Suzanne Vega possesses one of the finest voices in American music and will be at Space in Evanston Friday for two shows to support her newest album “Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.”
She took some time to talk to The Chicago Ambassador about sampling 50 Cent, thoughts on being the mother of the MP3, and many of her projects that prove that she’s much more than a singer-songwriter.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You’ve been to Chicago quite a bit over the last year or 18 months, and of course throughout your career. What are your thoughts about Chicago?
VEGA) It’s a city I like. It’ a real city, it’s a proper city. It’s got buildings and streets. I’ve always liked Chicago. I think I went for the first time when I was 11 or 12. I remember thinking, ‘yep, this is good.’
CA) Are there any favorite things you like to do here — will you have any spare time?
VEGA) I won’t this time. My husband’s family is from Chicago so sometimes I go visit them. He grew up in Ravinia and he still has family there.
CA) You recorded part of your new album in Chicago, correct?
VEGA) I think we did a vocal there. I think I need to redo the vocal for “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” and we ended up doing it there, if I recall.
CA) Any reason?
VEGA) We happened to be in Chicago and really needed to redo the vocal so we got a studio (Butcher Boy Studios) and just did it.
CA) Speaking of that song — “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” –you sampled 50 Cent’s song “Candy Shop” in that song — and it was the first time you ever sampled a song. What was it like to be on the other side of the coin for a change?
VEGA) It was a lot of fun. We approached him and he said that he was a fan — that’s what he told my management — and we worked out this deal and it worked out great for all concerned. It’s not normally how I listen to music, like ‘let’s take pieces of it’ — but I felt that it was a very modern thing to do and I think it came out well.
CA) Speaking of sampling, “Tom’s Diner” has probably been sampled a few dozen times, and also covered by many artists. Are there any versions that you like particularly a lot?
VEGA) Yes, the current one by Fall Out Boy I really like a lot.
CA) That came out recently, correct?
VEGA) Yes, it came out September 8th and it’s a big hit. It’s one of the biggest versions of “Tom’s Diner” that I’ve heard in recent years. There’s a few others too. There’s one that’s sort of floating around the Internet with Notorious B.I.G., and there was one with Snoop Dogg that was interesting. I think Danger Mouse has a great one. Interestingly, Danger Mouse merged Tom’s Diner with “In Da Club” by 50 Cent.
CA) Speaking of Danger Mouse, you did a collaboration with Danger Mouse and David Lynch and Sparklehorse —
VEGA) Yeah, that was great. I must say, I really enjoyed that.
CA) Did that album ever come out? Wasn’t there a copyright issue with EMI?
VEGA) It was leaked, you might say. In fact, they had an ‘unrelease’ party because it wasn’t an official release. What they did was they made a book with David Lynch and they made the CD as part of the package with the book, and that’s how they got around that.
CA) So, to get the CD, you must buy the book?
VEGA) Yes, and it’s available digitally also.
CA) You’ve done a lot of things that some might consider out-of-the-box. You wrote and acted in a play about Carson McCullers (“Carson McCullers Talks About Love”). Was that an easy jump for you? It seems that a lot of your songs are written in a way that a novelist might approach a story —
VEGA) I’ve always been interested in writing and in theater. I grew up in a family that encouraged all of that. My stepfather (Edgardo Vega Yunqué, aka Ed Vega) who raised me was a novelist and short-story writer, so it was natural to talk about characters and point of view, language…. and I minored in theater in college (Barnard College). I was an English literature major but also studied theater in college. I wouldn’t say it was an easy jump but it was something I’ve been doing for a lot of my life.
CA) Any plans to do more plays?
VEGA) Yeah, I want to finish this play. I’ve rewritten the whole book from beginning to end and am doing a residency next year at a place called Hedgebrook to finish the play.
CA) Your daughter Ruby has also been singing with you lately. How’s that been?
VEGA) Well, it’s great. I wish she would do it more often. We started touring when she was about 6 months old. When she was very young she got tired of the life on tour, so she only comes out when she feels like it or when she feels like seeing the places that we’re going to.
CA) How old is she now?
VEGA) She’s 20.
CA) Is she going to pursue a career in music?
VEGA) She’s examining her options now. Right now she’s doing cancer research at Sloan Kettering (Memorial Sloan Kettering Research Center in New York). She’s inclined towards both music and science, and she’s terrific at both. So, I don’t know how it’s going to end up. I don’t know if she’ll continue doing lab research and do music on the side –it’s kinda looking like that might be the way she’s heading.
CA) If she does decide to stick with music is there any advice you’d give her or any other young artist, especially female artists?
VEGA) Yeah. To do it, to be successful at it, you really have to want it. You have to want it almost more than anything else because it’s so difficult to make it in the music industry and then to keep going. Even if you have one success it’s hard to— you have to be committed and you have to be able to take rejection, which is not easy. You have to have the stamina to stay in it for the long run.
CA) You’re 55 now and I’ve always thought that you were very comfortable in your own skin and you never went the route of using sex to sell records. Was there ever any pressure on you to do that?
Vega) (Laughs) No, there was never any pressure. I think people just looked at me and said ‘oh, there’s no way. She can’t take any advice.’ Which I don’t, I don’t take any advice. But I did have some crazy people early on tell me that I would never make it because I didn’t use sex, because I wasn’t interested in creating an image and all of that. But I feel and felt then that I had something to say and I wanted to say it in this particular way. I had my heroes who — if you look at the world of men, there are some men who use sex to sell a song — I can imagine David Bowie doing that, but I don’t imagine Bob Dylan doing that. I still think he’s a sexy guy but he’s not gonna bump and grind. I don’t see why we need to do that either.
CA) You mentioned Bowie, have you seen the Bowie exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago?
Vega) I haven’t seen it yet and am sorry that I’m going to miss it this time but everyone else in my traveling party is going. They’ve been talking about it for weeks and Gerry who plays with me, Gerry Leonard, is David Bowie’s musical director and has worked a lot with him on his albums and toured with him so that is the number one priority for my whole touring party but I have to go back to New York for the day so I’m going to miss it. Unless I can get there the day of, the day of the show.
CA) To get back to the whole sex thing, Sinead O’Connor has recently been pretty outspoken about the industry and people like Miley Cyrus. Do you have any opinions of her contention that the music industry puts a lot of pressure on female singers to do that sort of thing?
Vega) Well, it depends on how you define pressure. I myself never felt pressure to do that but on the other hand, I also understood that I was probably was going to sell fewer records than some other people. That’s just life, you have your choices. I think the music industry is a crazy business but it has its wonderful side. You have these crazy successes. I think my successes have been great. And there’s always the possibility for more like that. So, girls have their own minds. You can choose to be that way or not. You have to develop your own character and you make your own choices. I’m not going to say the music industry puts pressure on you. You make your deals and you live with yourself at the end of the day.
CA) The last couple years you have re-recorded your catalogue with the “Close-Up” series. What was the impetus for that?
VEGA) In 2008 I found myself without a record deal for the first time in my whole recording life. I’ve been recording since I was 24 years old. So, I thought ‘what am I going to do now?’ I could write 10 new songs and go try to get a major deal again or I could record 10 new songs myself and try to put them out but I really was not in the mood to do that, to start over. I thought, ‘you know, I have some money saved, I’m going to do this’ –I’m going to start my own company and re-record all the songs that I feel like re-recording and put them out over a period of time, thematically. That way I can gather and audience through social media so that when I come out with new albums there will be a group of people who are interested that I can put this album in front of. So, it’s worked out pretty well. I’ve gathered a group of people on Twitter and Facebook. It was a big experiment and I think it’s worked out pretty well.
CA) Did any songs change when you revisited them?
VEGA) Not really. I chose the songs that could be done well in an acoustic format. And Gerry, he and I when we perform live – we go back and go over the songs and tinker with them, so yeah, the production is different but the songs are basically the same.
CA) You’ve done some really interesting things a bit out of the box — you’re a big documentary fan. You’ve judged the Independent Music Awards several years. In 2003, you hosted the American Public Media radio series American Mavericks. In 2006, you became the first major recording artist to perform live in the Internet-based virtual world, “Second Life.” All these different things — do you think they are connected or related?
VEGA) They’re connected and related in that I think in my career I’ve been a lightning rod for certain ideas, which I’m proud of — like the mother of the MP3. I think It’s because I’m open to influences, therefore I’ve been a conduit for certain ideas based on the different ages I’ve been. It’s part of being alive and part of being a creative artist.
CA) As for being the “mother of the MP3” — did you know they were going to use “Tom’s Diner” as a reference track in the compression trials? (“Tom’s Diner” was the first song used by MP3 inventor Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop the MP3. Brandenburg heard “Tom’s Diner” on a radio playing the song and was excited and at first convinced it would be “nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice. He adopted the song for testing purposes, listening to it again and again each time refining the scheme, making sure it did not adversely affect the subtlety of Vega’s voice.)
VEGA) No, not at all. I had no idea. I did here that they use “Tom’s Diner” to check speakers and sound systems at gigs. I think Phil Glass told me they used to use the “Solitude Standing” album which starts with the a cappella “Tom’s Diner.” Because the voice is so simple, it reveals any flaws in the system itself. So I’m sort of flattered.
CA) You have two shows Friday at Space in Evanston and then one show Saturday in Saugatuck, Michigan, to wrap up your current tour —
VEGA) Yes, it’s pretty much over on Saturday. I think there’s a couple holiday things we’re doing in New York, but it’s not part of the tour. So, yeah, the tour is over. We’ll tour next year but I’m not sure when yet.
CA) So you’ll take some time off before your playwright residency plan?
VEGA) Right, I’ll take some time off and there are a couple of other projects I’m working on.
CA) Anything you want to mention?
VEGA) There’s this interesting idea of this ballet center that just opened in New York, at NYU. They want to see if some of music could be put to a ballet. So, I’m going to spend probably three weeks working with choreographers to see if there’s a way to make a ballet out of some of the story lines of my songs and some of the music. I think it’s a really cool idea and I’m really looking forward to meeting the composers and these young choreographers in New York and seeing what comes of this. It’s a special project meant to foster interest in ballet.
CA) Is there anything people would find hard to believe, or any guilty pleasures coming out of your radio that people would be amused to learn about?
VEGA) Oh probably. Let me see, I have my iPhone here. These are the “top 25” most played. (she checks her phone). It says here, “Welcome to Heartbreak” by Kanye West is my most played song. I don’t know what people would think about that, but that’s the fact. What else is on here?– Sean Paul –I’m a Sean Paul fan. I like “Temperature” (by Sean Paul). I have “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. I have a bunch of stuff by the band “Metric” which is, I think that girl (lead singer Emily Haines) is very cool.