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Suzanne Vega on Her Return, Lou Reed's Puppy and Loving Macklemore

The singer-songwriter talks about the inspiration of her first new album in seven years

January 16, 2014 2:55 PM ET
Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega
George Holz

Suzanne Vega never knows who'll turn out to be a devotee. Take the young Adele fan who approached her at a recent show after Adele cited Vega as an influence (and "The Queen and the Soldier" as one of her favorite songs). Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange and writer of hits for Sky Ferreira and Solange Knowles, recently called Vega "a big influence." And when Vega and Danger Mouse worked on Dark Night of the Soul several years back, the producer admitted to his own fandom. "I thought, 'He'll just know "Tom's Diner,"' but it turned out he was a really big fan of [the 2001 album] Songs in Red and Gray," she says. "He knew all the deep tracks. So you never know. Music is not as segregated as people make it out to be."

See Where Suzanne Vega's Debut Ranks on Our 100 Best Albums of the Eighties

The name-checking couldn't have come at a better time. In the last decade, Vega — still best known to the general public for her 1987 hit "Luka" – has had a sometimes rough ride: She was dropped by two major labels and had to cope with the deaths of her brother Tim, longtime friend Lou Reed and fellow Village musicians Jack Hardy and Frank Christian. But Vega, now 54, has rebounded. About five years ago she launched her own label, Amanuensis, and re-recorded her back catalog, spread out over four thematic compilations.

Next month Vega will release her first set of new material in seven years, Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. Despite the prog-rock album title, the album is classic Vega, blending the springy acoustic guitars and knights-and-soldiers imagery of her earlier work with the more idiosyncratic beats of later albums like 99.9 F. It also offers up fresh twists: more aggressive guitars and contributions from former Bob Dylan and Levon Helm sideman Larry Campbell and Peter Gabriel and King Crimson bassist Tony Levin.

Not to mention her first stab at sampling: "Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain" includes a snippet from 50 Cent's "Candy Shop." A longtime fan of producer Scott Storch's production — particularly "those Arabic-sounding strings" — Vega says the sample was initially included as an experiment by her producer, former David Bowie musical director Gerry Leonard. "I thought it was as funny idea, and it's not as crazy as it sounds," she says. "You almost wouldn't know it's there."

The song also throws in a reference to one of Vega's other current hip-hop obsessions, Macklemore. "I was so crazy about 'Thrift Shop' when it came out," Vega says. "I couldn't stop listening to it and singing it. I love that idea that someone would do a rap song about thrift shops. People of my generation, we always got clothes from there, and he made it this radical thing and this statement. I found it really invigorating."

On the Cover: Thrift Shop Superstar Macklemore

With her clear, unwavering voice and penchant for dark suits (the subject of the new album's autobiographical "I Never Wear White"), Vega stood out from her fellow Village folkies of the early Eighties and was signed to A&M in 1983. She still remembers the $350 bottle of wine at one of her early label dinners. "I thought, 'This is insane,'" she recalls of those heady music-business days. Her 1985 self-titled debut stands as a modern singer-songwriter landmark, and "Luka" turned her second album, 1987's Solitude Standing, into a hit, and with that, the pressure was on. "Everyone was staring at us and expecting another smash success," she recalls of 1990's Days of Open Hand. "And even though we sold a million albums, everyone was bitterly disappointed. Kind of ironic now."

Vega made three more albums for A&M, parted ways with the label, and then signed with Blue Note for 2007's well-received Beauty & Crime — but that label also dropped her. "It was disillusioning because I got great reviews and it sold 100,000 copies, which I thought was pretty decent," she says. "So to put me out on the doorstop was surprising." Experiences like those have forced her to be economical: She mostly tours with only one musician these days (Leonard) and she re-cut her old material partly to make additional income from songs she once recorded for the majors. "It's a way of owning the material physically and, in that way, making some money," she says. "I've been able to stay afloat in this economy the last seven years."

In a way, Vega's return comes at a propitious time. Thanks to Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers and others, acoustic music is back in vogue. "You know, folk revivals keep coming around, so I suspected that would be the case," she says. "Folk music never goes away. It just keeps coming back in different forms. And here it is again. So it doesn't surprise me. I like Josh Ritter and Laura Marling, and I like the production on the Mumford records."

Vega is far less taken with a recreation of the early days of modern folk—the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, set in Greenwich Village about 15 years before Vega arrived there. Reluctantly, she recently saw it and came away baffled. The film, she says, doesn't remind her at all of her friend Dave Van Ronk, whose life inspired the title character, and the church-like atmosphere in the club scenes were not what she remembers about the Village: "Even a good audience would be blabbing, flirting and laughing. For the most part, those clubs forced you to be very entertaining—any charisma you had in you had to come flying out to hold their attention. Every audience in every scene was unrealistic."

Vega has sunnier thoughts of her time with Reed at his house on Long Island. On her last visit, two months before he died, she was struck by how frail he looked. "He was hanging out in his backyard in his bathing suit," she says. "It was quite an image. He was very thin. You could see the battle scars from his surgery. He asked me if I wanted him to put on a T-shirt, and I said, 'Are you kidding? I'm gonna make you put on a shirt? I don't think so.'"

Later, Reed's puppy grabbed and mangled a pair of Vega's sunglasses, and Reed was apologetic and offered to buy her a new pair. "He was truly mortified that the dog had done that to my special sunglasses," she laughs. "Lou had a special relationship with his own sunglasses. So it was … telling," she laughs. "But I was touched by his concern. I saw another side of him in the last few years, He was thoughtful and funny and kind."

Vega had hoped to work with Reed on Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles but wasn't able to, due to his illness. But other collaborations beckon. She and Hynes may work on a remix of one of his tracks. She's also revising her 2011 off-Broadway show, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, pondering a book, and hitting the road for U.S. shows in May. Looking back on the record-business heyday she witnessed up-close, she says, "It seemed crazy going through it, and I benefited from it. But now, it's, 'Okay, I'm still here and still making music,' and I have be smarter about it."

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