Grammy Award-winning —–singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega is about to take her show on the road. Following her recent concert dates in the New York area, including the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center in February, Vega will be performing at a variety of international venues, bringing her cool brand of self-described “techno-folk” to fans from Istanbul to London, with stops throughout Europe. Her current mission has been to revisit her entire career’s work, re-recording and reinterpreting songs from a more-than 25-year career on four new albums, which are collectively titled the Close Up Series. It won’t leave much time for Vega to enjoy her Amagansett home, but the beach will just have to wait for the singer, whose voice has been described by the New York Times’ Stephen Holden as having “an inviolable purity of heart tinged with mystery.” —
“It’s minimal, but not entirely folksy,” Vega says of the Close Up Series. “There is still a great amount of production and there are some alternative elements.”
Vega was born in Santa Monica, California. Her parents divorced shortly after Vega was born, and her mother married Ed Vega, a writer and teacher. The family moved to New York when Vega was just two-years-old. Some of her earliest music influences were Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. All were artists that her parents enjoyed listening to as well. She was writing poetry by the age of nine, and penning songs by age 14, but she also had other interests outside the music sphere. For example, Vega studied modern dance at the legendary High School of Performing Arts, now known as LaGuardia High School.
After graduation, Vega went on to study English Literature at Barnard College, where she originally intended to become a dancer. She quickly changed her focus to music when she realized that she was enthralled by musicians.
“I realized that it was my fate to be in the music world and not the dance world,” Vega says of her chosen path, which has garnered her international acclaim for her unique voice and poetic songs.
She started singing in small clubs in Greenwich Village where there was a flourishing folk music scene, and participating in a songwriter’s group at the Cornelia Street Café. In 1984, Vega landed a recording contract with a major label and a year later released her first album. She shot a video for the song “Marlena on the Wall,” which was played on MTV and VH1. Vega had already developed a signature style—acoustic guitar, simple arrangements and a voice that was chilll and confident. Her look, bohemian cool, a cross between Joni Mitchell and Audrey Hepburn, was unique and unmistakable.
While Vega’s first album garnered critical praise, it was her second offering two years later—Solitude Standing—that gave her two of her most successful songs, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.”
Focusing on unusual subject matter for a pop song, “Luka” was the story of an abused child, told from his point of view. Vega’s understated vocal delivery and unornamented style were a perfect match.
“Luka” became one of the top songs of 1987, in a time period not known for restraint in either vocal performance or music production. Other Top 10 hits of that year were Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” Yet “Luka” was a huge hit for Vega, and was even referenced years later in an episode of “The Simpsons,” as Homer breaks out into the opening lines of the song while driving. Another bit of “Luka” trivia links the tune to “The Sopranos.” Actor Jackie Cerbone, who as a child played Luka in the music video, later played Jackie Aprile, Jr. on the acclaimed HBO series. The idea for the song had come to Vega as she watched a group of children playing on a city street.
Also from the Solitude Standing album, the song “Tom’s Diner” encapsulates everything that is the essential Vega. It is a song that captures with almost photographic accuracy a New York coffee shop on a rainy morning. Vega wrote the song about a real New York coffee shop, Tom’s Restaurant, that was also used for exterior shots for the coffee shop on “Seinfeld.” The song is so quintessentially New York that Time Out, New York placed it on their 101 Top New York City songs, along with another Vega tune, “Anniversary.”
“Tom’s Diner” has also earned Vega the title of the “mother of the MP3.” Karlheinz Brandenberg, a German audio engineer who was working on the development of the MP3, heard Vega’s original a cappella recording of the tune on the radio. He felt that the warm timbre of Vega’s voice, undisguised by accompaniment, would make a perfect model for the sound compression algorithm that he had to create. This wasn’t the only experiment in sound engineering that involved Vega. She joined a group of students from Bay State College at Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, New Jersey for a demonstration of early sound recording. This time, “Tom’s Diner” was captured not in an MP3 file, but on a wax cylinder, in the exact same method as were the very first sound recordings.
During the ‘90s, Vega continued to record and release albums. She also branched out into literature, publishing a collection of poems, lyrics and essays entitled The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writings Of Suzanne Vega. Vega embarked on another venture during this time: marriage and motherhood. Daughter Ruby Froom was born in 1994. Vega married musician and record producer Mitchell Froom. He had produced two of Vega’s albums, 99.9F and Nine Objects of Desire. Ruby has performed with her mother on occasion, including during an appearance a few years ago at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett.
It was also during this time that Vega fell in love with the East End. She had come out to see an alternative rock band, They Might Be Giants, and was staying at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. Vega fell for the charm of the area and eventually bought a home in Amagansett.
“It’s beautiful, quiet, off the beaten path,” says Vega of Amagansett. “I’ve had spells where I write out here.”
Vega is continuing to branch out in her art. Together with Duncan Sheik, the composer of Spring Awakening, she co-wrote a play
with music entitled Carson McCullers Talks About Love. The play premiered in 2011. Vega and Sheik have performed together in Las Vegas as well, where reviewer Anthony Del Valle commented that it was a “relaxing evening…full of acute observation and richly understated sound.”