The evergreen singer talks to us ahead of her performance at Dubai Opera
Suzanne Vega on her new album and her tragic muse
Suzanne Vega has a gift for penning intimate songs, but the theatrical venue for her Dubai Opera performance on Thursday is apt because the 58-year-old New Yorker makes her regional concert debut on the back of her latest album, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers.
The album is a career retrospective in a way, but not of Vega’s work: it’s a tribute to one of her heroes.
It is a reworking of songs from her one-woman stage show, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, which first premiered in New York seven years ago.
The production was a hybrid of songs and spoken word – and it had Vega portraying the turbulent and trailblazing career of the American author in all her facets, ranging from her disability to her torrid romances, alcoholism and eventually her death from a brain haemorrhage.
And while Vega will most likely play most of her classic hits, including Tom’s Diner and Luka, at her show tomorrow night, we can also expect to hear her single, We of Me, which features on the latest album.
The album caps Vega’s life-long infatuation with McCullers, a Southern Gothic writer who explored the lives of lonely people and who the singer-songwriter describes as a kindred spirit.
Vega recalls her first encounter with the author, who was behind the seminal works The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), when she was in her early twenties and in New York City. It was a time when a restless Vega was trying to find the best way to express herself.
“She came from the South and I just loved her language, the expressiveness and how modern it all was,” she says, on recalling reading her first McCullers short story Sucker.
“Then I read her biography and was surprised that who wrote this was a woman. She had this sense from a very young age of being an outsider and longing to be part of things. She also saw other people who were also on the outside of things and she identified with them.”
A gift of duality
It was an element that resonated with Vega, who forged a career out of her songs about outsiders such as Luka and Tom’s Diner. At the time, she recalls going through a period of creative uncertainty; she first studied classical dance and then the piano at Manhattan’s prestigious Juilliard School before rheumatic fever took hold and led her to study English and drama at the nearby Barnard College, a liberal arts school for women. A fledgling songwriter at the time, Vega was also performing impromptu gigs at the folk music district Greenwich Village. McCullers was the missing link, Vega says, when it came to her finding her voice.The author’s twin gifts – or as Vega describes, her “duality” – of being both a silent observer and a deeply empathetic writer, were the characteristics Vega employed in her own songwriting, and with great success.
A matter of perspective
Vega’s 1985 self-titled debut album found her experimenting with metaphors and writing from different vantage points over soft acoustic folk arrangements.
In the album’s minor gem Small Blue Thing, Vega looks at the world from the perspective of an unidentifiable object: “Today I am a small blue thing, made of china made of glass.”
But it was in the follow-up Solitude Standing, released two years later that Vega sharpened up her observations and expanded her musical palette to produce one of the most essential albums of the 1980s.
The collection was powered by two hit singles that melded her stark penmanship with adventurous production. For all its jangly guitars and upbeat melodies, Luka is actually a sombre character sketch about child abuse.
Once again, Vega plays the role of silent observer. You can almost imagine her sitting on park bench as she observes a young boy in “some kind of trouble, some kind of fight”.
The song was one of the decade’s most unlikely hits, and made for an eclectic week in the United States charts where it peaked at number 3 behind Madonna’s Who’s That Girl and La Bamba by Los Lobos.
Vega admits to being shocked by the result, considering the song was first written as a sad lament on acoustic guitar. She credits her manager for seeing the track’s hit potential.
“It was first a quiet song that made people feel sad but my producer, credit to him, saw the big picture,” she says. “We produced it in a way that just worked and as soon as the song went on the radio it just took off.”
It was a similar case of unexpected fortune with the single Tom’s Diner: it was originally released as an airy a cappella to open the album, but British dance producers DNA took it upon themselves to merge Vega’s vocals with the shuddering beats of Soul II Soul (Keep on Movin’) and distribute it to DJs in London’s club scene. Rather than suing the duo, Vega was so beguiled by their version that she agreed for her label to officially purchase the remix and release the single. It went on to top the European charts and crack the US top 5, in 1990.
Fame without the excess
Vega recalls her peak period of fame with a certain ambiguity. It is fitting in a way as her serious and taciturn demeanour back then – not to mention her regular get-up of shirt and jeans – was a far cry from her 1980s pop peers, who were generally known for revelling in flamboyance.
Vega reasons that the author McCullers faced a similar scenario, in that her success was down to being an alternative to the established order. Where McCullers provided a counterpoint to leading southern writers Harper Lee and Truman Capote, the po-faced Vega was a far cry from the bubblegum pop offerings of Madonna, Cher and Cyndi Lauper. Not that Vega took any real notice.
“Like McCullers, I think I’ve always known who I am in a sense. I am introverted, I am kind of bookish and I’m poetic. I love the world of poetry. And so I just continued doing that and being myself, and I thought that was good enough,” she says.
“As long as I could tell the story, sing the song and play the guitar on the stage, I never really needed the extra trappings. The people that I loved were Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, who really told everything in their lyrics.”
A sense of belonging
That said, despite garnering a fiercely dedicated fan base over the years, Vega admits to experiencing a sense of dislocation for most of her life.
She partly traces its roots to living in a heaving and low-income household in Spanish Harlem.
“I came from a family that had a lot of children. My mother had four children before she was 24-years-old,” she says. “So there was always the consciousness of a new baby in the house and worrying about food and that sort of thing.”
Married and a mother of one – her daughter Ruby – she says it has only been in the past few years that her sense of otherness has lifted.
Ironically, the enduring appeal of Tom’s Diner – a song told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective – has resulted in a new-found sense of belonging.
“At the end of the shows these days, now when I sing Tom’s Diner, it’s kind of a party song. It’s sort of a jam and everyone feels united in the chorus, and people sing, and they dance, and they get up and they move. And it becomes this moment in the show where everyone’s unified and kind of happy,” she says.
“They think of the 1990s and that part of their life when everybody was much younger. So everyone feels a sense of joy and uniting. And I sort of feel that as well. “I still have my moments of solitude, but I also feel more connected to humanity in a really nice way.”
Suzanne Vega performs at Dubai Opera on Thursday at 8pm. Tickets start from Dh95 at www.dubaiopera.com