Via Suzanne Vega eyes, New York is a woman, a child, a house, an escape, an antagonist, and many colorful characters passing by. The Big Apple has been the perfect backdrop for her intimate storytelling since she arrived on the scene in 1982.
Her observations are very bright, intelligent and insightful.
Vega is perhaps best known for his extraordinary 1987 hit, Luke, which tells a tender story from the point of view of an abused child.
Her a cappella gem, Tom’s Diner, is a personal story of alienation, rain and slow coffee in a Manhattan diner. Vega said the song came from her head “fully formed” and is “a song about nothing” — although the corner diner was also a famously funny place for Jerry Seinfeld’s TV friends and their silly conversations about less than nothing.
Vega’s tales are told in her distinctly recognizable vocal style: crisp, clear, and easy to understand—which is a good thing, because she has something intriguing to say.
Her eclectic blend of folk-pop earned her three Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Female Vocalist.
Vega presents “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories” at the ArtsQuest Musikfest Cafe at 7:30pm on September 17th. The program includes excerpts from last year’s live album, recorded at Manhattan’s Carlyle Cafe.
I caught up with Vega (from New York, naturally) by phone to discuss her return to touring, what she’s been listening to this summer, and her special relationship with rock legend Lou Reed.
Craig Larimer: What have you been up to this summer — when you weren’t playing or doing interviews?
Suzanne Vega: Well, it was a strange pandemic.
As the pandemic progresses, right?
That’s right (giggles). As the pandemic progresses.
I’m a person who really likes to tour. I’ve been touring for more than half my life. I started in my 20s… and I still love it so much. So being at home for a year and a half was kind of weird.
I learned to clean the house again. I learned to get food without harming myself or my husband. I learned how to cook basic things for us so that we don’t have to order all the time.
We can all relate.
Yep, it was all like basic home economics 101…which I have to say is not really mine. And the rest of the time was spent either on the news or watching TCM. We are indeed in a film noir. My husband and I love movies, especially Film Noir.
I know you’ve been doing a lot of live music shows lately. They should also have their own accompanying quirks. right?
Yes, I did a few of these last year. The first one seemed really exciting and new. And then the second one was like, okay … because we had a lot of family interaction (during the show). My daughter was calling to tell her husband that the volume wasn’t loud enough. And people wrote to say, “Your husband does the dishes”… during my birthday last year. So it was a bit strange.
Then we did the big one in October. It was fun too. But I think now we really want to get back to playing in front of live people and seeing their faces and just having it all happen in one place again.
So when was the last time you played live? Have you been doing any warm-ups or anything like that in preparation for the tour in September?
No, nothing that complete. A couple of weeks ago, I was recognized as a “local hero” when I went and played a block party… on the same block as (the song) “Tom’s Diner.”
I went to 111st Street and Amsterdam to help a local community organization. They asked if I would come and talk about my memories of growing up there…and if I would sing “Tom’s Diner”, which I was happy to do. I was right there, in the cathedral. When I sing “Bells of the cathedraaaaaaal” … that was it. So that was nice.
It was live, but it certainly wasn’t a full show.
So was it a cappella or did you have your own guitar?
Oh, no, no, it was a cappella … no bars. nothing. I tried to get the audience to join in with the chorus (singing) “Blow-blow-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo…” but they were very shy.
Really? In New York? Shy?
Yes, they stomped their feet, but no one wanted to sing.
You’re playing live on September 17th at Bethlehem’s Musikfest Cafe. What can Lehigh Valley audiences expect at the show?
Well, it will be me and my wonderful music director, Jerry Leonard. He is a great musician. He used to be David Bowie’s music director. And we have a really good show. We’ll probably play some songs from the new New York Songs and Stories album… but I know people like to listen to the old stuff too, so I’m doing a lot from the first and second albums.
It’s a mix of folk acoustic stuff, and then we’ll probably – if the audience likes it – do something like “Blood is Making Noise”, which was more alternative… Because we can do that and we really like it. If the audience likes it, we like it.
For the last few days I have been going back to your music and the live album “New York Songs and Stories” which is quite bright and catchy and intelligent…it’s amazing. And Jerry Leonard’s guitar work really kicks it up a notch.
Thank you, yes!
So there is you listened to this summer?
Wow… hahaha… This is really personal.
I’m sorry. I can ask… that’s why I’m asking.
No, no, it’s fine… Oddly enough. I’m into… I love what Anderson .Paak is doing right now with Bruno Mars. But I, like everyone, am waiting for the album in its entirety.
This one song is fantastic, but where is the rest of the album? I really like Bruno Mars and I really like Anderson Paak. So to tide myself over while waiting for the new album, I’ve been listening to Anderson .Paak’s 2018 album: Oxnard … It’s so cool. I really love it.
Have you ever gotten a big kick out of Suzanne Vega? Do you ever say, “Man, I can really go Suzanne Vega right now?”
(Laughs) Only when I’m checking something. When I’m like, “Mmmmm, I wonder what that vocal was like?” or … “Let’s check out how David Hildag’s solo on ‘Blood is Roaring'” … but I’m not sitting around listening to my own recordings. I usually sit there and think, “What’s the next one going to sound like?”
I had a strange moment once. I was in a coffee shop a couple of years ago… Soft music was playing and I heard a woman’s voice. I thought, “You know, they say I have a distinctive voice, but whoever it is really does have a distinctive voice.’
And then I started listening to the production. Again, I couldn’t hear him. And then I thought with some irritation, “This person has actually listened to some of my recordings, I can tell they are trying to copy the production.” This girl theft all my things.” And then I suddenly realized it was ‘Some Journey’ from my first album … and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s me! So that made me happy. After that, I stopped complaining.
I wanted to talk to you about Lou Reed. Can you talk a little about your friendship, collaboration, and what you learned from him creatively?
Well, it was a long friendship that developed over time.
In the beginning, when I learned about his music… I saw him live. I was 19. There was a long period when I became a die-hard fan…I saved up all my money to buy his records.
So, after seven years I finally met him … And it was recorded for posterity. On (MTV) ‘120 Minutes.’
Oh my god… you remembered that!
Haha… Oh, did you see that? Am I meeting Lou Reed for the first time?
Oh yes. It’s quite … interesting.
Well, I was clearly surprised to meet him. I think it was my 26th birthday. They said (backstage), “Lou’s in the other room” … and I’m like, “Who’s Lou?” And they say, “Oh, Lou Reed is doing an interview.” And I went crazy. I say, “What are you saying? I don’t understand.” Why should I? I am not prepared for this. And they just threw me there.
In a way, that started a really great, long friendship. We got to know each other in many different ways. Mostly with me watching him from the audience and watching him develop.
When I saw him in 1979, he was very aggressive, very into punk rock… very insulting. And then over time it became more interesting. Of course, he always kept the upper hand. I have seen him give great shows. I have seen him give some amazing shows. I saw him try different things. And then we talked to each other quite a bit backstage and in other circumstances.
Towards the end of his life it became more personal, you know? questions. He gave me advice about my career, things like that. He was always a fascinating person. And he and Laurie Anderson together were so inspiring.
It’s amazing. Thanks for sharing this.
It’s clear you love The City. But on the live album, before “Some Journey,” you introduce the song by saying, “It’s about those times when you just have to get out of New York.” When do you know it’s time to leave New York?
Oh, there’s time. When it starts to get on your nerves… when it seems like everything seems really bad. When you walk down the street and think, “Wow, this is a real mess.”
During the pandemic, there were times when you said, “Wow, what’s going on here?” But I survived the pandemic, I did not leave. I stayed through it all.
And we haven’t had the usual institutional havens like The Met for a while. All the usual cultural things that bring joy and relief to a person somehow disappeared. Closed theater and many museums.
So it’s up to each person to know where their limit is…when you need to go on a day trip or a weekend trip, or longer…when it all starts to get on your nerves.
Understood. Maybe the next tour dates in September will help you re-energize and get you back into that state… and maybe the return home will be even nicer?
Yes, exactly. Exactly. That’s what I’m hoping for.
Things still seem shaky…I’m watching the numbers and wondering if we’ll be able to have full capacity or what the mask requirements will be. But I’m still looking forward to seeing what happens. And I hope that everything will happen as we hope.
Morning Call sports and entertainment editor Craig Larimer can be reached at 610-778-7993 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
If: 7:30 p.m., Friday, September 17
Where: ArtsQuest Musikfest Cafe, Bethlehem
Tickets and information: $39-$65 steelstacks.org