Suzanne Vega: ‘I love Jane Eyre’s stoicism’

With two months’ worth of bookings across Europe in her diary, Suzanne Vega is looking forward to a summer of festivals, including Kate Rusby’s Underneath The Stars weekend in Penistone.

Suzanne Vega. Picture George Holz
Suzanne Vega. Picture George Holz

“It’s great to be out playing anywhere, really, but especially the festivals,” says the 62-year-old singer-songwriter via Zoom from her New York apartment, adding that the prospect of playing in rural South Yorkshire is enticing. “One imagines it will be outdoors under the stars, so it feels like it will be great,” she says.

Like many musicians, Vega feels “a sense of relief” that live music is back on the agenda after a two-year absence, but also finds herself cautiously “looking to see what the local numbers (of Covid infections) are”.

“We always knew that (concerts) would come back unless the entire human race perished, which doesn’t look likely at this moment,” she says, “but it’s been great to be on the road again, going out and playing for live audiences. There’s really nothing like it.”

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    Vega’s return to touring coincides with the release of a quadruple vinyl ‘book pack’ of her Close Up series of albums in which she revisited dozens of songs from her catalogue. Much prized by fans on their original release on CD, the vinyl run of 2,000 copies sold out within a week.

    Her hopes of releasing a second pressing for Christmas appear to have been nixed by vinyl shortages, but she promises those who missed out first time around: “I am going to push and see if we can get it done, maybe even for next year’s Record Store Day.”

    Re-recording more than 60 songs on those albums was much more than reasserting copyright control, she says.

    “I have no problem with the original masters, I still love them, I still stand by them, I didn’t want to try and recreate them because each one of them was made at a special moment in time and it’s very hard to recreate – even with great session musicians you couldn’t recreate certain moments that happened on the 99.9F album or on the first (eponymous) album – so I thought we’ll just recreate it from scratch and do it a little more acoustically, a little more stripped down to bare bones, different from the masters,” she says. “It was great fun. It was interesting to see which ones were easy to do and which ones were more difficult.

    Suzanne Vega. Picture: Ehud Lazin

    “There were some which stood up beautifully without all the production, others we needed to push it a little bit and say ‘we do need a bit of rhythm here to get the whole thing to gel’, that kind of thing. But (guitarist) Gerry Leonard and I have worked together for 20 years now so we play together easily and that was fun.”

    Although much thought had gone into the sequencing of albums such as Solitude Standing and Days of Open Hand, Vega was able to see threads within songs that enabled her to reorganise them by four themes: love, people and places, states of being and family.

    “Part of the reason for that was so many people heard the first and second albums and quite a few people heard the third album and then it did drop off,” she says. “The industry as a whole went downhill, frankly, so there’s a lot of people who didn’t keep up with the later stuff. So I thought rather than trying to sequence the albums as they were originally why not stack them up? It just felt very modern to make a playlist of a different mood. The first album is love songs, they’re unconventional but they’re still love songs. If you’re feeling in a lovey sort of mood you might want to play that or you might want to give that to someone.

    “The classic one is People & Places which has Luka and Tom’s Diner; the third one is the weirder, more alternative, what I call the freakier side of my songwriting which is more about states of being, which is usually disturbed. If I’m happy that would go on a different album, but this is where I’m exploring something more twisted. Those all went on volume three and either you run to that one or you avoid it. The fourth one is Songs of Family which is very acoustic, very folky, it has quite a few songs that I wrote in my teenage years. I thought it would be fun and it was fun for the audience to then rediscover newer songs.”

    Vega had artistic control written into her contract with A&M Records, but when she made Songs in Red and Gray in 2001, the label was changing, she says. “It wasn’t A&M, it wasn’t Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert, it was now Jimmy Iovine who was a different animal,” she says. “I still could do whatever I wanted with my producer but I had to go and discuss the album with the president, whoever that was at any given time. It was usually an open door and pretty easy. The meeting with Jimmy Iovine was a little more difficult and then we all felt this threat hanging over my head of ‘you’ve been with this label 18 years and your contract is up’. I don’t think he said ‘we’re thinking of dropping you’ but of course I knew that they were and then they did. I had hoped for better, that Songs in Red and Gray would maybe sell a lot more than it did, but I kind of knew also that it was written that I would be dropped.

    “I actually met with Jerry Moss to thank him for 18 years at the company and we went for lunch when we talked about all kinds of things, which was one of the best memories of that year. It was kind of a bittersweet meeting, but ultimately over time, now that I have my own record label, this is much better. I have control over my catalogue, I can do what I like, I can do what I just did and release this vinyl book set, and I think that’s better.”

    Six years on from her last album Lover Beloved, which was based on her one-woman play about the writer Carson McCullers, Vega says she has been working on new material. “I’ve been writing thoughts, ideas, recording melodies, bits and pieces, adjusting to every new thing that comes along which has been astonishing,”” she says. “Very few people could have predicted the pandemic and now there’s this war going on (in Ukraine). So many things in the last six years have been jaw-droppingly different than usual, so it’s been hard to keep up.

    “So what I need to do now is have a month or two where I sit with all those different pieces and really write a bunch of new songs, and that’s what I’m hoping to do. I’m hoping to have a new album out next year.”

    Having moved back to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where she grew up, Vega recently noted how she kept bumping into ghosts of her past. She says they are still present today “but the quality has changed a bit”.

    “Because I’ve been living amongst them now, they sort of fade out,” she says. “And there’s been so many new things happening in New York City, it’s really changed in some ways. One thing I’m always happy to see is where I went to elementary school – that’s where I go to get my Covid tests now. It’s cheerful and nice, the way it was when I went there. Then other things are not so good. New York is struggling right now with the aftermath of the pandemic – homelessness, a lot of stores went out of business and have not come back – so we need to get our act together here in New York. We need to get it to be a thriving place again because it’s suffered a lot in the last couple of years.”

    Following on from Lover Beloved, Vega was in the midst of appearing in an off-Broadway production of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice when the pandemic struck. She says she enjoys the challenge of acting, explaining: “As a child I felt that it was very difficult for me to express emotions, especially with my face. I tended to be more metaphoric, which you can see in the songs. So it always has been a thrill and an interest of mine to act.

    “I was a dancer for ten years and when I went to the High School for Performing Arts I studied acting there and I studied drama in college, in fact I minored in theatre there. It’s always been a challenge to show emotion but it’s great fun to assume someone else’s character and do it through that method.”

    Performing her own play on Carson McCullers, the troubled bisexual author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was the realisation of a long-held ambition dating right back to her late teens. “I began that project when I was 19 years old, which was way before my success as a songwriter,” Vega says. “Mostly I was attracted to her character because even though she was inhibited in her body because of her medical conditions, she had this free mind and very free imagination. She was fearless about putting down on the page what she felt and thought, so all of that appealed to me as well as pretending to be a chain-smoking, gin-drinking 22-year-old, which at the age of 19, that was a thrill.”

    Forty years on, Vega was able to see some parallels with her own career struggles. “As it turns out, we both had big successes at a very young age,” she says. “She went through her ups and downs but she ultimately created a body of work that is still considered classic. She’s sort of the alternative to Harper Lee; I feel that I’m the alternative to a lot of people, I guess.

    “There’s always the problem of where do you slot someone, where do they fit in. She’s fallen into the female Southern Gothic school of writing. I think that limits her too much. Similarly I’m asked whether I am a folk singer or a pop star, what am I and where do I fit in. I try not to think about that, on a daily basis I just do what I feel like doing and it all falls into place.”

    Besides McCullers, Vega reels off a reading list of writers who have inspired her over the years which includes two firm Yorkshire favourites.

    “I love books, I love reading,” she says. “I loved (Albert) Camus with The Stranger – that way of writing I love it, it’s very dramatic yet it’s very deadpan and I for a long time thought of that as the perfect book. I have loved Charlotte Bronte for Jane Eyre. I love Jane Eyre’s stoicism and her plainness, in her heart and soul she’s a dramatic person but in her life she’s kind of plain and stoic. I love Emily Bronte for Wuthering Heights for the exact opposite reason: she’s all drama in Wuthering Heights, which I love.

    “I love James Joyce and Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, the way he uses language and the way he brings you into his world and the atmospheres he creates is always mesmerising and very economical. Within the first page you know what you’re dealing with, and I never get tired of it. That’s a few that I really have loved.”

    Suzanne Vega plays at Underneath the Stars on July 31, underneaththestarsfest.co.uk. She also plays at York Barbican on February 22, 2023