Suzanne Vega has had a home in East Hampton for many years, but it’s been far too long since she last brought her iconic voice and unique brand of folk-inspired, alternative rock and pop to a local stage. In fact, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, best known for her hits “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” hasn’t stepped in front of a live audience since the pandemic began some 18 months ago, which can feel like ages to a touring musician used to life on the road. All that changes when she makes her return to the stage next Sunday, September 12 at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead.
The intimate show will also mark Vega’s first live performance since well before her latest album, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, was released on September 11, 2020, almost a year to the day before her upcoming appearance at Suffolk Theater. The collection of 24 tracks delves deep into Vega’s catalog and, as the album’s title suggests, pulls out a beautifully polished and delivered series of tunes about, and inspired by, New York City, her lifelong home. It was recorded live at New York’s Café Carlyle in March of 2019 and it offers a taste of what fans might experience at Suffolk Theater.
Vega says she’ll play some songs from An Evening of New York Songs and Stories next week, but she won’t be limited by it. Instead, expect to hear plenty of her hits and even a few covers, including Vega’s late friend and neighbor Lou Reed’s 1972 classic “Walk on the Wild Side,” which is on An Evening of New York Songs and Stories and fits wonderfully with her vocal style.
We had a chance to chat with Vega about the album, her lifelong affection for New York City, getting back onstage and looking her audience in the eyes for the first time in many months, and more.
You’ve been a part-time Hamptons resident for a long time. What brought you here?
I started going out there in 1990. I went out to see a concert by They Might Be Giants in Sag Harbor with my sister, and I fell in love with the whole place. I have been going ever since.
Was the selection process for the album grueling or did you feel pretty solid about what you wanted to put on there?
I felt pretty solid and, in fact, we had to really whittle it down from a wide selection. There were other songs we could have put in. For this tour, I’ll probably be doing other covers, not just the “Walk on the Wild Side” song. I’m learning a Blondie song called “Dreaming,” possibly a Bob Dylan song called “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” There are a few Leonard Cohen songs I could do that mention New York. We’ll have some fun with that.
Will the tour be mostly New York songs then, like the album?
No. There will just be maybe a five-song set within the set. The way I see it is we’ll do a lot of old songs. It will be a mixture of old and new, of acoustic songs and not-so-acoustic songs, and hits and non-hits. So it will be a good mixture of things.
Have you been able to play out at all in the last year or so?
No, this is it. We did some livestream shows last year. I did three from my house, and we did one from the Blue Note club down in the Village. We did two nights of that, like a worldwide livestream, which was OK. That was nice, to play again, but now we’re eager to do live shows. I think that we can do this safely. That’s what I’m hoping for.
(At the Blue Note) there were like two other people in the venue and they were safely distant and wearing masks. It was almost like doing a video because we had to imagine the audience there. We had to imagine this worldwide audience. … I still enjoyed performing, but it was definitely more like an acting exercise.
So this is your first live outing in a long time.
Yeah, the first in two years.
How does an audience impact you in terms of performing?
It’s always better to have people there, responding, usually. It’s very rare that you have an audience that you don’t like or that they don’t like you. That almost never happens. It’s great to have a live audience. They’re excited and you’re excited, and sometimes they shout out requests. It’s great. There’s nothing like it. That’s why we do it. That’s why live music has lasted through centuries.
You made an effort to help artists impacted by not being able to play live during the pandemic. How did it impact you, not being able to play out for that long?
It definitely affected the budget for the year, but I’m very fortunate because I also write my own songs, so I had the publishing aspect. … I’m a songwriter, so that wasn’t affected so much. They still played songs on the radio or they still had streaming, so I wasn’t as badly hurt as I might have been.
What about spiritually? Is playing live an important component to your overall wellbeing?
I love the touring life and I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve been touring since I was in my mid-twenties, and it’s a lifestyle that I enjoy. It was different being at home. That had some good aspects. I like my home life and I love my family, so that was great. And in some ways, I guess we all needed a break and a time when we could all be at home and be together. But I’ll just say I’m very much looking forward to coming out on the road.
You included “Walk on the Wild Side” on An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. Did you get to know Lou Reed and spend time with him out here in the Hamptons before he died in 2013?
I did, yes. That’s when we became closer friends. That was a whole new side to his personality. In fact, I couldn’t picture it at first: Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed in what I call “the country” — not really the country, but it’s about as rural as I get. It was a whole new side to both of them that I loved seeing. It was amazing, really. I would take my bicycle and go over there and visit from time to time.
What do you want to tell people about this Suffolk Theater show?
The main thing people should know is we’ll be doing some songs that are about New York, but we’re also doing a whole ton of other songs they probably know.
What is it about New York that’s so special to you?
It’s my home and I’ve been here so long. And I’ve been through so much in New York. I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in New York, in El Barrio, so coming up through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, through all the decades and the various — I don’t know what you’d call it — class structures, I know Manhattan so well and I’m always finding new things about it. There are always new memories to be made or rediscoveries of old neighborhoods. It’s a fascinating place to be, and that’s why I’m here.
Suzanne Vega is playing Suffolk Theater (118 E. Main Street) in Riverhead next Sunday, September 12 at 8 p.m. Call 631-727-4343 or visit suffolktheater.com for tickets and info.