Music interview - Suzanne Vega: ‘The surprising thing for me was how many personal memories it stirred up revisiting these albums’

Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega
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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. I thought ‘I cannot believe that, is that really true?’ And it was true, and it was her idea, so that’s when you know that it has its own life.”

Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega

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 a song called Blood Makes Noise and 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.

It really feels like Tom’s Diner has taken a life of its own. The real topper for me when I got word that Britney Spears had done a version with Giorgio Moroder.

Suzanne Vega

“I read a short story called Sucker and I thought ‘This is great stuff’,” Vega explains. “She has such a tough way of writing and very adolescent. I felt there was a kind of realness about the best of her work then I saw her biography and I fell in love with the character after I read it. 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. “I’ve had to really whittle it down to the most important bits, so my [fascination with McCullers] has change over the years. I’ve had to figure out what are the most exciting and interesting parts of her life for an audience.”

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 in her writing, she was also a woman who was disabled – she had strokes and was paralysed – so she really embodied the issues that her characters had, I feel that makes her very contemporary.”

After the success of her one-woman show, Vega has mooted that she might return to McCullers in another play. For the time being however, she says: “I’ve taken time off from play writing. I did a four-week run at the Alley Theatre in Houston; I did eight shows a week and it was a long show, it’s almost two hours long, so I feel I need a break from play writing and maybe I’ll get back to it next year.”

Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega

In the late 1990s Vega appearing on several of the Lilith Fair 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.

“Things have changed because 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.”

Being dropped by Blue Note after her 2007 album Beauty & Crime led Vega to take an independent route when releasing music in the last decade. Having reclaimed her songbook by re-recording much of it on a series of themed acoustic albums to sell at shows, she says: “Actually it’s been a great success, I’ve been happy doing them.” Creative freedom is something she has guarded from the start of her career. “I’ve always had that because my first manager was careful towards that in every contract, that I had artistic control over all of the albums, so I think I enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom and I think that comes through in the albums that I made with A&M Records.”

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 Tuesday, August 21.