Suzanne Vega’s UK tour kicks off next month
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she tells me over the excitable chatter of Parisian background. “A false alarm.” As it happens, she is right. But the multimillion-selling singer-songwriter, best known for ’80s hits like Luka and Tom’s Diner, dismisses the idea that she’s unflappable.
“I’m very stubborn,” she tells me. “If I think I’m right, I stick to her and in an argument I tend to pull things at her.”
He lost his cool onstage on his Solitude Standing tour when one of the crew hung from a rope and threw Christmas cookies into the audience.
“My bassist picked one up, yanked it, and part of the cookie hit me on the back of the neck,” recalls Suzanne. She turned around and blurted out, “That hurt,” adding an unprintable American slur.
“He seemed surprised; the front row also looked surprised. I was in front of the microphone. I thought, ‘My God, I said that out loud… in front of 3,000 people’…
“I just carried on like nothing happened and apologized to him the next day.”
Not exactly what fans of her poetic lyrics and velvety voice are expecting. But then some fans puzzle her too.
“I’ll be singing something intense and emotionally involved and someone will march down the aisle and come over to give me a teddy bear. I’m playing the guitar! I will not stop!
“A gift is nice, of course, but…they would never do that to Lou Reed.”
Vega, 63, is in Paris for a three-night performance at the magnificent Cité de la Musique, narrating Philip Glass’s 200-minute opera Einstein On The Beach, a far cry from his upcoming UK tour, where he will perform songs old and new with his longtime collaborator Gerry Leonard.
“I love traveling around England and the UK,” says Suzanne, adding dreamily, “tea pots…I love real builders tea. The spoon should be upright in the cup.”
She also loves most of the English TV shows, All Creatures Great & Small: “There’s something wholesome and very sweet about it.”
Great Britain is in her blood, even if she didn’t always know it.
Suzanne Nadine Peck was born in Santa Monica, California, and grew up in New York’s Spanish Harlem.
Suzanne Nadine Peck was born prematurely, weighing just 2 lb 8, in Santa Monica, California, and grew up in New York’s Spanish Harlem.
Her parents divorced shortly after she was born, and she was raised by her mother Pat and her second husband, Puerto Rican author Ed Vega. She was nine years old when she found out that he was her stepfather. Suzanne herself did not meet her British father, Richard Peck, until she was 28 years old. Her own parents, whom he never met because he was adopted, had been touring musicians.
Vega’s childhood had a jazzy soundtrack, but her biggest influence was Brazilian bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto. “I heard her on the radio and I fell in love with her voice right away. She was as simple and raw as a girl’s. That’s still my way of singing.”
Suzanne first picked up her stepfather’s guitar at age 11 and wrote her first song three years later. She “she showed me the basic chords. B7 was a lot to take in.”
At nine she had ballet classes and dreamed of becoming a professional dancer, but the lure of music was too strong. She played her first concert at sixteen, “in the basement of a little church about 25 blocks from my house; I spent six months practicing for a half-hour show.”
The first song he wrote was Brother Mine. “It’s kind of a country; I have three younger brothers and sisters, and I named them after countries. It was all part of my fantasy of living in the country and traveling by train.”
A fantasy fueled in large part by the works of folk legend Woody Guthrie, whose three-chord songs were as influential as they were accessible. And also because of the physical and emotional abuse that he suffered in his house.
Suzanne’s 1985 debut album spawned the hit Marlene On The Wall and sold a million copies.
His pensive and heartfelt 1987 US hit Luka was about child abuse. It took Suzanne years to reveal that Luka was her and that her stepfather, while encouraging and capable of being very kind, was also quick-tempered.
“He hit… sometimes he threw food at you or spilled soup on your head…”
After the family moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Suzanne attended Barnard College, learning her trade at popular clubs and coffee shops. In 1984, eight years after her first concert, a glowing review in the New York Times launched her career.
“I had been working with management, sending out demo tapes and getting turned down everywhere. A&M was offering a development deal, but after that review, Geffen Records called, so it was a bidding war and a very good deal.”
Her 1985 self-titled debut album spawned the hit Marlene On The Wall and sold a million copies. The follow-up, 1987’s Solitude Standing, went platinum, selling three million.
“It was an amazing year,” she says. “But the pressure for the third album was intense. I was happy to go on tour, but I don’t work fast.”
The Grammy-winning Days Of Open Hand came three years later. Vega co-produced it with composer Anton Sanko, her boyfriend at the time. “It sold a million copies and at that point everyone was disappointed. Only a million? It sounds ridiculous now.
Fame was not long in coming, and with it the unexpected joy of being half recognized. “They confused me with everyone. Beth Orton, Isabella Rossellini, Molly Ringwald…
“I was changing in the gym and someone was like, ‘You’re Cynthia Nixon.’ No, I’m not, please go.” Suzanne laughs and admits that she didn’t care for the Rossellinis.
Vega has an 18-year-old daughter from her first marriage to musician Mitchell Froom, currently keyboardist for Crowded House, who produced and played on two of their ’90s albums; and she now lives on the Upper West Side with her second husband, lawyer and poet Paul Mills.
A Buddhist, Suzanne says her best quality is loyalty, adding “and I’m very affectionate once you get past the outer ice ring…”
He likes to take long walks and read. “I loved the biography of Hilary Mantel, she is such a good writer; She also loved her series Wolf Hall ”.
Albert Camus’s ability to write about intense subjects without emotion impressed her, and she naturally identifies with Jane Eyre’s stoicism.
In her teens, Vega listened to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen when her friends liked Bowie. “I didn’t understand rock and roll until I was 19 and I went to see Lou Reed. So it became a big problem for me.”
Reed’s Caroline Says II changed her life. Lines like ‘Caroline says, as she gets up off the ground, you can hit me all you want, but I don’t love you anymore,’ resonated deeply with her. “Because that had been my situation at home and I never knew that you could say that on stage… after that I wrote to Luka”.
Music is still a passion. He loves the Irish post-punk band Fontaines DC and is a huge admirer of Bruno Mars.
Their own hit Tom’s Diner was remixed into a million-selling international ’90s dance hit by British electro duo DNA.
Suzanne’s latest live album An Evening Of New York Songs & Stories
Suzanne’s latest live album, 2020’s critically acclaimed An Evening Of New York Songs & Stories, earned her highest chart position since her best-of 2003 compilation, Retrospective.
His tenth studio album is expected this year. It will include Last Train From Mariupol, which Vega wrote in response to Putin’s relentless assault on the Ukrainian city, so ruthless that locals came to believe that even the Almighty had fled on the last train.
Suzanne takes risks but is not always understood. Her own brother once admonished her for writing cannibalistic and sexual innuendo after misinterpreting Undertow’s lyric, “If I could right now, I think I’d swallow you whole.”
What three of your songs are you most proud of?
“They change, but Blood Makes Noise is one. I like The Queen & The Soldier, a mysterious song that came out of nowhere, and the new I Never Wear White, which is my version of a Rolling Stones-esque song.
“I have a lot of fun.”
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