First published on 16 Dec 2011. Updated on 31 Dec 2011.
It’s the day after Suzanne Vega’s final gig of 2011 when we hear her voice down the phone from her home in New York. She doesn’t sound hoarse, exhausted or even hungover, though by her own admission the gig – at the small-stage, Greenwich-area Joe’s Pub – was ‘terrific and festive, and a great way to end the year’. Her voice is soft and restrained, halfway towards a whisper. It has a fragile tone that suggests one cough could break it. ‘I guess people like my voice,’ she purrs down the handset. ‘I sing as though I’m singing into somebody’s ear, so there’s an intimacy to my voice that some people find appealing.’
Certainly, it’s an appeal that has helped Vega, 52, sell millions of records worldwide, reviving a literate, reflective strain of femme-folk in the 1980s along the way and helping pave the way for the likes of Tori Amos, Beth Orton and Jenny Lewis. Though many of her early songs, such as ‘Luka’, ‘Tom’s Diner’ and ‘Marlene on the Wall’, have long since entered the pop-cultural vernacular, Vega’s prominence over the past decade has gradually subsided. Does she feel that her early hits have cast a shadow over the latter part of her career, or that she might have peaked too soon? ‘Having “Luka” as a big hit early in my career gave me some money, a name and it gave me a lot of freedom to do exactly what I wanted to do, so I don’t see it as any kind of burden. In fact, I feel like I was really lucky.’
Her insistence on taking charge of her creative output, and her reluctance to conform to the demands of the popstar publicity machine, has won her critical accolades but also led to her being dumped by her label and to a decline in the size of her fanbase. But she seems happy with the trade-off: ‘I feel that, as a songwriter, my destiny has always been first and foremost as an artist; it took me into the mainstream and it has taken me out.’ Releasing herself from the pressures of the mainstream has also given her a chance to diversify. Always considered as much a poet as a songwriter, in 1999 she published her collected poems, lyrics, and journalism in a volume entitled The Passionate Eye. ‘When Solitude Standing [from 1987, her second and most successful album to date] came out, a lot of people talked about the very observational tone in the writing, that it was very journalistic,’ says Vega.
Since last year, she’s been trawling through her back catalogue and revisiting some of her most famous songs in a more acoustic manner for her series of Close Up albums, of which there are four in total – all released on her own label and available directly through her website, allowing her to maintain control of her songs. Her recent setlists have included a number of her greatest hits, of course, as well as freshly aired material from a 2011 stage show about the life of American author Carson McCullers that she co-wrote and premiered with fellow songwriter Duncan Sheik.
She’s looking forward to returning to Asia, having ‘started going to Japan very early on in my career,’ she says. ‘I have always been amazed with the reaction in Asia. To be honest, the very first time I went from New York to Boston I remember thinking: How am I going to come across in Boston? No one will understand me in Boston because my humour is so New York. So imagine my surprise when I went to Japan and I had a huge audience – and a lot of them loved and understood the songs, and understood the ideas behind them.’
Vega’s appearance at the 250-seat Esplanade Recital Studio in January (her second time performing in Singapore) promises to be an up-close-and-personal affair – a trend she’s been sticking to on recent tours. But it is part of a gradual process of downsizing that suits her; her music lends itself to intimacy. In the days when she performed to crowds of thousands, her music felt lost in the immensity of the audience – with her small-scale concerts, she’s one step closer to truly singing in your ear.
Suzanne Vega plays at the Esplanade Recital Studios on 18 Jan.