Reporter Luke Parker interviewed award-winning artist Suzanne Vega ahead of her performance at the Avalon Theatre where she will preform on Sept. 16. Vega’s latest live-recording album, “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories,” was released on Sept. 11, 2020.
Parker: New York City has followed you throughout your career, from your earliest days in Greenwich Village to your latest 2019 album. Why did you decide two years ago to dedicate an album to the city?
Vega: Because it’s not just my career that has been dedicated to New York City, but my life. I moved to New York when I was two and a half, I’ve lived in all the neighborhoods except the really nice ones, and I’m very attached to New York. So, when we chose New York as a theme for the Carlyle shows, it worked so well that I thought, oh, this is a natural thing to just record the shows and put it out as a live album.
Parker: Since releasing that album, a global pandemic struck the world, and now we’re approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Has the album taken on a new meaning for you?
Vega: It has, partly because New York was hit first by the pandemic and I was here in the city for that. And so, we all struggled through something very dire and very scary. And then, ironically, the new release date for the album last year turned out to be Sept. 11, which was a surprise. That was kind of a coincidence. So, I think we ended the show – one of the last songs of the evening was the song “Anniversary,” which is about the anniversary of 9/11, so it all works together as an homage to the city that struggled through it, and is still making its way to revive and recover.
Parker: Likewise, has performing taken on a new meaning for you after not being able to do it for so long?
Vega: Yeah, I’m very excited to go out and play live again. It’s been about two years. I think even before the pandemic began, I was doing other projects, like theater projects, so I don’t think Gerry [Leonard] and I have actually been out on the road since the European tour of 2019. So we’re very excited to come out and start and play again for live audiences.
Parker: Of course, performing takes you all over the country and the world. But as someone who bases so much of their work around Manhattan and the New York lifestyle, what do you think draws people from other cities, states, and even countries to your music?
Vega: Well, I love New York City and I think it’s unique. But the fact is that if I go to London or Berlin or Tokyo or any big city, I find things that I love about those cities. Not every city is a woman, the way my song “New York is a Woman” says. But every city has its own character and its own nature. So people come for that. They come for the stories. They come to see themselves reflected in the music.
Parker: “New York Is a Woman” commemorates the tourist perspective of Manhattan. How does the love of outsiders have for New York differ and intersect with the love citizens like you have for the city?
Vega: Well, I’ve been around people when they see New York for the first time and it’s really, really funny. They’re all impressed by the same things, which tend to be the things you see in the movies like steam rising from the streets which, obviously, if you’ve grown up here is not that exciting. [laughs] But everybody loves it! Everybody from out of town loves it.
So, you’ve got your insider perspective, which is more problematic. I know more of the dark side of New York. I know the bad streets and what used to be bad and what’s gotten better, the dangerous side of things, which some people love in theory. I know some people who are very nostalgic for the 70s. I’m not particularly, so there is a difference, I think, between people who have lived here and struggled through certain years, and other people who have only seen it in the movies.
Parker: From what I understand, New York in the ’70s was not kind. Why is there so much nostalgia around that era?
Vega: Honestly, I think it’s generational. In 1972, I was 12 years old. So all through the ’70s, I was a teenager living at home with my parents, trying to earn money with extra jobs. It was a very bad time to be a teenager in New York, but the generation ahead of mine — Lou Reed, Patti Smith — they were in their 20s. They had just come to New York, especially Patti Smith from New Jersey. So for them, it was this wonderland of cheap rent and excitement in the streets and this new kind of music. So, I suppose that’s something to be nostalgic for.
But if you were 12 years old, it just wasn’t a lot of fun.
Parker: It’s funny what a difference just a couple of years can make.
Vega: Yeah, or 10 years or 12 years or whatever it is.
Parker: You’ve said that one of your favorite tricks is to write songs from other people’s perspectives. Can you touch on that process, because songwriting seems to be such a personal experience?
Vega: Well, I’ll tell you a secret: even the songs that are written from someone else’s perspective usually reveal something about myself or my life.
It’s not just random. I don’t pick a random person off the street and go, “oh, I think I’ll write about them.” Although, you know, I could. But usually a song, even if you write it from someone else’s perspective, reveals something about the author as well. But it’s not confessional. You know, it’s more slightly fictionalized, I guess, which is just how I work. I’m more comfortable with that slight distance.