It wasn't until the release of her second album that Suzanne Vega achieved fame, scoring an unlikely Top Forty hit with "Luka," a song about child abuse. But the singer's 1985 debut album, Suzanne Vega, had already awakened listeners to a fresh new voice, reviving the folk-music genre after nearly two decades of dormancy. For Vega, who was then twenty-five years old, the album was cause for uncertainty and isolation as much as triumph. "I felt a little bit like a novelty act," she says of her auspicious introduction.
Vega was certainly an anomaly during the mid-Eighties, softly strumming an acoustic guitar and singing introspective ballads while the rest of the music world was caught up in bigger-is-better events like Live Aid and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. mega-tour. In retrospect, however, Vega's intimate first album proved to be a significant milestone in this decade, ushering in a flock of female folk singers, including Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Shocked, Tanita Tikaram and the Indigo Girls.
Having taught herself guitar at the age of eleven, Vega began writing her own songs when she entered her teens. After graduating from Barnard College in 1982, she began playing small coffeehouses in Greenwich Village — the same area of New York City where nearly every Sixties folkie first tuned up his Gibson. But Vega, a child of the Eighties, hardly fit the protest-singer mold. Even though she carried an acoustic guitar, her hero wasn't folk icon Bob Dylan but punk godfather Lou Reed. There were other differences as well. After years on the Northeastern club circuit, she had developed a direct, emotionally tempered style that she has said was inspired as much by novelist Carson McCullers and painter Edward Hopper as by romantic balladeers Leonard Cohen and Laura Nyro.
Weaving these diverse influences into a deeply moving album were producers Lenny Kaye (formerly Patti Smith's guitarist) and Steve Addabbo (Vega's manager), who brought modern touches to Vega's straight-ahead style, enhancing the singer's sparse sound with subtle electric guitars, graceful violins and even New Age synthesizers, all of which added gentle textures to her haunting material.
Vega's prowess with simile and metaphor dominates the entire album, perhaps most effectively on songs like "Undertow," "Freeze Tag" and "Straight Lines." But Vega's sphinxlike wordplay reaches its apex on "Small Blue Thing," a ballad more reflective of an intangible feeling than a literal object. "The song is actually pretty straightforward — it's not a riddle," she says with a laugh. "I never try and be tricky. At the time, I felt like a small blue thing. I never expected that people would think that it stood for something. Some people even asked if it's a fetus. It's not that at all — it's a mood.
"The structures behind folk music and folk songs are very elemental, sort of like water," Vega adds. "You go through your fads with wine and soft drinks and everything else, but water is the basic thing you always go back to."