June 17, 2011
Alongside Luka, Tom’s Diner is the best known song in Suzanne Vega’s introverted folk-pop oeuvre. But we meet not at Tom’s Restaurant, the inspiration for the song, in New York’s Morningside Heights, but the Metro Diner six blocks south. Over iced decaf coffee and a broccoli and cheese omelette, Vega, 51, who will headline the Home Festival in Devon on June 25, says she went to Tom’s — later featured in Seinfeld — as a student at nearby Barnard College, “two million years ago. We drank coffee, stayed up all night. I hate it now. Getting a coffee takes 20 minutes. I wanted to immortalise it because it was this little hole in the wall, but I’m not sentimental about it or need to hang around there. This place has better food and service.”
The singer, who will also bring her hushed, lilting vocals to the acoustic stage at Glastonbury on June 26, always seemed anonymous even when she had fame, but today she appears sharp but shy as she toys with her red hair. It’s the day after the final night of her one-woman show about the writer Carson McCullers, the author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and Vega confesses to feeling “disappointed” by the reviews Carson McCullers Talks About Love received. The New York Times said it was a “messy mixture of nightclub act and theatre piece”.
The wryly self-aware Vega admits some of the criticism was “fair”: the “daunting” self-written and performed play was “barely finished” by opening night. She will rewrite it and open “somewhere else” before coming back to New York.
Vega discovered McCullers’s writing at 17, noting her “surprisingly traditional” love for her husband and mother alongside the “intense attachments” to men and women that Vega is convinced were non-sexual.
She enjoyed “putting McCullers on” — the wig, slash of lipstick, unfrilly clothes — and appreciated the author’s “smoking, boozing and feelings for other women… I am a happily married heterosexual,” Vega smiles, “but I’ve certainly had attractions to women.”
And alcoholism: did she share that with McCullers? “I like a drink now and again,” Vega says carefully. “Most people would say I don’t have a drinking problem, including my husband [Paul Mills], who once told me I did. I thought he was being ridiculous, but he was probably right.” (That was in 1981. She turned down his proposal of marriage in 1983; they finally married in 2006.)
Vega’s brother Tim died of alcohol and drug abuse in 2002. He had struggled with alcoholism since he was 15 until his death at 36, Vega reveals, adding, “I could see his death coming. A month before he died I told him to go to rehab, but he accused me of being morbid and said he was fine.”
Tim, a graphic designer, had worked at the World Trade Centre and was “hugely affected” by 9/11, she says. “He went to lots of funerals and kept going back to Ground Zero. The whole thing pushed him over the edge. I had several intense dreams about him where we’d speak to each other. During one I said, ‘It’s like being on the phone, I can hear you so clearly.’ He said, ‘That’s because of our connection’, both as brother and sister and because of this medium of communication. The dreams helped me feel that I was still close to him, that there was a realm I could approach him in.”
Vega had always been the protective big sister; her parents divorced after she was born and, as the oldest of four, she “dreamt up games” for her siblings. She was “just as I am now, fairly introspective. I stood out in our neighbourhood [then East Harlem]. I could read but a lot of the other kids couldn’t, so I was considered weird. I wasn’t streetwise. I was teased and felt a bit of an outsider which was uncomfortable.”
She loved poetry, read Robert Louis Stevenson to her brothers and sister and wrote her first poem at 9. Her stepfather, Ed Vega, was a novelist and short-story writer. Her folk and blues inspirations came from the music he played, including Pete Seeger and Judy Collins, whose tragic ballad Anathea “particularly captured my imagination”.
Vega tried learning the piano “seven or eight times, but never got it”. She picked up a guitar at 11. At 14 she wrote her first song. “By the time I was 16 I had written 100.”
Vega wanted to be a dancer; she studied theatre and English literature at Barnard, attended a performing arts college (which her daughter Ruby now attends) and sang at coffee houses and venues in Greenwich Village, “though I was turned down a lot for my bad attitude. I didn’t want to speak, I didn’t like men looking at me.” She laughs. “I figured out if I was going to be on stage I’d better get over it.”
Her first, self-titled, album was released in 1985, then in 1987 Solitude Standing, included Tom’s Diner and Luka, a song about child abuse inspired by a boy who lived upstairs from Vega, although she had no idea if he suffered abuse. Seven albums followed: she is currently “reclaiming” her back catalogue by self-releasing in the US another four (though they are released by Cooking Vinyl in Britain): the first, love songs; the second, “people and places” (such as Tom’s Diner and Luka); the third, States of Being, out next month, “has more internal songs”; the last will focus on “family”.
When I tell people I wanted to be famous, they say, ‘We didn’t think you were like that’, but I did, though as an artist. I thought it might happen after I died, like Emily Dickinson,” she says. “I liked worldwide success. The guy checking my passport would sing Tom’s Diner or Luka.”
The Berlin album by Lou Reed, “the master of uncovering the most unusual song topics”, inspired her to write socially conscious songs. “But it was hard to feel celebratory with Luka when you were a magnet for people’s pain. You take it on, absorb it, which is wearing. When people experiencing abuse would ask, ‘What should I do?’, I would say: ‘Get help. Try to get out of the situation.’ ”
Vega was dropped by A&M Records in 2002 and later Blue Note. While she “worried why people weren’t rushing to sign me, I was happy to be free of the worry of where I fit into a label’s plans. Occasionally someone will stand over me on the subway and whistle Tom’s Diner, but even when I was successful I was anonymous, which I liked.”
Of her remaining ambitions, she would love to write “the great political song” and “love songs. I have written weird ones, but I shrink from them, because it feels it’s all been said.”
Love “in the broadest sense, not just the narrow avenue of romantic love” has “literally saved my life on a number of occasions”, Vega says: from when she was born (two months premature, weighing two and a half pounds), to Mills’s “courageous” alcohol-related intervention in the 1980s, after which she sought therapy. “In a very deep way he made me face my demons.” Back then he was a street poet, living scuzzily on the Lower East Side. “That wasn’t for me. I wanted to go somewhere, do something.” In 1995 she married her one-time producer Mitchell Froom, her daughter Ruby’s father. The marriage failed because “he was staggering under the stress of his first marriage and I was in a hurry for a baby”.
Parenthood made Vega “reassess all my priorities”: she toured two months of the year rather than eight, and staying up all night with an ill baby wasn’t conducive to songwriting. After a 22-year break she and Mills, by now a lawyer, reunited in late 2005 and married three months later. Ruby, 16, is close to both her fathers and is passionate about theatre and classical music, hammering away at Debussy on the piano at 1.30am. Mother and teenage daughter “are close and not close,” Vega smiles. “Ruby is very independent but knows she’s in my mind’s eye all the time, which she finds stalkerish and annoying.”
Vega was “a very old child”, so doesn’t mind ageing. She thinks about her mortality “every single day, it’s a very thin membrane between us and it”. Unvain and modest, Vega says she will write and perform “as long as there’s an audience happy to hear me”. Laughing, she recalls at performing arts college “when everyone was into punk, new wave, Bowie, Liza Minnelli, I was listening to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. They thought I was pathetic with my long hair and guitar. ‘She’s really missed the boat,’ they’d say. But I hadn’t. I was just on a different boat.”