The variety of Suzanne Vega
November 15, 2007
ASPEN For a folk singer who has never seemed to aim for the mainstream, Suzanne Vega her name, her music and her persona has tended to show up in a lot of unexpectedly prominent corners. So the fun facts section of her website, aside from listing the almost-famous next-door neighbor she had as a kid (controversial filmmaker Gaspar No) and the various TV shows and films that have featured her songs, hints at the idea that Vega is leaving a bigger mark on the culture than what is heard on the radio.When a German audio engineer named Karlheinz Brandenburg was developing a compressed audio format that would eventually become the MP3, the song he used was Vegas Toms Diner. Part of the choice was mere chance; Brandenburg heard someone playing the song down the hall from his lab. But part of it was the voice itself; the warmth of it would offer a great challenge to the effort at compression. Vegas unwitting contribution has given her the title, Mother of the MP3.Brandenburg was hardly the only person captivated by Toms Diner. The song, which first appeared on Vegas sophomore album, 1987s Solitude Standing, has become both a hit with mass audiences and something of a cult object. After the British group the DNA Disciples had a hit with a remixed version in 1990, the floodgates opened. Vegas composition a straightforward narrative about a guy in a diner, reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee, recorded in a spare style that emphasized the staccato cadence became the foundation for Toms Album, a full-length album featuring various versions of the song. Among those putting their stamp on the song was Bingo Hand Job, a pseudonym for the combined forces of R.E.M. and Billy Bragg. If there is another album devoted to a single, two-minute song, I havent heard of it. (Incidentally, the actual diner Vega based the song on became even more notorious than Monks, the diner featured in TVs Seinfeld.)Vega made another prominent appearance in the digital realm. Last year, she became the first established musician to perform live in an online, virtual world, appearing as an animated version of herself on the program Second Life.Vega was a similarly shadowy presence in Pulp Fiction. A scene in which Uma Thurmans Mia Wallace asks John Travoltas Vincent Vega if hes related to the folk singer Suzanne Vega was deleted from the final cut of the film, but was featured among the deleted scenes in a special DVD release. Vega auditioned for the role that eventually went to Madonna in 1985s Desperately Seeking Susan.Homer Simpson once sang Luka, Vegas biggest hit, while driving in a car he bought at a police auction. And the hip-hop duo Felt, on their debut CD, included a song titled Suzanne Vega. (Felt has a thing for singers, as well as actresses: other song titles of theirs are Rick James and Marvin Gaye; their debut CD was A Tribute to Christina Ricci.)Vega has a modest theory for why audio geeks, Quentin Tarantino, obscure hip-hoppers and celebrated cartoon characters all have an attraction to her.I think its because basically my approach and sound are pretty simple, she said by phone. The way I play guitar and sing are simple and that translates to other mediums pretty well.From that self-assessment, and the typical categorization as a folk singer, its easy to get the impression of Vega as musically unsophisticated, a gal with her acoustic guitar. But thats far from an accurate picture.
Ode to the cityBeauty & Crime, her seventh album, released in July, features layers of electric guitars, electronics, strings and, on four tracks, the London Studio Orchestra. Vega says she was thinking of jazz records from the 70s when she recorded the album; a particularly strong influence was Wave, a 1967 release by the Brazilian singer and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim that included the song The Red Blouse, a favorite of Vegas. They almost had the feeling of films, like film soundtracks, she said of Jobims albums of that era.Beauty & Crime has its own cinematic feel, rich with specific characters and settings. Frank and Ava describes the real-life romance of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner; the chirpy refrain, Its not enough to be in love, gives the song a sad, dramatic feel. Zephyr & I, which opens the album, is a portrait of the New York graffiti artist Andrew Zephyr Witten.If the album had a star, it would be New York City itself. The 48-year-old Vega was born in California, but her family moved to New York City when she was 2, and she has been a New Yorker since. She grew up in Spanish Harlem and on the Upper West Side, and attended Barnard College in Manhattan. After a decade living downtown, she moved back to the Upper West Side last year.Beauty & Crime puts to use Vegas familiarity with, and memories of, the city. Her tribute to her brother Tim, an artist and alcoholic who died in 2002, uses a setting Ludlow Street as the songs title and emotional reference point. Anniversary is Vegas specific ode to 9/11, dwelling on the way the day leaves its mark in unexpected ways: Clear the way for all your private memories / As they meet you on each corner.Perhaps the centerpiece of the album is New York Is A Woman, which positions the city as a tough old dame, sexy but unsentimental Shes happy that youre here but when you disappear she wont know that youre gone.New York is cold-hearted, said Vega, describing the city as she brings it to life in Beauty & Crime. Weve been through a lot, and well put you through a lot.The album is, in part, inspired by Vegas response to 9/11; she lived some 15 blocks from the World Trade Center site at the time. But while she was writing the songs, she split with her record label and was left for three years without a record deal. While she was figuring out her future as a recording artist and slowly writing songs she says she wrote about one a year for Beauty & Crime the tie to 9/11 became less immediate.Its not meant to be a response like Bruce Springsteens The Rising, she said. Its there in the background. I thought that the events of 9/11 were very dramatic, hard to ignore. I wanted to talk about it in an album.More than a folkieWhile she wanted to address her hometown in the lyrics, she also wanted to make a statement as a musician. Working on a broad sonic palette is nothing new for Vega; ever since her self-titled 1985 debut, her sounds have gotten denser and wider-ranging. Working occasionally with her husband at the time, Mitchell Froom, an adventurous producer who has collaborated with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt, she has experimented with industrial sounds, as on 1992s 99.9 F Degrees.I didnt want to make a simple acoustic album, she said of Beauty & Crime. I wanted to use strings, something more ambitious. And an orchestra, but not a lush orchestra.Vega doesnt mind much that she is thought of, wrongly, as a folkie. She understands that initial impressions die hard. No doubt many people still associate her with one song, Luka, the 1987 title that became a huge hit despite its subject matter, an abused child.Definitely some of the songs I play are folk songs. And I play acoustic guitar; thats my instrument. And I came up in the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene, said Vega, who will lead a five-piece band when she performs at the Wheeler Opera House on Tuesday, Nov. 20. But Ive never let it stop me from writing what Ive wanted to. I think I started, in my teen years, trying to write folk music. But I pretty quickly gave up on that. Im a songwriter and I write in different styles and I always have.I dont really care. As long as they buy the record. I just dont want it in some dusty corner of the shop.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is email@example.comSuzanne Vega, with Teddy Thompson opening, performs Tuesday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. Tickets are priced at $30 and $25, available at aspenshowtickets.com and the at Wheeler.