It was 30 years ago this year when the world-at-large first got an ear on Suzanne Vega with her self-titled debut album. Her “Marlene on the Wall” video became a mainstay on MTV and VH1 only to have its success topped two years later when “Luka” became about as ubiquitous as any song of that year. Then, DNA added a groove to the a cappella “Tom’s Diner” and a bonafide star was born.
In the three decades since, Vega has continued to push her own creative boundaries, blending folk music, world beats, and dance grooves to great effect. And, while she hasn’t matched the popular success she once enjoyed, her critical reception has stayed strong. Five years ago, she headed into the studio to re-record songs from her catalog in the four-part Close-Up series that included Love Songs, People & Places, States of Being, and Songs of Family. Part of the inspiration for that project was creative, to be sure, but part of it was so that she would now own some master recordings of those songs — a vital component in today’s music industry.
Last year, Vega dropped Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles on her own label and cracked the UK’s Top 40 Album Chart for the first time since 1992. It’s a solid effort which proves, like recent works by so many of her contemporaries, that Vega is far from finished, creatively speaking.
Hard to believe, but this year marks number 30 since your debut. Do you feel all that time passage or was it the blink of an eye?
I feel all that time passage and more. Time doesn’t move in the blink of an eye for me. I remember being seven years old and feeling that I had lived a very long time, even at that young age.
That record, your label thought would maybe sell 30,000 copies, but it sold a million instead. What are your expectations and realities these days when you release a record? What’s a success for you?
A success is when you have made more money than you put into it; when your investors have been paid back; when your promoters on tour are making money on you; when you are reaching your cross-section of audience that you feel is connected to your music. Mostly, I care that the investors and the advances have been paid back, which I believe they are on this last project.
That latest record, which came out last year, feels like quintessential Suzanne Vega… thoughtful, complex, surprising, and lovely. Are there certain unmovable qualities you aim for no matter the project or is each one its own universe?
Each one is its own universe, but I always work on each thing until it feels right to me.
Before that one, how did it feel to revisit and rework your catalog for the Close-Up series?
I liked it! It was fun. It was a relief to hear the music without the productions of its time, as much as I had enjoyed them.
Would you say that you’ve had a pretty natural artistic progression or does it feel more like you’ve occasionally sort of reinvented yourself?
I reinvent myself in an effort to be more of what I already am.
Do you feel that music, like movies, looks with indifference upon women of a certain age? Or is there a bit more leeway in terms of staying productive, if not relevant?
Yes, it’s harder to get serious reviews, at least here in the States. No one expects anything. But there are hopeful signs — Lucinda Williams, for example. has a great career.
Your touring configuration is pretty bare bones, right? It must be both fun and challenging to craft arrangements of very intricate productions that work in that setting.
It’s great! Gerry Leonard really is brilliant and we challenge each other all the time.
Seems like you probably have a couple of different groups of fans – at the very least, there are the one who go back to “Luka” and the ones who found you through Lilith Fair and 99Fº. That’s a pretty wide artistic gap bridged, maybe, by “Tom’s Diner.” Is it a fairly loyal and adaptable crowd?
I used to joke that the fans who like “Tom’s Diner” and “Blood Makes Noise” want to dance, and they don’t get along with the fans who like “Gypsy” and “Queen and the Soldier” who want to read. Some of that is still true.
Both Lou Reed and Pete Seeger figure fairly prominently in your history. How did it feel to lose them both over the past couple of years?
I’m getting used to it, sadly. It happens more and more. But I’ve been honored in knowing both of them at all!!
The FAQs on your website include an incredibly descriptive tour guide to New York City, the answer to “Who are Bogart and Bacall?” and all sorts of other tidbits. Are all these entries things you’ve been asked so often that you just collected them all in one place? Because there’s some kooky on there.
Uh, thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t compile these myself. I think it dates back to the days when the fans ran the site. I’ll get to editing that immediately!