minded people and see musicians who were on their way up.” It was during this period that Vega honed the stripped-down acoustic style that has since become her trademark.
In 1985, a year after getting a record deal, she released her eponymous debut album. The record company thought they might sell 30,000 copies, but the figure went on to top more than a million. So was she surprised by the success? “No, not really. You hope that it does well, but I’d been writing songs since I was 11 and by then I was 24, so I’d been a songwriter a long time.”
But if her first record had done well, the second, Solitude Standing, made her an international star. “I was surprised how well it was received by the pop world, suddenly radio stations were saying ‘yes, we want to play these songs,’” she says.
“At one point I was doing five or six shows a week and sometimes performing twice a night and doing eight interviews a day.” She says she was ambivalent about fame. “I was suspicious about it and I felt it would probably calm down, which is what happened.”
The album remains her biggest to date and spawned her two most popular songs – Luka and the wonderfully rhythmic Tom’s Diner. Even though she wrote these songs 25 ago, she still enjoys performing them.
“I did a gig in Taiwan recently. It was the first time I’d played there and afterwards I was talking to a woman who said she’d flown 14 hours from Hong Kong just to come and hear me play. She didn’t need to tell me why she was there, I knew she’d come to hear Luka.
“Each time I perform I know there’s someone who needs to hear that song and I need to sing it for them, so I don’t begrudge playing it and I still sing them with the same feeling I did when I first wrote it.” The same goes with Tom’s Diner. “That song just has a life of its own and in a way it’s become something of a celebration – which it didn’t start out as.”
Vega is recognised for her cool, classy songs and personal lyrics about life and relationships. “Each generation feels the need to somehow reinvent folk music and I’ve always felt I’m not trying to revive a dead form, but play with a live one,” she says.
“There are a few moments where I wish the audience was a bit bigger and think back to how it used to be. But for the most part I’m very happy, I get up every day to do a job that I love and I’m still warmly appreciated wherever I go and that means a great deal to me.”
After 30 years she hasn’t lost her inspiration. “It’s what I was meant to do and I still have the same urge to write and perform as I ever did.”
Suzanne Vega plays Grand Opera House, York, June 20.
Folk Queen: The life and music of Suzanne Vega
The eldest of four children, Vega studied dance and songwriting at the High School of Performing Arts in New York.
She released her self-titled, folk-infused debut album in 1985, which sold more than a million copies.
Vega is best known for her songs Marlene On The Wall, Luka, Left Of Center and Tom’s Diner.
In 2010, she embarked on a project to re-imagine her own songbook in a stripped-down and intimate manner, re-recording songs for four thematic albums under the collective title of Close-Up.