Suzanne Vega is accustomed to being a little left of center. During the synthpop-dominated early ’80s, she hit the New York coffeehouse circuit to become, of all things, a folkie. There, amid blue-jeaned James Taylor wanna-bes, the Barnard graduate wore funky black suits and sang terse, disquieting lyrics about the shattered, dazed, and abused. Some of those songs, set to hushed, brittle folk chords, appeared on Vega’s self-titled debut album in 1985. The effect was as if Joni Mitchell were possessed by Lou Reed.
Two years later, ”Luka,” a child-abuse hum-along from her breakthrough second album, Solitude Standing, was No. 3 on the charts the same week Madonna’s cottony ”Who’s That Girl” sat at No. 1. And then Vega vanished.
In the music business, it is considered unwise to follow up a top 10 hit with a year off. And then to spend another year honing your songs and recording your next album. And to do so as a barrage of sensitive, guitar-clutching singer-songwriters named Tracy, Michelle, Wendy, Shawn, Sara, Amy, and Emily steal not only your thunder but your niche. But to Vega, music isn’t just a job; it’s an artistic adventure. And that’s why, on the verge of releasing her first album in three years, Days of Open Hand (in stores April 17), she is again hopelessly — and admirably — out of sync.
”I didn’t want to hear any music, I didn’t want to write anything. I felt I had nothing to say except ‘I’m really tired — I’d like to go home, please.”’
In her floor-through apartment in lower Manhattan, Vega is explaining why she nearly entered the ”Where Are They Now?” show-biz pantheon in the years following ”Luka.” Her hair is close-cropped, particularly in the back, making her narrow features even more angular and her frequent smiles that much more expansive.
In the next room, one of her associates is barking, ”We’re workin’ — we’re makin’ progress” into a cordless phone. Two years ago, those were the last words Vega would have wanted to hear. She had just completed a hectic 12 months in which she recovered from a two-year bout with writer’s block and managed to scrape together enough new and old songs to make Solitude Standing. To everyone’s surprise, including hers, ”Luka” connected with the public and was nominated for three Grammys. Frazzled and worn after a year-long world tour, Vega withdrew, feeling like a spent force at age 28.
”I felt myself being shoved into folk-icon-dom,” Vega explains, sitting at an antique table and flipping through a mock-up of the art-filled CD booklet for Days of Open Hand. ”’She’s going to lead us into a revolution!’ That’s not my temperament; that’s not my personality. I want to be an artist, not an icon.”
When she began writing songs again, toward the end of 1988, she made a conscious attempt to vary the program. Narrative song structures, her early strong point, gave way to structures that were more surrealistic (her word). She began using more major chords to accommodate her itching-to-rock band. And she wrote what she calls ”a wholeheartedly optimistic” song titled ”Book of Dreams.”
”I tend to be more attracted to darker things,” she says. ”I’ve never thought about the idea that you could write a happy song that didn’t have any dark sides or broken people or missing parts.” Yet, she adds, ”I feel there are certain trademarks that I know, and every so often I go, ‘Oh, stop. Don’t write about child abuse or whatever — just stop.”’ She laughs. ”I thought, ‘OK, I’ll write something really happy. This’ll get them.”’
Vega’s idea of happy, however, is relative. The songs that tumbled out — half of them cowritten with Anton Sanko, her keyboardist, bandleader, and roommate touched on soldiers lying wounded in a hospital (”Men in a War”), grappling with the creative process (”Big Space,” ”Rusted Pipe”), and attempted suicide (”Fifty-Fifty Chance,” complete with a striking string arrangement by Philip Glass, who called the song ”somewhat morbid”). Not exactly the stuff of a Paula Abdul album, but to Vega they represent a step forward.
”I felt a lot of the songs on the first two albums were very defensive, very guarded,” she explains. ”I wanted this album to have more of an open quality.” Hence the title, taken from a line in ”Book of Dreams,” the album’s chiming first single and one of several songs (including the lullaby ”Tired of Sleeping”) that could be seen as radio-friendly. ”Men in a War,” which is being considered for the second single, trots as good folk-rock should, until you listen to the lyrics: ”If your nerve is cut/If you’re kept on the stretch/ You don’t feel your will/You can’t find your gut.”
Her bassist, Michael Visceglia, muses, ”It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that tune.”