Suzanne Vega lives in the same area of New York where she grew up. That can be a challenge when you have had a difficult childhood, as she had. But since she has achieved great professional success and found personal peace, it is easier than before.
“When I first moved back to the Upper West Side,” says Suzanne Vega, “I felt ghosts everywhere. I had dreams of that corner of 102nd Street and Broadway (where she lived as a child). I looked up at where a lot of things took place and I used to feel the ghosts haunting that corner, but I’ve walked back and forth there so often that I feel them brushing up against me and then vanish.
“There’s so many other memories now that have taken their place, I don’t feel them haunting me in that spot anymore, which is kind of a relief.”
Vega’s understated and elegant delivery, velvety voice and poetic lyrics brand her as one of the most noteworthy American songwriters of her generation, and her catalog of songs, both new and old, is fresh and relevant. You can enjoy her eclectic and inventive music when she kicks off a tour at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Sept. 11. She also will perform at The Vogel at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank on Oct. 14, the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood on Oct. 16, and City Winery in New York on Nov. 26-27.
The shows are being advertised as “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories,” the same title of her recent concert album, recorded at New York’s romantic Café Carlyle and featuring backing by guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist Jeff Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards. This intimate cabaret-style space is tucked into the Carlyle Hotel one block from Central Park and has showcased the legendary Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, Judy Collins and others. In a prior interview, Vega said that playing in this setting — which has a glamorous, bohemian vibe — was “a new threshold of achievement.”
The album — released Sept. 11, 2020, on the Amanuensis/Cooking Vinyl label — features a haunting track, “Anniversary,” about those lost on 9/11. (The studio version of the song is on her 2007 album, Beauty & Crime.) Vega also organized Vigil, a 2002 compilation album of songs written by members of the Greenwich Village Songwriter’s Exchange in the aftermath of 9/11, and contributed her own “It Hit Home” to it.
“I’m very excited,” Vega said of the tour. “Last year, when the album came out on Sept. 11, that was just a coincidence — a kind of amazing one, especially since the album is all about New York City. I thought that was kind of a strange, meaningful coincidence. I told my manager that I wanted to do some shows this fall and I guess in his mind that begins on Sept. 11, so it’s all kind of worked out in a strange, appropriate kind of way.”
She’ll be backed by Leonard on the tour. “Gerry Leonard and I can play acoustic music, and we can play other, more rock music,” she said, mentioning songs such as “Blood Makes Noise” and “I Never Wear White.”
She will perform “a combination of old songs and probably a mini-set with the New York songs,” she said.
In our interview, Vega spoke about her difficult childhood and its influence on her music, and about her innate ability to think and write in powerful metaphors and from interesting angles. Listen, below, to her song “Left of Center” (co-written with Steve Addabbo), which is about a person who sees the world from an alternative perspective.
She said she had a “a kind of nothing-to-lose quality” when she launched her career and “a really dogged determination to succeed on my own terms.” She didn’t want to duplicate other creative women who also captured our attention in that era, such as Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. She says she had “rules and standards” for herself and “they were very clear when I worked with my first manager, Ron Fierstein. He saw that and built artistic control into any contract I had with a record company. He never wanted to change my appearance in any way or make me more sexualized. That was never even discussed. ‘We are not going there. No way.’ It was an absolutely clear message.”
Her producers, Addabbo and Lenny Kaye, were very respectful, she added. “So, I felt I was surrounded by people I could trust,” she said.
“I went through a lot of rejection onstage,” she said. “I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I eventually triumphed beyond most people’s wildest dreams, and at a very young age, too.” Between 16 to 24 she strived to get gigs, including one at the Bitter End (which never happened), and get a record deal. She signed with the A&M label at 24.
She was devoted to “learning my craft and keep learning what works for me,” she said. She pondered what qualities would make her performances “my own.” Reflecting on her musical journey, she said “I feel I take risks in my music. I take risks in my lyrics and subject matter. I feel I have my own style.”
As a youngster, Vega wandered through the vast and elegant halls of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, finding both sanctuary and a source of inspiration. As an adult, she found a space to write in, in its patrons lounge, and also does so at the nearby New York Society Library.
The Met has long been a place “of great joy,” she said, “I’ve always loved The Met. My parents were always taking us to MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) and our progressive teachers were always taking us to MOMA.”
When she visited The Met, a vista opened. ” ‘Oh, this is my world, with this intense romanticism about it, and grandeur and beauty and the scope of it and the depth of it,’ ” she recalled. “It really has become a haven.”
Vega’s family relocated from California when she was a toddler and moved to East Harlem, a community struggling in the early ’60s. She lived with her mother Pat Vega, her siblings and stepfather Edgardo Vega Yunqué, better known as Ed Vega, the Puerto Rican novelist and short story writer; the apartment was filled with music, art, words, love and physical and emotional abuse. (Later, they moved to 102nd Street and Broadway. Vega attended Barnard College, frequented West Village folk clubs such as Folk City and the Cornelia Street Café, and eventually found success as a master songwriter and performer.)
“There was abuse in my family,” said Vega. “I am actually Luka.”
This is not something Vega admitted when her song (see video below) hit the airways, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Luka shares his reality that “they only hit until you cry and after that you don’t ask why/You just don’t argue anymore.”
Vega brilliantly depicts the shame and self-blame experienced by some abused children, hiding the truth from outsiders. She sings:
If you hear something late at night
Some kind of trouble, some kind of fight
Just don’t ask me what it was …
I think it’s because I’m clumsy
I try not to talk too loud
Maybe it’s because I’m crazy
I try not to act too proud
“What I still love about the song is the way she unfolds the story slowly,” said Addabbo, who co-produced it. “Then when you thought it was a good pop tune with a good beat, you realize what she is talking about. I watched many people listening for the first time and when the story line sinks in, it’s powerful.”
I asked Vega how the abuse impacted her songwriting. “As to how it’s affected my work … well, it affected my growing up,” she said. “It affected my character and my nature because, as a child, I was constantly watching and trying to figure out what was happening and where I fit into everything and what I was responsible for and what I wasn’t responsible for.”
Her stepfather’s emotional and physical abuse produced, she said, “probably more than usual disassociation in some of the songs than you might find in another songwriter. Although maybe I would have had that anyway. I have a tendency to slip into characters and other people’s voices. Who knows? We’ll never know. That’s part of the way in which it affected my writing.”
She developed an acute ability to observe because she never knew when her stepfather would turn from being engaging to being harsh and violent.
“There were times when Ed could be kind, times where he would sit when I was sick by my bed and taught me how to whistle, which I think is an inventive thing to do with a sick child.
“From time to time, he’d buy me gifts … (he) asked me what would I buy if I had a lot of money, and I said I would buy balloons, and then he brought out this plastic bronze piggy bank for me to save my quarters in. So there were times when he was generous and kind, especially if it was about culture or art. He would take us to any museum, any play, especially if they were free.
“Ed also pushed us — he was open to all the arts — painting, sculpture, he wanted to talk about it and talk about ideas and also any intellectual pursuits, whether it was anthropology or history or politics. There was a lot of discussion and putting things into words in my house.
“But the flip side is that he’d lose his temper very quickly. So for example, I remember one night he was teaching me how to count by twos. And I was young enough that I couldn’t understand why we were doing that. Why would we count by twos when we count by ones? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Under what circumstances do you count 2, 4, 6, 8? And he was trying to teach me, at the same time, how to count by fives. So I was really, really stretched to the limits of my comprehension. And he became enraged … I don’t remember exactly what followed, but what usually followed was some form of violence. Physical violence. He would hit. He would sometimes throw food or overturn the soup on your head. He would do these kinds of things.
“But it wasn’t just the physical hurt that was painful. It was the terror of not knowing what was coming next or what had provoked it. Was I really that stupid that I couldn’t get what he was teaching? And that’s what you end up internalizing … ‘Wow, I must be really stupid … It’s my fault.’
“So that’s what came out in the song all those years later.”
I asked at what age did she stop thinking that she caused his impulsive anger and reject feeling constantly criticized.
“There were moments well into my success where it was hard for me to move onstage,” she said. “I felt very inhibited physically. All I wanted to do was stand at the microphone and sing into the microphone. It was, for some reason, terrifying to move. I just didn’t feel free at all. And if I tried to move, I would hear sort of a voice in my mind, kind of a mocking tone, like, ‘Oh look, she’s moving.’ So, this I attribute to being so carefully watched (by Ed).
“When I was younger … even though I danced and would sometimes dance in the hallway, I could sometimes feel his eyes on me. It made me feel very inhibited. So it took me a long time to work all that out. And I have to say that I spent 25 years in therapy and that was very helpful — I had one therapist from 1984 all the way to 2009. She helped me gain some objectivity. She would point out what was abusive and what wasn’t and what I was internalizing.”
While Vega’s music is eclectic — with rock, jazz and techno tones at times — she is regarded as a leader of the folk revival movement. Her haunting and evocative images are a trademark of her songs. I wondered if her sensitivity to complex emotional states, as she reveals in “Marlene on the Wall,” is a product of her family environment.
“I’m not so sure that my tendency to feel and think things in images and metaphors was actually a consequence of my upbringing,” she said. “I think I’m just naturally that way. I think there are just people who are like that. They feel things in a visual sense. … But I do think, on the other hand, that I sometimes have a delay in feelings, especially because at some point if you are exposed to all this violence at an early age, it overloads you. At some point you just withdraw. At least that’s what happened with me. Later you get flashbacks. Later you feel the full feeling in a completely different context. That’s called PTSD and when I was young, I didn’t know that was the name of it, but I knew that from time to time something would trigger a memory or a physical sensation or a bodily memory and I would be overwhelmed in a way that I wasn’t, in the moment.
“After hearing all of these life experiences from people all over the world, from reading all of these biographies including some women in the music industry who have also had tough childhoods, for whatever reason … poverty, other things … I don’t think there’s anyone in this life who is untouched by hardship. I think in the end, the thing that makes my work unusual is my perspective … that idea of being and feeling things in metaphor. Maybe I would have had a different style or written about different things, but I think I still would have been an artist even if I had not been abused as a kid.”
She said the response to “Luka” was healing, because others shared her experience and revealed themselves to her after its release.
“When I first wrote Luka, I really thought that I was writing a private song that I wrote for myself,” she said. “I didn’t think most people would understand it. If they did understand it, I didn’t think they would like it. I knew that in real life, abuse is not something they like to talk about and if they suspect it, they don’t go after it. So when I realized that so many people responded and that I had written their story, this was probably the most healing thing of all.
“I suddenly joined this group of people that were international. There were men and women of all races and all countries and all ages who wrote to me to tell me what they experienced. Some wrote down their whole experiences, some just wrote down a line or two, but that was what really cracked open my little world and that was really the most healing thing of all, to realize that I didn’t have to feel that shame.
Ed Vega did express remorse about how he treated his stepdaughter from time to time, in person and in letters, but it never stopped him from continuing the abusive behavior, which is why she ultimately chose not to be involved with him.
“I think his behavior was abusive. I don’t think there was any exaggeration. But in his mind, what happened wasn’t abusive and he could defend it for various reasons. The problem with that, though, (is that) we’d have a moment where he would say something like that, then he’d go back to the behavior. He wasn’t able to hit me anymore. The last time he hit me I was 19 and he’d never hit me beyond that. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t try to hurt me. He would do that constantly and in various ways, whatever ways he could find.
“So after Ruby (her daughter) was born, that’s when I distanced myself from him. … He would make overtures, apologize, he wrote letters, but I didn’t want him in my circle of people. I didn’t want to be close to him because I didn’t want him to have access to my daughter.”
She speculated on the origins of his rage. “Some of it was PTSD from his own experiences from when he was a child. Some of it was the stress from living in our society as an artist and as a man of color. And the daily pressures that are put onto people of color.”
People who are prone to rage can change in the blink of an eye. “I would watch him the way people watch the sky,” she said. “Is there an impending storm? Is it going to be a sunny day or is it going to change suddenly and bring on the thunder and the lightning and the damage and the destruction? It could happen so quickly.
“I feel in time I grew a lot of strength from those experiences and also from wanting to protect those around me, my sister and brothers and my daughter.”
Musically, Vega has been inspired by Judy Collins, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and others. Reed’s honest lyrics, often about taboo subjects, encouraged her to speak her mind. She sings Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” on her live album and released a video, which you can watch below.
I asked her if she was unusually adept in dealing with edgy men such as Reed. “I think you’re right about that,” she said. “There were times if I felt he was trying to needle me, I would disengage myself. I wouldn’t get caught up in it. I wasn’t invested in it. I was always wary of that part of him. One or two times he did things that made me feel angry, but then I also knew that the next time I saw him, he was likely to have completely forgotten about it. That’s just how he was. So yeah, I wasn’t completely fazed by it, nor was I particularly close to him until his more final days.”
I asked her why. “Because he changed his attitudes. He was really dealing with some very difficult things physically. He had surgeries, he was fighting for his life, so his attitude changed and he suddenly became more human and more thoughtful and he’d ask me more personal things than he had done previously. It never seemed that that he had asked me personal questions about me or my feelings or my life.”
Yet he inspired her. “I see women who come to speak with me after certain shows. They feel the way I felt when I heard Lou Reed sing ‘Caroline Says.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re allowed to get up on the stage and say these things. You are allowed to sing these things on a stage.’ … One woman came up to me and said, ‘You give me a place to put my shit.’ Yes, that’s right, I do. So she can work it out any way she thinks she has to, in any form she wants to, whether it’s public or private. I understand what she’s saying to me.”
Shirley Kaplan of Barnard College is one of Vega’s most cherished mentors. “She was the teacher of the musical ensemble theater class and, because I was so shy, I was not normally drawn to workshops or musical theater classes. I felt that I was very introverted and she had a reputation for bringing people out of themselves, or their shells. I was doubtful that she was going to bring me out of anything. She told me years later that she had the same doubt. When she saw me, she said no one is getting in there. We had an interview before her class because that’s what she required and she thought I was a very closed person.
“It was liberating to be in her presence. She could figure out how to get to you … how to make you open up and express yourself in very benign ways. One of the first exercises she had us do was you had to run around the room, at least for me — this is what she gave to me. I had to run around the room singing my name. I felt like a real idiot. Then I started laughing and everyone started laughing with me. Or she would make me sing a song and she would throw things at me like a ball and make me throw it back to her so I would have to loosen up and I had to kind of get out of my usual ways of defending myself. In the end it was one of the most meaningful connections I made about my stage presence.”
I hope Vega’s set list on the upcoming tour includes “Cracking” (from her 1985 self-titled debut album) and “Gypsy” (from 1987’s Solitude Standing), two gems included on her live album.
“Gypsy,” a gorgeous lullaby written about a counselor at a camp in the Adirondacks, feels very pure and innocent. “It was the first time I really felt love — I felt romantic love and I’m still friends with that man,” she said. “It’s a long friendship and a deep one. I think I knew when it was happening it was a fleeting thing and probably not going to be a romance forever, but it was kind of a shimmering idealization of a romance, in a sense.”
“Cracking” is a riveting song that she wrote after moving out of her parents’ house. “I held myself together for so long that I found when I moved out … I felt myself cracking that year. I rented a room from a woman who had an apartment with many rooms and she herself was undergoing a kind of nervous breakdown and a divorce. I was in Shirley’s class that year also, and at one point I started laughing, and then I tipped over and I started crying right in the class in front of everybody. And so writing the song ‘Cracking’ was my way of expressing that state of mind.”
The tour will be a moment in time to absorb and experience Vega’s craft and defining characteristics, and for songwriters, will serve as a master class. Does she have any advice for songwriters?
“I think if you really want to be a songwriter, you really have to have something to say and then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to say it. And how you’re going to say it has to be original. You’ve got to figure out what you have to bring to the conversation. You’ve got to listen to other people, figure out what it is you love about their work.
“You are joining a dialogue and it’s not all about you. You’ve got to make sure what you’re saying is contributing.”
She said songs must come “from yourself, but it’s not enough to speak your feelings. Figure out what your style is and a lot of times your style is defined by your limitations. If you have a voice like mine, there’s no way I would try to be like Mariah Carey with her melismas and her eight-octave range. My limited vocal style is my style, my way of writing is my style, my tendency to be metaphoric in the heat of the moment is my style. That’s it.”
For more information, visit suzannevega.com.
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