Suzanne Vega has known critical success, top-10 commercial popularity and new musical boundaries, and at every step of her career, New York has been there as a muse. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following report in 2007.
She's lived here almost her whole life: recorded here; performed here. And yet, sometimes New Yorkers get a little confused about Suzanne Vega.
“Very often I am mixed up with some other celebrity,” says Vega. “I've been mistaken for Molly Ringwald, for Cynthia Nixon, from 'Sex In The City.’”
But there's no confusing Vega’s imprint on the New York music scene, combining introspective lyrics with captivating melodies that brought her to the international stage, then expanding her musical horizons when it might have been easier to try to recreate one of her hits.
In 2007, she debuted her CD "Beauty and Crime" at Joe’s Pub. It was filled with songs about her hometown.
"There was a moment where I didn't have a record deal and didn’t have a manger. And I was thinking, well, is this retirement time?” says Vega. "I found myself setting a discipline for myself, writing three hours a day. You must have something to do with your life other than stay home at this point. And I did have a vision for a new record and it was about New York City and it was about those moments after 9/11."
When Vega recorded her first albums, she had a big record company deal, and producers she liked. But she wasn't crazy about the recording process.
“I would throw a fit from time to time or say, 'I don't see why I have to do it again.’ Once I locked myself in the bathroom for a while and realized I have to come out at some point, so there's been none of that this time,” says Vega.
Vega chalks some of it up to inexperience.
She worked on the record at Great City Productions, a small Midtown studio, writing much of it on a couch in the office.
“For example, for the song 'New York Is A Woman,’ I had the first line: 'New York City spread herself before you, with her bangles and her spangles and her stars,’” Vega sings. “And that’s pretty much all I had the day we started working on that song. I wanted it to switch from a kind of strummy, regular folk-singing type of tone to something more mysterious. That took about a week.”
Vega knows the feeling of her songs having an impact. None more so than her 1987 international hit "Luka," a song about an abused child.
More than 20 years later, she's still hearing the stories.
“Mostly older people, because no one talked about it a long time ago. I'm talking about 60, 70 years old. People coming up to me and saying, 'I was an abused child,’ which is very moving to me, to see someone's face, and realize that they still are that abused child."
And then there's the journey of her song "Tom's Diner," the eatery at 110th and Broadway that is now known primarily as the exterior in “Seinfeld.”
The song started as an a cappella concert opener, became a dance club remix hit, used in commercials and even in classes for English as a Second Language.
“The language is kind of simple: 'I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner.’ You know, I guess you can't get much simpler than that. It's, I guess, a good way to teach the tenses,” says Vega.
After 25 years in the music business, Vega knows all the hip ways to relax after nights on stage.
"I’m embarrassed to say I do needlepoint. On the bus when there’s a long bus ride and I have nothing to do, I like the rhythm of doing needlepoint. It's not going to help my rock 'n' roll credibility,” says Vega.
Her parents divorced shortly after she was born. A year later, she moved to New York with her mother and stepfather.
One of her first music gigs was with a government-sponsored group called the Alliance of Latin Arts, performing Spanish songs around the city.
Ironically, when she went to the High School of Performing Arts, she was a dancer.
"I was struggling with a sense of trying to achieve a sense of perfection that you really need to have in that dance world that I realized I would never achieve,” says Vega. “So somehow if I imagine myself as a small blue thing, I can kind of be any character or figure that I want in a song, which was a wonderful sense of freedom."
She went to Barnard College and got involved in theater.
She eventually started coming downtown to sing at open mike nights and joined a songwriters group at the Cornelia St. Café.
But after graduation, Vega needed a day job, so she worked at Crown Publishing.
“I worked in the co-op advertising department, which meant processing contracts, and I was not good at math,” says Vega.
In the early 1980s, Vega’s demo tape was repeatedly rejected. She also had to overcome her innate shyness. Her songs were intense, and she had to learn how to lighten the mood.
“It took a little while to realize I kind of needed to do that to get the songs across, otherwise people would be sad,” says Vega. “I would make them sad by singing, and I would think, well that's not working very well."
Eventually she quit her day job, got a deal with a record company and put out a record. Only a few years after playing open mike nights, Vega was headlining around the world and trying to adjust to a new mentality.
“I remember telling my keyboard player at one time going, 'There's this guy that shows up every night and he's so great, he just has the best attitude. He's always packing things up. He shows up to every show.’ And he looked and me and said, 'You pay him. He's part of the crew,’" Vega says. "And then I got introduced to him, and he worked for me for many years. But I didn't know he was on my crew. I thought he was just a nice guy who showed up at every gig."
The international popularity of her song “Luka” led to three Grammy nominations and she performed the song at the awards ceremony.
But that event wasn't even the most memorable moment of her week.
Three days later, Vega flew to California to meet for the first time since she was a baby, her biological father.
"He said, 'You know, there's a famous singer with your name.’ And I said, 'Yeah.’ And he said, 'Luka, that's you singing that song?’ And I said, 'Yeah, that is me.’”
Vega remarried a few years ago to a man who actually first asked her to marry him in 1983. Together, they are raising her daughter from her first marriage.
She remains a mentor for so many young women who felt they had something to say through their music.
“I'm appreciative when someone like KT Tunstall says I was an influence on her, or Dido, I think had said that she learned to sing by listening to my records,” says Vega. "I’m inclined to think that if someone goes through the trouble of picking up a guitar, and trying to write a song, there must be something that's unique and original about what they're trying to say, so I’m more inclined to think that maybe I haven’t influenced them. But I'm always appreciative when people say I have. I like it."