A luminous folk/rock mainstay brings a lifelong project to its final stage.
By Steve Houk
She really wanted to be a dancer.
Lucky for all those who think Suzanne Vega is one of the most brilliant musical voices of our time that she realized hoofing it just wasn’t for her.
“I was going to be a dancer, all my training is in dance,” the soft spoken and eloquent Vega told me recently from her home in Manhattan. “And I decided at 18 that I wouldn’t be a good professional dancer because I would only work for the choreographer if I liked them, and if I liked their ideas. So, ha, that did not bode well for me in that world.”
Through her teens, Vega had already written a bank of songs when she made that life-altering decision, and by the time she decided to take singing lessons, she’d already sold a million copies of her debut record.
“My teachers were like, alright, just forget about (the lessons), do whatever you wanna do. So I guess I’m still playing around with how to express one’s self…well, my task in life is to figure out to express myself, and I have not really committed yet to how I want to be defined, I guess.”
However she wants to be defined, the world can comfortably define Suzanne Vega as one of the most special musical artists of our time, and 7 million records sold and a Grammy during an almost 40-year career speak loudly to that definition. From her superb early records like the career-making Solitude Standing (1987) with breakout songs “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” to other exceptional albums she’s released over the years, to her various collaborations with the likes of David Lynch, Danger Mouse, Joe Jackson and others, Vega has been lauded as a leading figure of the folk revival that started in the 1980’s.
Yet over the last four decades, she has continued to break the mold and push herself into new and even groundbreaking areas of expression, including her ongoing writing and poetry (“I’ve got more than 50 notebooks I’ve kept over the years”), being the first recording artist to perform in an internet-based virtual reality world, and something she enjoyed immensely, hosting an NPR series, American Mavericks, which introduced her listeners, and often herself, to modern composers like Bartok and Shostakovich.
And then there’s her most recent project, a stunning album of songs based on the life and writings of noted Southern author Carson McCullers, an undertaking Vega has been intertwined with almost her entire life. It began years ago with a college thesis, morphed into a 2011 Broadway play she worked on with singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik, and then came the album, Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, released this year. Vega will be playing songs from the new record as well as her whole career at The Birchmere on November 1st.
“The songs were written over time,” Vega said, “not just for the 2011 show. I discovered (McCullers) in college and did my thesis on her, it was a one act play with songs back then. So this has been brewing over many years. The first ‘version’ of the play came out in 1981, before I had my career or anything. And then I put it away for thirty years or whatever the math is. Then I sat next to a woman at a gala dinner in New York, she said, ‘Oh I’m a director’ and I said, ‘Oh I have a script.’ And so she took a look at my script and took it on. And we decided to redo it, and in 2011 it was kind of an experimental version of it. So I ripped up that and this is the third ‘version’ of the play. But I did put it away for nearly thirty years, so I sat there every day, working on it through the rest of my career, and I always felt that I wanted to finish it to my satisfaction. So that’s what’s going on here.”
And why McCullers? What was the draw to her that made Vega spend time on and off throughout her life writing songs about her and her works?
“I used to love reading short stories as a teenager,” Vega described. “It’s just a great way of getting a big chunk of something literary that you don’t have to devote yourself to, and so I had a collection of short stories and one of those short stories was one called ‘Sucker’ by Carson McCullers. And I loved everything about it, I loved the toughness of the language, I thought Carson was a male writer. I just thought, wow, this is so cool, whoever wrote this really speaks in this truthful way. Her feel, her language, especially the language of teenagers and kids, I just loved it. And sometime shortly after that, her biography came out, and I read her biography, and then after her biography, I read all her stuff.”
Way back when, after deciding dancing wasn’t her thing and music was to be her path, Vega hit Greenwich Village to test her wares. It was a period that really defined the trajectory of one of music’s most memorable talents.
“I had avoided Folk City for years because I was afraid to go in, because it was where Bob Dylan had started,” Vega said candidly, “so I thought I wasn’t worthy and I wasn’t good enough to cross the threshold of the club, you know. So I tried getting a gig at The Bitter End, and finally it occurred to me, just forget about that, and just go around the corner and try out at Folk City, and to my surprise I found myself embraced, and it was a great, tumultuous, funny five years of, you know, hanging out, watching everybody who played Folk City, people on the rise, people on their way down, we saw all kinds of musicians there. Rick Danko from The Band, Mose Allison, Odetta, all these people. And back then, you could buy a drink in the bar and hang out all night. So, it was wonderful, and then my first album kind of plucked me out of that scene, and then I started to travel and do it more as a profession.”
And when she’s told that her music has become a part of people’s lives, and a staple for many, she is appreciative and pleased, since music was her main company back when she was young and finding her own self.
“I always hoped that it would be (appreciated), music meant so much to me as a kid. I was one of those kids just constantly listening to music, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Laura Nyro were like, my friends. They were like my lifeline to the world…as was Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, all of that, it just meant so much to me. So I had always hoped to join that group of people whose music really meant something, and that people would think about, and live with. So I’m happy about that, it makes me feel like, yeah OK, I’ve done the right thing with my time here.”
Suzanne Vega performs Tuesday November 1st at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here.