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Suzanne Vega

Alongside mid-late 80s fellow femme-folk breakthroughs TRACY CHAPMAN, SHAWN COLVIN and MICHELLE SHOCKED, demure singer-songwriter SUZANNE VEGA (born Suzanne Nadine Peck, July 11, 1959 in Santa Monica, California) was probably the most left-field and stylishly autumnal.
Renamed SUZANNE VEGA after her jazz guitarist mother divorced and remarried Puerto Rican novelist Ed Vega, she was brought up in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan and the Upper West Side of New York. Studying dance at the High School of Performing Arts, songwriter prodigy Suzanne spent her spare time gaining valuable musical experience in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, inspired by the likes of COHEN, DYLAN, REED and BAEZ.
Hooking up with managers Ron Fierstein and Steve Addabbo, VEGA eventually secured a contract with A&M, Addabbo and Lenny Kaye (ex-PATTI SMITH Group and “Nuggets” curator) overseeing production duties on her eponymous SUZANNE VEGA (1985) {*7} debut album.
Critically acclaimed, this starkly compelling folk set saw VEGA hailed as the new JONI MITCHELL with some observers drawing comparisons with JANIS IAN and even DORY PREVIN. Highly intelligent and acutely observed, VEGA’s musings were reminiscent of the aforementioned LEONARD COHEN, although she possessed a distinctive lyrical voice with a delicately understated hushed vocal to match. Buoyed by the UK success (on a second release) of `Marlene On The Wall’, the album almost made the Top 10, although it struggled to penetrate the US Top 100. A couple of months later, she scored another UK Top 40 with the moodily intense `Left Of Center’, written especially for the soundtrack of 80s movie, Pretty In Pink, and featuring new wave jazzateer JOE JACKSON on piano.
VEGA finally broke through in her home country with `Luka’, a poignant character portrayal of an abused child and a record that made it all the way to No.3 in the American charts. The accompanying album SOLITUDE STANDING (1987) {*8} consolidated VEGA’s standing as one of the most promising young talents in the new singer-songwriter movement. One track, the a cappella `Tom’s Diner’ (only a minor UK hit upon its original release in 1987) was later reworked by dance act DNA, its success prompting a remixed UK Top 5 version.
A third album, DAYS OF OPEN HAND (1990) {*6}, met with mixed reactions however, its more ambitious jazz arrangements (co-produced by keyboard-player/beau Anton Sanko) and enigmatic lyrics standing in contrast to the economical simplicity of her earlier work. No hit singles were forthcoming although the success of the aforementioned `Tom’s Diner’ track made sure VEGA’s career stayed on the commercial straight and narrow.
No doubt inspired by the rhythmic innovation applied to the track, her fourth set 99.9 F (1992) {*6} – produced by husband-to-be Mitchell Froom – saw VEGA experimenting with all manner sound effects. The result was arguably her most consistent set since the debut, the likes of `Blood Makes Noise’ and `Fat Man & Dancing Girl’ fastening spiky rhythmic structures to VEGA’s trademark sound, while the more traditional `When Heroes Go Down’ showed she could still pen affecting folk-pop. In 1996 Suzanne was back with her most accessible work to date NINE OBJECTS OF DESIRE {*6}, another record that took her beyond the boundaries of folk music.
While the 90s were characterised by an experimentalism in large part due to the influence of husband/producer Mitchell Froom, her subsequent divorce made for both rich songwriting material and a back to basics approach on the Rupert Hine-produced SONGS IN RED AND GRAY (2001) {*6}. Very much a return to the sparse, confessional style which made her name back in the 80s, the record analysed the breakdown of her marriage in oblique yet emotionally loaded style. Six years in the musical wilderness (she re-married, suffered the loss of her artist brother Timothy Vega and changed labels), Suzanne to many critics was back to her very best through comeback contemporary set BEAUTY & CRIME (2007) {*7}.
Unwilling to concede to the conventions of modern-day studio/digital releases, VEGA presented the first of a batch of re-vamped acoustic songs in album, CLOSE-UP: VOL 1, LOVE SONGS (2010) {*6}. At now over 50 years of age, it reflected her career in full circle; as did the equally retro and reflective, CLOSE-UP: VOL 2, PEOPLE & PLACES (2010) {*6}, CLOSE-UP: VOL 3, STATES OF BEING (2011) {*6} and CLOSE-UP: VOL 4, SONGS OF FAMILY (2012) {*6}.
Several years since she’d made a proper studio album, and many more since the demure singer-songwriter appeared in the Top 40 (in Britain at least), 2014’s TALES FROM THE REALM OF THE QUEEN OF PENTACLES {*7} rectified that minor foible. Augmented by co-scribe and stalwart producer/guitarist Gerry Leonard (bassist Tony Levin, drummer Jay Bellerose and mandolinist Larry Campbell perform the bulk of other assistance), VEGA painted her pastoral pictures in soft narrative brushstrokes, while she counterbalanced songs such as the metaphorical `Crack In The Wall’ and `Jacob And The Angel’, with the punky `I Never Wear White’ and the hidden within, 50 CENT “Candy Shop”-sampled, `Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain’.
As far back as 2011, Suzanne had offered up her one-woman theatre production – in collaboration with Duncan Sheik – concerning the life and times of favourite author Carson McCullers (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was probably her best-known work). To commemorate this period and its revival on stage in 2016, the singer-songwriter unveiled a fitting song-cycle tribute to the novelist in LOVER, BELOVED: SONGS FROM AN EVENING WITH CARSON McCULLERS {*7}. Peppered with a vintage, acoustic jazz tinge, VEGA served up a solemn and wistful shift of tact to come up with `New York Is My Destination’, `Carson’s Blues’ and `12 Mortal Men’, while she also killed an er… flock of mockingbirds (i.e. rival authors) under the panoptic `Harper Lee’.
© MC Strong 1994-2011/GFD2 // rev-up MCS Mar2013-Oct2016

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