Suzanne Vega comes to town

12.03.09
New York Times Union

By Chris Harris

Songwriter Suzanne Vega is in the middle of a rather ambitious studio project, one that sounds absolutely daunting on paper but one the folk-leaning songstress is handling with great ease while being an attentive mother to her 15-year-old daughter, Ruby Froom. (Soul Coughing named their 1994 LP Ruby Vroom in her honor.)
Vega, who will be performing with Marc Cohn on February 3 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, is working around the clock in a New York City studio, re-recording her entire back catalogue and ultimately, reclaiming her life's work.

"I wanted to re-record the songs so that I could own the masters, because we're in this crazy time period where I'm not with A&M and I'm not with Blue Note Records anymore, and I had the re-recording rights so I thought, 'OK, I'll just re-record the catalogue acoustically, but rather than do it album by album, I'll group them together the way I would for a live show.'"

That's where the ambitious part comes in. You see, Vega, who is perhaps best known for the 1990s hits "Tom's Diner" and "Luka," isn't just re-recording all of her old songs in chronological order. Instead, she's re-imagining them acoustically, by theme. When we speak, she's concentrating on the love songs. "We're aiming to have that out in time for Valentine's Day," Vega says. "That album will consist of all of the songs off of all of my different albums, and I'm doing this as a four-album project."

The second disc, to be called People, Places, and Things, will boast "Luka," "Tom's Diner," "In Liverpool" and "Calypso," to name a few. It will include all of the songs she's written over the course of seven studio albums (her self-titled 1985 debut; 1987's Solitude Standing; 1990's Days of Open Hand; 1992's 99.9F°; 1996's Nine Objects of Desire; 2001's Songs in Red and Gray; and 2007's Beauty and Crime) that feature storylines and characters, or were about spots on the map. States of Being, which will include "Blood Makes Noise," "Undertow," and "all the songs that have to do with states of mind," will be the third release, and "then, strangely enough, the rest of the songs seem to fall under family…songs to ex-husbands, mothers, daughters, brothers, fathers."

For the moment, Vega plans to sell these four "intimate" albums at her concerts only, providing fans with the ultimate collector's item. And as a free agent, she's got that freedom. In fact, between reworking her songs, Vega says she's been writing new material for an album she'd like to have out in 2011. "It's intriguing to me to be a free agent, and I'm looking at Radiohead as a model," she says, implying that she may just release future albums on her own, online. "I'm keeping an eye on the new songs, and what they will require. I'll do what I can on my own, but it depends on what the songs are, and what they dictate."

Expect Vega and her band to debut some of the reworked material when they play Troy this February with Marc Cohn. Vega says she'll be road-testing some of the acoustic tracks on this tour … a trek that means more to her than most. "I have toured with Marc before, and it's a really nice double bill," she says. "He's a terrific performer, and we had a terrific time touring before."

While Vega's been making music since "Tom's Diner" became an adult contemporary radio mainstay, no other composition of hers has struck a chord with mass audiences quite like that song. The song has been covered, parodied and sampled thousands of times, often without Vega's knowledge, making her something of a pop culture icon. "I really get a kick out of it, especially 'Tom's Diner,' where you can hear bits and pieces of it in all these different places," she says. "I was at a wedding two weeks ago, and I heard a tiny bit of the song in a Black Eyed Peas track. It's a lot of fun, and definitely not what I would have expected back when I started…especially with that song, which I thought was just a little vignette. I never thought of it as a big pop song."

In some cases, artists have gone from sampling Vega's songs to collaborating with her on new ones. In 2009, Vega worked with hip-hopper Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, and director David Lynch on a song called "The Man Who Played God," a track that appears on the album Dark Night of the Soul. It is a song few Vega fans have heard, but one she's proud of. The collaboration began on the Web. "I started e-mailing Danger Mouse back in 2004, after I discovered Google News Alerts," Vega says. "I had just learned that if you put your name in there, you get all this stuff back, and so I put my own name in, and one of first things that came back to me was this interview with Danger Mouse where he was talking about how he mixed 'Tom's Diner' with 50 Cent's 'In Da Club.' I thought it sounded interesting, and I wanted to hear it. So I looked him up online, found his e-mail and sent him an e-mail saying I wanted to listen to this. He had not asked permission, but I wasn't tracking him down for that. And within two hours, he wrote back: 'Is that really you?'"

The two e-mailed back and forth for several months before finally meeting. They discussed working together, and in time, he sent Vega a track, asking for ideas. "I was expecting something more along the lines of what he does with Gnarls Barkley, but I got into the vibe of it, and I got really excited about the idea of writing the lyrics for this bio of Pablo Picasso I had read about in the newspaper…I wanted to talk about art and imagination and how that expands your mind. I'm really happy with the way it turned out."

While working with Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse was a moment she'll always savor, nothing, Vega says, beats 1990. Just thinking back to that time puts a smile on Vega's face. "I was walking around New York and 'Tom's Diner' was this huge hit, and I remember standing by these truckers, who were unloading this truck, and 'Tom's Diner' was playing on this boombox they were listening to, and I was standing right near it and nobody knew that it was me," she says. "It was a great moment … I felt very embraced by the world that year. But nothing tops jamming with the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden."

Back in 1988, Vega joined the Dead onstage for three songs. "That's a moment that will never be recreated," she says. "It was mind-blowing. It was amazing. There was something about that moment and Jerry's energy…We liked each other and there was this nice spiritual connection there."