By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Few musicians are as strongly associated with New York City as Suzanne Vega, who grew up in the city and played NYC folk clubs in the 1980s before gaining critical acclaim with her self-titled debut album in 1985.
Vega’s family moved to New York when she was a toddler, and she stayed for college at Barnard, where she majored in English literature. Even during the harrowing, dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vega remained in New York.
From her home in the city, Vega is preparing to tour for the first time since the pandemic’s onset. Her third performance will be at The Birchmere in Alexandria – a venue she has played 12 times – on Sept. 14.
The tour is in support of a live album that was recorded in 2019 in the posh Carlyle Club and is aptly titled, “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories.” The album’s 16 recordings include “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” her songs that have received the most radio airplay in the United States, along with a mix of older and newer songs that are interspersed with conversational anecdotes.
Vega said in a recent phone interview that while other family members left New York during the pandemic, she chose to stay.
“I did not leave. … It’s what I know. I knew how to get groceries. I know my neighborhood. I just said, ‘No I’m going to stay here,” Vega said.
Vega said the first few months of the pandemic were like a horror movie, as the virus hit the city hard and extracted an enormous toll.
“It was very frightening,” Vega said. “Because in the beginning there was this eerie silence and just ambulances all day long and all night long. It was terrifying. … That really had an intensity. Even for New York, it had an intensity that I don’t recall from other eras.”
As a result, she became extremely focused on monitoring the fatalities from COVID-19.
“Every day, I wrote the numbers down in my little notebook as it went up and then as it started to go down again. We all became very obsessed with the numbers and with trying to figure out what was going on, how bad it was going to get,” Vega said.
Like a lot of people, Vega said she got through those dark days by focusing on routines in the middle of a global pandemic that disrupted every routine she had.
“We had to figure out how to get groceries, which in the beginning was an issue. … I have my notes from the beginning of the pandemic. It could be 10 days. You could put an order in for groceries and they’d come in the middle of next week,” Vega said. “Sometimes you’d get what you’d ordered and sometimes you’d get other things – or nothing.”
“We were glued to the news. So we were watching the news several hours a day. And also, just trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the house. And that was a full-time job,” she added.
It’s been two years since Vega has performed a live show, so the upcoming tour brings with it a mix of conflicting feelings for the seasoned performer.
“I’m excited about it and also a little nervous because of the variants and all of that,” Vega said. “I’m really eager to play for a live audience. So, I’m very hopeful.”
Vega is known for her sophisticated, literate lyrics, and cites Lou Reed, the former Velvet Underground frontman who wrote about the less glamorous side of New York, as both an influence and a friend. The only song on “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories” that Vega didn’t pen herself is Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which Vega interprets with a Caribbean-style rhythm.
“The first time I saw Lou Reed, I was 19 years old. … That show really turned things around for me in terms of songwriting and songs and rock and roll. That show really showed me what rock and roll was,” Vega said in one of the “conversations” on her new album.
Shades of Reed can be seen in the way Vega raises issues and asks questions while telling stories about people. Such as in “Luka,” perhaps her best-known song.
Within a four-month period in 1987, first Vega and then Natalie Merchant of the band 10,000 Maniacs released songs that examined the tragedy that is child abuse: Vega in “Luka” and Merchant in “What’s the Matter Here.” While both are powerful and acclaimed songs, the two songwriters approached the topic very differently. Merchant hits the listener over the head with her outrage:
“Answer me and take your time:
What could be the awful crime
he could do at so young an age?
If I’m the only witness
to your madness,
offer me some words
to balance out
what I see and what I hear.”
Vega, conversely, humanizes the victim in her song by writing from Luka’s perspective. A mirror is held up to the listener, which forces the listener to realize their own complicity.
“My name is Luka.
I live on the second floor.
I live upstairs from you.
Yes, I think you’ve seen me before.
If you hear something late at night,
some kind of trouble,
some kind of fight:
Just don’t ask me what it was.
… They only hit until you cry,
and after that you don’t ask why.
You just don’t argue anymore. …”
Vega said when it comes to songwriting, she utilizes everything around her for inspiration.
“I draw upon anything I can find, whether it’s a dream or a face I saw on the bus or a name I picked up somewhere or a title,” Vega said. “You know, everything kind of goes into the notebooks and then everything gets distilled.”
In an interview with SongTalk magazine, Vega said she started with just the title when writing “Luka.”
“It takes months of kind of fingering it in my mind, while I’m walking around or doing something else, it’s just like a problem that my mind goes back to. It wiggles. It’s like you’re trying to get the right angle, and once the right angle comes, I can write the song in two hours. Like, ‘Luka’ took two hours,” Vega told SongTalk.
When writing “The Queen and the Soldier,” a haunting ballad from her first album about a woman who won’t allow herself to love, Vega took a different approach.
“To this day, ‘The Queen and the Soldier’ is still a very special song that was almost more a vision than an actual executed idea. There’s a lot of mystery about that song, even to me,” Vega told the Times.
One compelling line in “The Queen and the Soldier” is when Vega sings: “I have swallowed a secret, burning thread. It cuts me inside and often I’ve bled.” Vega said the line is based on a real-life cat tragedy.
“My roommate had a cat that, unfortunately, had a habit of chewing the bottoms of curtains and she did swallow a thread and she had to be put to sleep,” Vega said. “… Sometimes when I wrote a song back then, I would start the song and then sometimes there would be a detail or two missing and I would sleep on it and then finish it in the morning and that was that special weird detail for that song.”
Life on the stage
Vega has performed in virtually every type of venue, from the stages of large festivals, such as the Newport Folk Festival, and concert halls to more intimate settings like the Birchmere and the tiny Carlyle Club, where her new album was recorded live.
“Because I grew up in New York in the club scene here, I’ve learned to tailor not so much the songs – sometimes the songs do change from venue to venue – but especially the chat in between,” Vega said. “A small folk club, that’s a natural place to tell stories. A huge festival is not the place to go into a story about an old boyfriend. You just sort of want to keep that pumped up and kind of go quickly from one upbeat song to another upbeat song. … So, it’s all about what makes a good live show. And I really love that; I love being on stage.”
Vega said the Carlyle Club, which only seats around 70 people, is the smallest venue she’s ever played. The uptown, sophisticated ambiance of the club also called for a more theatrical performance that was different from any other venue.
“Playing at the Carlyle is not like playing at a folk club or even playing at a rock venue. It’s really more like putting on a little off-Broadway show,” Vega said. “They expect you to have an opening night. And all the media and all the press come down and they review your show. And then you just do your show for two weeks. It’s like a two-week run of a little show.”
Vega said during the first week of her run in 2019, she knew that she and her band were onto something, so they decided to record live a few nights during the second week. Those recordings became “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories.”
Unlike many artists who have been performing for 40 years, Vega continues to reinterpret her older songs while also composing new music. As a result, her songs remain as fresh and relevant as they were when she first released them.
“I like it to be fresh and relevant for myself. It’s meaningful to me not just to do the old songs in the old way but to keep my feelers out for things that I think are cool, relevant or timely,” Vega said. “I sort of try and feel what I think is cool from the current moment. … I check out what I like and what I respond to. … I keep it contemporary for myself, and that’s how that works.”