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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Suzanne Vega!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Central Library,
Suzanne Vega on the cover of her recent album, New York is My Destination
Suzanne Vega on the cover of her recent album, New York is My Destination

On July 11, 1959, Suzanne Vega was born. Vega is a singer/songwriter who had some unexpected pop success in the late 1980s and early 1990s with a pair of surprising hit singles, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.”

Vega was born in Santa Monica, but her family moved to New York when she was two. She began performing in Greenwich Village folk clubs while she was a student at Barnard College. Some of her first songs were published in early issues of Fast Folk, a monthly magazine/CD combination from the 1980s and 1990s.

Vega’s self-titled debut album was released in 1985, and “Marlene on the Wall” was a minor hit single in England. In 1986, she contributed lyrics to two songs, “Lightning” and “Freezing,” as part of Philip Glass’s pop-song project Songs from Liquid Days; Glass’s other lyricist partners for those songs were Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, and Paul Simon, so Vega was in very good company.

Suzanne Vega
Vega, Suzanne

On the 1987 album Solitude Standing, the focus was still primarily on Vega’s voice and guitar, but the backing arrangements were a bit fuller than on her first album. No one expected that a downbeat song written in the voice of an abused child would catch on at pop radio, but “Luka” was a #3 pop hit that also made the adult contemporary, rock, and Latin charts. (Oddly enough, given that this was Vega’s most successful album, it’s her only album not available through our streaming services. Many of its songs, though, are included on Vega’s greatest hits collection Retrospective.)

“Book of Dreams” was the most successful song from 1990’s Days of Open Hand, doing well at rock radio. But Vega’s biggest success that year came completely out of left field.

Days Of Open Hand
Vega, Suzanne

The first song on Solitude Standing was “Tom’s Diner,” an a cappella song about a woman stopping for a cup of coffee. A duo of British dance music producers called DNA remixed Vega’s vocal, adding a dance beat; they released the record to dance clubs as “Oh Suzanne.” DNA hadn’t gotten (or even asked for) permission from Vega or A&M Records to remix the song. In an unusual moment of music industry generosity, A&M chose not to sue DNA, but to buy the remix and release it themselves.

The official release—now billed as by “DNA featuring Suzanne Vega”—returned to the song’s original title, “Tom’s Diner,” and it was a top ten hit on the pop, dance, and R&B charts. The success of the record led more producers and remixers to create their own versions of the song; Vega gathered the best of them and released Tom’s Album in 1991.

Vega made a wild departure from her usual sound with 1992’s 99.9° F. It was a more experimental, more electronic album. The lead single, “Blood Makes Noise,” was filled with metallic clanking and heavy percussion, and it was a big hit at alternative radio. Vega has never offered an explanation for the song’s cryptic lyrics, except to deny the common interpretation that it’s about someone being tested for HIV.

Vega’s next two albums, Nine Objects of Desire and Songs in Red and Gray, were commercial disappointments, though “Caramel,” from Objects, became popular through its use in several movie soundtracks. Vega left A&M for Blue Note Records, but her 2007 album for them, Beauty & Crime, didn’t sell much better.

After the global financial crash of 2007-08, Vega wanted more control over her songs. She left Blue Note and founded her own label, Amanuensis Productions. She began recording the “Close-Up” series, thematic collections of her old songs, re-recorded in new acoustic versions, with one or two new songs in each volume. So far, Vega has released four “Close-Up” volumes, with new versions of about two-thirds of her earlier songs.

The 2014 album Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles was Vega’s first album of new material in seven years. It featured “Song of the Stoic,” a sequel to “Luka,” in which that abused child, now grown up, looks back on his life. The album’s biggest novelty was “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain,” in which Vega made her first use of sampling, drawing on excerpts from the 50 Cent song “Candy Shop.”

Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
Vega, Suzanne

Vega’s most recent album was released in 2016. Lover, Beloved is a collection of songs from Vega’s one-woman show about the life of novelist Carson McCullers.

In addition to her own albums, Vega has contributed to a variety of other projects. She’s been a guest vocalist on albums by The Smithereens (on the song “In a Lonely Place”) and Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse (“The Man Who Played God”). She’s taken part in multi-artist tributes to Leonard Cohen (“Story of Isaac”) and Laura Nyro (“Buy and Sell”). And she sang an eerie version of “Stay Awake” for an all-star collection of songs from Disney movies.