IN 1987, Suzanne Vega became very famous very quickly. In that year, her bruised, beautiful ballad ‘Luka’ was released to international acclaim. The accompanying album, Solitude Standing, topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Three decades on, she seems to be still coming to terms with her overnight promotion:
“It was overwhelming,” she says “There was a lot of hard work, which did get on top of me. I kept coming down sick.” The difficulty, as she saw it, was that Luka was about child abuse. How could she luxuriate in her popularity when it was built on such a heart-breaking subject? The guilt was horrible.
“The song was a conduit for a lot of stories. People would write to me and talk about their situation. It was painful. Because that was such a big component in the success, it was not really possible to enjoy it.”
On the other hand, despite having the number one album in America and the UK, she was almost never recognised in public — to this day, she rarely is. Which, you suspect, is just as she would wish. Vega recalls standing outside a record store in London the week Solitude Standing went to number one. Over her head was a huge ‘Suzanne Vega’ billboard, accompanied by a vast mug shot. Nobody gave her a second glance. “Most of the time I blend in. I’m lucky that way.”
When it came down to it, a string of multi-platinum records and a global fan base were not enough to save Vega from the vicissitudes of the music industry and in 2008 she was dropped by her label Blue Note (part of the soon to be sold-off EMI). Falling — or being pushed — between the cracks was hugely disconcerting and Vega spent some time in the wilderness, trying to figure out her next move. Her new album, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, is her first original collection in seven years.
“It took me a little while to think it through,” she says. “I was adjusting to a world without big-label budgets and schedules. Ultimately it feels liberating. I always had artistic control. Now, there is a relatively low threshold of records I have to sell in order to make the money back. So it’s okay to sell 30,000 records, even less. Plus, you are not constantly worrying about being dropped. The anxiety has gone out of the process. I feel that makes it worthwhile.”
Born in 1959, Vega was raised in Spanish Harlem in New York by her single mother. Growing up in the seventies she remembers the city at its bleakest. On her way to school she would pass pavements strewn with syringes and worse. Unlike many, she did not complain too loudly when the gentrification of the city accelerated in the nineties. What would people prefer? A New York overrun by muggers?
As a young songwriter, she became a fixture on the downtown folk scene, centred on Greenwich Village. And, although set a good 15 years prior to her musical coming of age, she has strong thoughts on the recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis, partly based on the life of songwriter Dave Van Ronke, with whom she was friendly. In the movie, the fictionalised Van Ronke is portrayed as a bitter under-achiever, unable to accept he is never going to be Bob Dylan (indeed he seems convinced of this before anyone, him included, has even heard of Bob Dylan).
“He was a larger than life guy, very full of joy,” she recalls. “The Dave Van Ronke I knew was not the person in that movie.”
She was also close to Lou Reed, with whom she wrote and toured. Vega called on him on and off at his home on Long Island. On a recent visit she recalls being struck by how gaunt Reed seemed. He passed away several weeks later. “Whenever I had the occasion to meet Lou, it was a special thing,” she says. She shakes her head and her voice drops an octave. “I feel the loss of him in the world.”
Suzanne Vega plays the Olympia, Dublin on Thursday and Cork Opera House on Friday