Viva, Miss Vega
PUBLISHED: 16:51 23 June 2014 | UPDATED: 16:52 23 June 2014
Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega is one of the headliners at Cornbury Music Festival this month, where she'll be performing classic tracks alongside numbers from her new album, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. She spoke to Katie Jarvis about what's next on the cards
Suzanne Vega is not good at predicting the future. She had no idea that a diner where she’d often sit and write - Tom’s Restaurant on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street - would provide her with a hit record. Or that her song Luka, inspired by a solitary-looking child playing outside her apartment building, would touch the hearts of millions. No advance inkling that her first marriage would end in divorce; that she’d have a daughter, Ruby Froom, whom she adores and who has taken to the stage with her to sing. Or that her career would span more than 30 years and still be going strong in 2014.
But three years ago, she picked up a pack of tarot cards.
“It’s a new element in my life,” she says in that slightly husky-yet-not-husky; slightly edgy-yet-not-edgy New York voice that softens into clear lyricism with every song she sings. “I never really explored that world before, even though I’ve always been interested in how to tell the future - because I’m actually bad at it; I very often cannot tell what’s around the corner.”
But she instantly fell in love with tarot (though she’s keen to emphasise she uses it in the spirit of play) – both the physical beauty of its characters and the insights it affords her; so much so that her latest album – her first of new material in seven years – shuffles the pack to produce songs about spirituality, connectedness, death and life: classic Vega with a twist. It’s been well received, surprises (such as the electric guitars) and all.
And the lyrics seem visionary, at times.
“So some of the songs have tarot-card figures in them, based on real people I know in my life that seemed to be, at that moment in time, the Queen of Pentacles or the Knight of Wands. And then some of the other songs have other types of spirituality, like Jacob and the Angel – the image is from the Bible: the wrestling with a problem, and with yourself and your identity.”
Did she write to a theme or was the connection subconscious?
“It was subconscious. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about because I’m at that point in my own life where people I’ve considered peers are suddenly passing on; I’ve also seen a lot of people born, so you really start to get a sense of everyone passing through in a way that you don’t when you’re younger; when you’re caught up in your day-to-day material existence, wondering who you’re going to marry; who you’re going to have children with.”
So would it have helped if she had known her future? The teenager, who always felt an outsider; who strummed her guitar in her room, dreaming of touring the world; would things be so different if that teenager had known what a big name Suzanne Vega would become?
“That’s a great question. I don’t know. I suppose I would have made different choices if I’d have known how things were going to turn out…” But then she backtracks. If she hadn’t married the first time, she wouldn’t have Ruby. “Maybe better not to know – and I think you also learn from your adverse conditions.”
Instead, she offers her past self advice: “I would say, always follow your instinct; it’s wiser than any businessman’s advice. And don’t try and fit the mould so well.” She gives a throaty laugh, as if at a private joke. You wouldn’t think of someone as original as Suzanne Vega as ever thinking she had to fit moulds.
I had no feelings of prescience about interviewing Suzanne Vega myself; I’ve long been a fan, but I’d no predictions to offer of what she’d be like or how I’d respond to her. And this is a phone interview – never easy, particularly when it’s 9am in sunny California versus an overcast looming-dusk in the Cotswolds. But what astonishes me – what I like about her – is her honesty. At the start of the conversation, her brief replies intimate she might be brusque or brittle; she’s nothing of the sort. She talks naturally about the “valleys, dry barren spots and long periods where I’m wondering what the heck is going on” in her career, with only passing reference to the heights. If that sounds gloomy, then listening to her album will disabuse that notion. She has, in the past, been somewhat solitary in nature; but there’s a new connectedness about Tales From the Realm.
“Yeah, I feel that’s true,” she agrees. “And especially with the song Horizon: I felt like there was a bit of a breakthrough; a bit of a sun shining through; a general love of humanity which, I must say, was not my natural inclination. I’ve gone through periods of being very hermit-like but this last album has a different sort of spirit in it.”
If you look back at her life, as she herself is evidently inclined to do, you can see why she might have kept a respectful distance from mankind. Her website takes you on a walking tour of some of the New York spots she’d haunt as a child – black and Puerto Rican neighbourhoods; mixed areas where crime was rife, full of dangerous housing projects whose residents would throw things at you from the windows. “If someone looks at you funny, make sure you don’t show that you notice,” the commentary offers.
No wonder the white girl who walked round with an other-worldly air was considered a little odd. “It made me introspective – I think I am, anyway, by nature – but I really relied on books. From the time I could read, which was a very young age, I loved the characters I met in books a lot more than the real people I knew in my street.
“I loved Oliver Twist and David Copperfield; and I loved Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. These were resilient children. Huckleberry Finn grew up in nature and in the woods and I was in the city; but I still felt a connection.
“I could imagine their world and myself in their place, and it helped me to navigate my internal map. Those ideas have stayed with me. And when I talk to children, I try to let them know that their story is important; it matters how it all turns out. You mustn’t be cynical and corrupted by your circumstances. Going for the easy answer – for drugs or being promiscuous – isn’t going to help you in the long run.”
She hesitates slightly. “I feel in some ways that I’m still forging my own path, still struggling with things. And I think that’s why the work still has some vitality in it.”
Certainly, her background has helped her to appeal to a hugely wide audience. When the DNA boys did the remix of Tom’s Diner in 1990, Suzanne had no hesitation in backing it: “I immediately recognised that this was something fun and cool.”
She’s also had her share of sadness, losing her brother, Tim, who died of drug and alcohol abuse in 2002. And then there was her friend Lou Reed, who died from liver disease last October. They’d first met back in 1986: “I’d been following him for years because I loved his work. He really told the truth and he was very blunt about it: I felt there was a lot to learn from him.”
There’s a great YouTube video of their first meeting, when Reed was host-interviewer on an MTV programme, with Suzanne as his unwitting guest. So overcome is she at meeting her hero unexpectedly, she starts laughing mid-sentence. “It’s a very funny clip; he kind of leaps in and saves the day in his very brusque way. I completely lost my cool.”
Was he as intimidating as everyone thinks?
“He was intimidating – of course he was! He could be kind of thoughtful but I’ve also seen him be very cruel. It wasn’t as though he was somebody cuddly; I was always very wary of him and careful with him; I never took his attentions for granted.” But she never stopped admiring his bristly, I’m-going-to-tell-it-as-it-is nature.
It’s a nature both very different from and quite similar to her own. That honesty is there in full measure; but she’s not chippy (certainly not to me); just open and warm and considered.
And there’s also that distinctive voice. It’s a quality that’s needed more than ever – in business terms as well as spiritual ones, for music has never been more difficult commercially. Ruby Froom and other kids starting out will have their work cut out.
“Music, in a sense, has been devalued,” Suzanne Vega says. “It used to have a sacred kind of place: the great musicians of the 60s and 70s were considered almost mystic. Not just entertainers but people who had a political message, a spiritual message. That doesn’t happen quite so much now. At least, you’re not likely to hear that sort of music on ‘top 40’ radio.”
But if you want spiritual messages, they’re still to be found. And nowhere more than on Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. It promises, it seems to me, the wisdom of experience: the wisdom of someone who thinks hard about life.
“I really notice that, when someone passes on, the important thing is not how much money they made,” Suzanne Vega says. “The thing that really stands out in a life is how well they are remembered at their death – how many bouquets of flowers were sent. That’s a way of showing an appreciation of a life.
“The most important mark of a life well lived is: How well did you love and how were you loved in return?”
Suzanne Vega joins a line-up that includes The Feeling, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Jools Holland with special guests Melanie C and Marc Almond, Scouting for Girls, Simple Minds, and much more, all at Cornbury Festival, The Great Tew Park, Oxfordshire OX7 4AF; 0844 338 0000, www.cornburyfestival.com
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the July 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis