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Friday, Jan. 11, 2008
Vega steals into the spotlight
By WAYNE GABEL
Special to The Japan Times
A city of extremes, New York represents different things to different people. For singer- songwriter Suzanne Vega, its infinite variety is a constant source of inspiration.
"Beauty & Crime," released last summer by EMI Japan, is a detailed look at a metropolis that's a part of America, yet a world unto itself. The album, her first studio effort since 2001, is a collection of ministories in song form. She recounts the turbulent marriage of Frank Sinatra and actress Ava Gardner, examines the inner turmoil of a firefighter in the aftermath of 9/11 and ponders perceptions of beauty in the novels of Edith Wharton. The common thread is the city that, in "New York is a Woman," is likened to a self-confident charmer with no shortage of suitors eager to have their hearts broken.
Though technically not a native, the California-born Vega has impeccable credentials as a chronicler of her hometown. She's lived nearly all of her life in Manhattan — or, more accurately, all over Manhattan.
"Chelsea, Tribeca, Lower East Side, the Village, Spanish Harlem, Harlem — pretty much all the neighborhoods, except the really nice ones," she says, laughing as she lists the places she's lived during a phone interview ahead of her upcoming Japan tour.
If there's one neighborhood that's closest to Vega's heart, it's the Upper West Side, where she was raised and returned to live about seven years ago. It's the setting for the song "Zephyr & I."
"I know all the nooks and crannies — the pockets where people aren't doing so well, and the other areas where people are doing really well. It's kind of everyone on top of each other," says Vega.
She says the Upper West Side's crowded conditions and ethnic stew shaped her as a person. She grew up in a multicultural household and recalls seeking her identity after learning that the Puerto Rican man she'd long called dad was not actually her father.
"It was a shock to find out that I had a different father, who's English and Irish," Vega says.
"I had to go through my own crisis of figuring out who I was and where I belong," she continues. "It's made me aware of being an outsider. New York is filled with outsiders because most people who are here were born somewhere else."
Vega's quest eventually led her to her biological father. Their re-connection is something she believes she unsuccessfully tried to convey in "Pilgrimage," from her 1990 album "Days of Open Hand."
"The bigger the event is, the harder it is to write about it. It's easier to write about smaller moments because you can put it all down in two or three minutes," she says.
One exception is "Bound," a track on her new disc that "wrote itself" as she was rekindling an old romance after her divorce from Mitchell Froom, producer of two of her 1990s albums. Her recent wedding to a man she'd declared herself bound to forever in 1983 took place as Vega was experiencing a personal renaissance. Because "Beauty & Crime" is her first album in six years, it's routinely described as her comeback album.
Vega was dropped by her former label, A&M, after 2001's "Songs in Red and Gray." In the U.S., she's now signed to Blue Note, a jazz-centric label that's been diversifying its roster. It's a fresh start for an artist nearing 50. Vega hit it big with her self-titled 1985 debut album and then outdid herself with 1987's "Solitude Standing," which yielded the hit "Luka." Her profile is lower now, but Vega seems comfortable with her status.
"It really was a shock to have a lot of success in the way that I did. I was pretty young, although I didn't feel young at the time," says Vega. "It never occurred to me that that would be my highest peak."
At the height of her fame, Vega was heralded as an heir to Bob Dylan who would usher in a new era in folk music. But even then she says she was aware of "the flaws of my first couple of records."
"I remember thinking, 'I'm still new at this, and I'll get better, and people will see that I'm getting better.' But that's not how it works," Vega says. "In some ways, I've been defined by those first two records."
Though her string-filled new album is inspired by the arrangements of the past, Vega happily works with the tools of the present. In doing so, she's updating her image as the "girl with guitar" to "girl with GarageBand," the Apple software she used to compose parts of "Beauty & Crime." She sees nothing inherently artificial about composing with her Mac.
"It's just a different tool to work with. It's a little bit like switching from a pen and diary to a computer to keep your journal," she says.
Embracing technology comes naturally to the woman who's been dubbed "the mother of the MP3," because MP3 developer Karlheinz Brandenburg used her song "Tom's Diner" to refine the invention.
Vega learned firsthand about the technology's development while visiting Brandenburg's Fraunhofer lab in Germany a few months ago. "They took my voice and ran it through the MP3, expecting it to re-create the voice exactly. But they found out they had a lot of work to do because it was distorting and casting all kinds of shadows on the vocals," Vega explains. "They said, 'Every time you hear any song on an MP3, it's the result of this man's ears and Suzanne Vega's voice,' " she says.
Voice manipulation apart, Vega believes there are times when we should settle for what we've got. It's a topic she addresses in "Edith Wharton's Figurines," a song inspired by the gender roles assigned to women in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century. In reflecting on Wharton's fiction, Vega was reminded of the fate of novelist Olivia Goldsmith, whose death (from face-lift surgery complications) ought to make us think twice about the lengths we go to correct perceived flaws.
"It's bad that women need to suffer for this ideal that they can never achieve. Even if you have surgery, five years later you get something else that goes," Vega says. "Why not try to live with some kind of dignity where you have your integrity?"
That's perhaps easier said than done in the image-conscious music industry, where women are under constant pressure to look their best. Add to that the mental and physical toll taken by a life of constant travel.
"Women who tour for a living in the music industry have really hard lives," Vega says. "It's occurred to me lately that quite a few people — Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday — were all dead by the time they were in their 40s. There's a reason for that. Life on the road is not easy for any woman."
Vega knows the value of remaining grounded. On "Ludlow Street," she returns to New York's Lower East Side, where she lived and partied during her prefame days. It's the place where her late brother, Tim, would sow the seeds of his 2002 demise. Unlike her, he never realized when the party was over.
"Once I got my record deal and started touring, I found I could not maintain that pace. I had to really learn to discipline myself," Vega says. "But my brother was not able to discipline himself. That's why I went down to Ludlow Street and took him in a car, put him on a plane and took him to rehab."
Despite her efforts, the lifestyle eventually consumed him. For Vega, the old neighborhood seems incomplete without him; for others, its appeal is diminished by the changes brought by redevelopment. Urban renewal has been processing at a pace that's bred fears Manhattan is losing its soul.
"People have been complaining that New York has changed a lot," Vega notes. "Are they right? I don't think so. New York is such an ambitious city that you can't accuse it of being commercial. There are times when I get sick of it," she says. "But I usually find that a short break is all I need. Then I want to come back."
Suzanne Vega plays Jan. 22, 7 p.m. at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro in Osaka. Tickets are ¥8,000 (tel.  6281-8181); Jan. 23, 7 p.m., at Nagoya Club Quattro, ¥8,000 (tel.  264-8211); Jan. 24, 7 p.m. at Tokyo International Forum Hall C., ¥7,000/¥8,000 (tel.  3402-5999).