Suzanne Vega is brutally refreshing with her candour. A first, by many accounts, in the PR-generated landscape that steers the celebrity bandwagon. The American folk singer doesn’t follow a script, not when she has the gumption to pen her own rulebook, peppered with intricate accounts of triumphs and tragedies.
Speaking ahead of her July 5 Dubai Opera gig, it isn’t long before her candid confessions take us down the road towards tales of an acting career nipped in the bud, losing out on plum Hollywood roles, particularly one to a performer called Madonna. Neither does Vega sugarcoat her disbelief when her track Luka became the juggernaut that would define her singing career even 31 years later.
Vega’s eventful journey is lush with iconic compositions such as Tom’s Diner, Marlene on the Wall, and of course, the aforementioned Luka, which recounts a haunting tale of child abuse narrated from the victim’s perspective.
“Luka was a song I wrote 31 years ago. At the time, I thought it was a small song about a small situation that not many people would relate to,” says Vega. “But my manager at the time, Ron Fierstein, thought differently. He said this song is about an issue and people need to hear it and will respond to it. I honestly didn’t believe him. But it turns out he was right. To this day, I get people writing to me to tell me about their own lives.”
The song’s poignant lyrics underscore a sense of vulnerability and misplaced guilt, which, Vega reveals, were always meant to focus on the hidden complexities of abuse.
“I just felt that in life people don’t really talk about it [abuse] and I didn’t want to turn Luka into a graphic song,” says Vega. “The idea was to present it like how it is in real life, how people very rarely talk about it.”
Incidentally, the protagonist in the song was named after a child who lived in Vega’s building in New York City.
“I had a neighbour, a boy named Luka who lived upstairs from me [referenced in the opening line of the song]. Since I lived on the ground floor, everyone lived upstairs from me at that moment in time,” she says. “He was not an abused child. I was just struck by his name.
“I used to get his mail and I remember looking at it thinking, is this a boy or a girl. I couldn’t even figure out what the nationality of this child was. There was a kind of universality to the name itself. And that’s why I chose it for the song. If I had picked a very American name, like Cindy or Bob or something, then it would’ve had a very different effect.”
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Featuring on her second album Solitude Standing (1987), Luka earned Vega several Grammy nominations, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
Interestingly, there was a second track on the album that emerged as a late bloomer three years later, after it was discovered and remixed by British dance producers, DNA. It was simply called Tom’s Diner.
“It was the opening song on the Solitude Standing album, written as a cappella; just me and my voice,” says Vega. “I’d originally imagined it with piano but I don’t play the instrument and I couldn’t afford to hire a pianist. So, it was the easiest thing in the world for the DNA boys to take the vocals right off the record. They had this clean vocal that they could splice up and put a beat to.”
The 58-year-old singer says she’s forged a friendship with the DNA boys, remaining in touch with the duo today, despite them remixing her track without consent.
“I remember asking them why they did it and they said the beat was already in the music. It was in the melody and if they hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. I always thought that was funny,” laughs Vega. “I loved it when I first heard it. I thought it was funny and very clever. So I suggested that we buy the rights and release it.
“In fact, we tend to use the remix version of Tom’s Diner at the end of every performance. It’s like ending with one big party.”
The song has seen countless covers over the decades, with a sampling on Fall Out Boy’s Centuries, while more recently, Britney Spears also jumped onto the train with her Giorgio Moroder track finding a spot on the film soundtrack of Keanu (2016).
Vega laughs when quizzed about Spears’ tribute. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, really, Britney Spears? That’s amazing. And then when I heard it was her idea, I said ‘oh wow! I didn’t realise that we existed in the same universe’,” she says. “I was very flattered and I’m also a big Giorgio Moroder fan.”
The singer reveals she penned the track during her time in college studying theatre. “I liked the idea of a dramatic monologue and in a sense that’s what that song is,” she explains.
Purists who fanboy Vega almost certainly make it a point to pay homage to the singer by visiting the famed diner in New York City.
“There is a place called Tom’s Restaurant on 112th and Broadway and I used to eat there when I was in college. It is a very average place. People who come from far away and go on a little pilgrimage to Tom’s Restaurant will find it very average. And it’s still very average,” laughs Vega. “Although, I actually wrote the song after I left the restaurant.
“I think I was walking down Broadway and I got the idea to write about an average place where you could go for a cup of coffee and you could feel things. It’s a little song about feeling alienated, about feeling cut off from people, except for the very end of the song, where you have a memory but you set it aside because it’s time to step on a train.”
TRIUMPHS AND TRAGEDIES
One wouldn’t be too far off the mark to entertain the notion that Vega’s songs are largely inspired by her own life experiences. The singer grudgingly agrees, although with a caveat.
“Well, some (songs) are directly from my own life. A song like Gypsy (featured on Solitude Standing) was written to a young man and is directly from my life, as are several songs that I have written for my daughter. But I think it’s also very important to have an element of fantasy because you want to take the audience somewhere. You want to surprise them.”
Over the decades, Vega saw moderate success with her albums, Day of Open Hand and Nine Objects of Desire, before personal setbacks — including a divorce with her first husband Mitchell Froom in 1998 that made its way into three tracks on her 2001 album, Songs in Red and Gray — placed the first hurdle in her success story.
Less than a year later, the singer also lost her brother Tim Vega to alcoholism, who ‘drank himself to death in the eight months that followed the terrorist attacks,’ reports New York Magazine. Vega’s brother was working at the World Trade Center during 9/11 and had called in sick on the day.
Shortly after, her record label A&M dropped her unceremoniously.
With her young daughter Ruby to care for, Vega fought through those years before finding solace in her marriage to Paul Mills in 2006 and marking her return to music with 2007’s Beauty & Crime. A few years later, Vega returned to theatre to write and act in Carson McCullers Talks About Love (2011), based on the life of the American writer. Vega followed up her fascination with the novelist in her 2016 album, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers.
“I discovered McCullers’ writing when I was a teenager. I thought she had such a truthful voice, being able to write from a man’s perspective or an old person’s. I really admired that freedom of imagination,” states Vega. “I felt she had a lot of empathy. And the children that she wrote about seemed so real to me. It was about these gangs of children wandering around Georgia in the heat. This felt very much like NYC in the ’70s.
“I decided it would be a fun thing to do to put her life on stage. And now it’s become a lifelong idea to keep her life on stage. I have played her myself. But I’m almost 60 years old and at some point I have to give it to somebody else.”
Films would seem a natural progression for the former theatre student, and Vega doesn’t deny it; but things didn’t quite work out that way and it’s not for lack of trying.
“I have thought of films and I’ve been rejected from some very good roles. I’ve done a whole bunch of auditions but I’ve never gotten the part,” she admits. “I’ve read for Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), which went to Madonna. They said I was too serene for the part. I have to say I agree.”
“I tried out for The Color of Money (1986’s Paul Newman and Tom Cruise starrer). I tried out for Miami Blues (1990) with Jennifer Jason Leigh. I also tried out for Sister Act (1992) for a part of a nun with the red hair. That’s my film career.”
Suzanne Vega has plans for Dubai
Speaking about her Dubai Opera gig on July 5, American folk singer Suzanne Vega says: “It’s me on guitar and vocals, along with my musical director and guitar player Gerry Leonard. He used to be the musical director for David Bowie and was with him towards the end of his life.
“The concert is both, acoustic and has some production because of Gerry’s guitar playing,” she adds.
Vega promises to play “a lot of songs” spanning her career, many from her self-titled first and second album, Solitude Standing.
“It’s my first visit to Dubai. All I know about the place is that it’s very successful and very wealthy. That’s what I’ve been told and all the research seems to indicate that since 1966, when the oil was discovered. I would love to explore more of the city.”
Don’t miss it!
Suzanne Vega will perform on July 5 at Dubai Opera. Tickets for the 8pm show start at Dh95.