Singer songwriter Suzanne Vega is on a classic album tour. She talks to Duncan Seaman ahead of her gig at Leeds Town Hall.
Classic album tours are, by their very nature, bound to be evocative for musicians and audiences alike. For American singer songwriter Suzanne Vega, the process of revisiting two of the most fondly regarded albums in her catalogue – Solitude Standing, a five-million-seller in 1987, and 99.9F, the 1992 record on which she pioneered ‘industrial folk’ – has been intriguing.
“Actually the surprising thing for me was how many personal memories it stirred up,” says the 59-year-old who was born in California and raised in New York’s Spanish Harlem and Upper West Side.
“Solitude Standing, that was when I met the keyboard player Anton Sanko and he was my boyfriend for five years and it was during that time period when I was making the album. So whenever I heard the keyboard sound I thought, ‘Oh, that’s Anton’, so that was a bit of a surprise.
“And then the second album I made that with Mitchell Froom who became my husband and is the father of my child, so there are some very personal memories that get stored up. Weirdly enough, both of them are keyboard players so I was inundated with memories every time I heard the keyboard sounds.”
The song Tom’s Diner, which began life as a two-minute a capella number on Solitude Standing, became a huge club hit when, initially unbeknown to its writer, the British electronic duo DNA underlaid it with the shuffling dance beat from Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’.
Rather than sue the pair for copyright infringement, Vega’s label A&M bought the remix and released it, to great success all over the world. The song has gone on to be sampled by some of the biggest names in hip-hop including Public Enemy, 2Pac and Drake.
“It really feels like it has taken a life of its own,” Vega reflects. “The real topper for me when I got word that Britney Spears had done a version with Giorgio Moroder. So that’s when you know that it has its own life.”
99.9F marked a departure from the semi-acoustic reveries of her previous albums. In came clanking electronic sounds in songs such as Blood Makes Noise, a Number One on Billboard’s US Alternative chart.
“I was interested in finding the right sounds for the songs that I was writing at that moment in time,” Vega says. “I had the lyrics so when Mitchell introduced that clanking anvil industrial sound I thought, ‘That’s perfect’. I was just looking for the right sound for the song itself.”
Aside from the anniversary commemorations, Vega’s most recent project was an album called Lover, Beloved, which was drawn from her one-woman play with music about Carson McCullers, author of Southern Gothic novels such as The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and Reflections In A Golden Eye. McCullers, who suffered prolonged ill-health and died at the age of 50, is an author whose work has fascinated Vega since her student days, when she read English and drama at Barnard College in New York.
“She has such a tough way of writing,” she explains. “I felt there was a kind of realness about the best of her work, then I saw her biography and I thought she was a really interesting woman who was way ahead of her time.”
To write the play Carson McCullers Talks About Love, Vega “really delved into” her subject’s life and work. “I’ve kind of had to curb my enthusiasm because otherwise this play would be five hours long,” she says.
She’s found relevance in McCullers’s work that extends well beyond the 1940s and 50s. “She was a woman who was bisexual, she was deeply involved in Civil Rights, she was also a woman who was disabled so she really embodied the issues that her characters had, I feel that makes her very contemporary.”
After more than 30 years writing songs, Vega says: “Getting a good idea, a great melody that sticks in your head or getting a verse just right, that I find exciting. I’ve got a ton of ideas that are all stored up in my iPhone. Next year when I have a bit of time I’m planning to sit down and work them all through. So I’m still excited by possibilities.”
Suzanne Vega plays at Leeds Town Hall on August 21. www.suzannevega.com
CHANGES IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
In the late 1990s Vega was appearing on several festival tours in America, alongside the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman and Natalie Merchant. She feels things have changed “for better and for worse” for female musicians in the ensuing decades. “We have so many women who make music now. In the pop world there’s Beyonce and Rihanna and Taylor Swift so I think that women are quite free now to make any kind of music that they want. Of course, the music industry as a whole has taken a nosedive but it still may revive itself – that’s what I’m hoping for.”)