On tour in France in 2008, Suzanne Vega had a sudden premonition of disaster. “The economic crisis of fall 2008: I remember thinking, Christ, I might never work again. I was thinking, no record deal at all, and now what am I going to do?”
Vega, now 50, came to prominence in the 1980s as a singer of mordant folk-inflected miniatures. She has a cool, detached singing style and a gift for chord changes over which melodies unfold like origami birds. She found early success in the UK with Marlene on the Wall. “The UK embraced that first album in a way that took my breath away.”
She gave performances on BBC’s pop programmes of the time: The Tube, surrounded by mulleted Geordie casuals, and The Old Grey Whistle Test. “They show up on YouTube and I can’t bear to watch them. I’m singing everything so fast, as if I can’t wait to get through them. It’s like a train going through.” Her career exploded. “I remember playing the Royal Albert Hall for two nights in 1986, and that was stunning; two years before that I’d been a receptionist answering telephones.”
Worldwide success came with “Tom’s Diner”. This began as an acapella song in which a dissociated narrator observes the other customers at the eponymous Upper West Side eaterie. It “popped into my head fully formed. I had just been in Tom’s, and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a song called ‘Tom’s Diner’ about alienation, where you’re not connected to anything you see, you’re kind of seeing everything through a pane of glass.”
Given a dance beat by DNA, the song became not only a worldwide hit but a meme, endlessly remixed and covered and rewritten: “I am waiting at the border/for the man to give the order”, begins a version recorded at the start of the first Gulf war. Other performers range from Billy Bragg and REM to Lil’ Kim and Tupac Shakur. It even made internet history by being the sample used to test the compression algorithm used by MP3s.
Vega is still bemused by this song’s longevity. “Oh my God, it’s never-ending. The melody is very simple and for whatever reason it’s stuck in everybody’s head. The other thing is that because it’s about such a simple subject, the idea has been redone. You have all different kinds of diners. You have Tupac’s “Dopefiend’s Diner”. Danger Mouse did one. Ludacris. Destiny’s Child. The last one I’ve heard about is this hip-hop artist called Drake.”
Her apprehensions of 2008 proved unfounded: she has been touring almost constantly. She is now re-recording her back catalogue in stripped-down arrangements that highlight her lyrics and melodies. “I’ve changed the keys. I’ve changed the chords. Mostly what I’m trying to say is, what’s the essence of the song and how am I going to get it out in its best form.” The records will be released in four volumes. Out on Monday, coinciding with a European tour, is Love Songs, followed by People and Places, States of Being and finally Songs of Family.
Her motives are partly artistic, partly pragmatic. “A lot of my old albums are going out of print. People who write books, if their books go out of print, they can’t rewrite them. But I can re-sing them … as a way of getting some kind of cash flow towards the next project.”
She is relieved to be her own mogul. “When you have a major label deal you wonder when is the other shoe going to drop. They release it, they see if it sticks to the wall, and if it doesn’t, goodbye. Now I’m my own record company I get to look at the numbers and God, that’s terrible. But I get to do what I want with my whole body of work, which is thrilling. I’ve just about made back [on licensed sales] the money I’ve put in, and there are three more to go, so I will be in profit. I’m writing more songs now, slowly.”
No theme has yet emerged. “It’s not a tidy bundle; it’s a sprawling mess. It’s often like that. It’s at the end I find a title and realise what it’s all about, that there’s a thread here: it’s all about desire, or these songs are all about New York.”
The chance to own her songbook is also a chance to edit it. “The ones that really drastically needed fixing, I’ve just dropped them. The ones I’ve selected are the ones the audience demands and that I like to sing. Fortunately, we meet in the middle.”
The first volume contains many of her best-known songs: “Marlene on the Wall”, “Gypsy”, “Small Blue Thing”. There is also “Caramel”, a sultry bossa nova about temptation. “I think the original production was pretty much the definitive version,” Vega admits; her new recording carries the rhythm on percussion that sounds like snapped fingers. “I’ve always loved that bossa nova sound. When I was a teenager I listened a lot to Antonio Carlos Jobim. I thought, it’s going to be so nice to be an adult, because then I’ll get to be like the girl from Ipanema. Of course, by the time I was an adult it was all punk rock. Somewhere in my psyche I still expect to be one of those cool girls drinking a Martini.”
As for the subject matter, “It’s a mixture of my own experience and feelings, things I know to be true, and fantasy. A worse but more interesting life. If I had given into that temptation, there would have been chaos and pandemonium.”
Vega is a quintessential New Yorker. She grew up on the Upper West Side, pre-gentrification. She attended the High School for the Performing Arts, of Fame fame. “I went in as a dancer and I came out not a dancer any more.” She majored in English at Barnard College. But she was born in California: a state, and a state of mind, she has endeavoured to shrug off.
“New York is very intense. It’s this small island with all these people crammed on to it: you’re up against someone else all the time on the street, in the subway, in an apartment building. A sense of humour grows out of that.”
During her first marriage, she spent more time on the west coast. “LA is sprawled out. You never see anyone on the street. If you’re walking down the street the only other person you’ll see is somebody who’s homeless or who doesn’t have a car. In New York, you get to see a lot of things up close you don’t see in LA.”
In the 1990s, she hired the producer Mitchell Froom, hoping for the pop gloss he had given to Crowded House, and found herself made over as an industrial electro-folk singer. “He had this amazing intuition about what would work in a song. About 80 per cent of the time. The rest of the time it would be so inappropriate you’d sit there with your mouth hanging open.” She married Froom, and they had a daughter, now 15. The couple divorced in 1998 – as chronicled on Songs In Red And Gray – but Vega retains an admiration for his talents. “When I’m working on my own material, I sometimes think, what would Mitchell do?”
In 2006 she married the civil rights lawyer and performance poet Paul Mills. “Who had asked me to marry him in 1983 and I told him I needed to think about it. Twenty-three years later I did think about it, and said yes.” It could be one of her songs.
‘Close-Up Volume 1: Love Songs’ is released on June 14. A UK tour starts on June 13. www.suzannevega.com