Suzanne Vega: ‘It’s taken me a while to say, You are what you are, it’s fine’

The 80s pop-folk star talks about her confused identity growing up, and her new album drawn from her one-woman play about US writer Carson McCullers

Suzanne Vega, the youthful lone voice of folkish revival in the 1980s, is now a 57-year-old woman but she remains, as she always has been, a mysteriously protean presence. She’s elfin small with large blue eyes and a face that tends towards cool inexpressiveness. She tells me that she’s often mistaken in the street for other people. “I’ve been told I’m Cynthia Nixon, Beth Orton, Isabella Rossellini and Molly Ringwald,” she says, shaking her head with bemusement.

Which one, I ask, does she most enjoy being confused with.

“Oh Isabella Rossellini. I was like, holy cow, thanks!”

Vega says she’s fascinated by the idea of “pretending to be other people”, and she’s auditioned unsuccessfully for several high-profile film parts down the years. She was up for the role of the underground musician in Desperately Seeking Susan, but lost out to Madonna. She got rejected as a nun in Sister Act, because her audition was “too dark”, and nearly played opposite Tom Cruise in The Color of Money.

She hasn’t yet landed a film role but in recent years she has acted the part of another young woman who found fame early and was hailed as a prodigious talent – the writer Carson McCullers. Five years ago Vega performed a musical stage piece she had written, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, portraying the alcoholic, disabled writer with her endlessly complex bisexual romantic interests and embittered literary rivalries. Now she has a new album out, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening With Carson McCullers, based on the songs from that show, which she has rewritten and will be performing this week at several venues across the UK. Is it radically different from the original?

“The original play was actually done when I was in college. So this is the third version. I ripped it up because I was unhappy with it. I was trying something experimental and I felt it didn’t come off. This new version is more a classic one-woman show.”

Vega has been intrigued by McCullers ever since she read the short story Sucker as a teenager. Vega started out as a dancer at New York’s School of Performing Arts (immortalised in Fame) but dropped out to study English and drama at Barnard. One day her drama tutor set a project in which students were asked to come dressed as a real person who was dead, and they had to field questions as though in a TV interview. Vega decided to read a large biography of McCullers overnight.

“I really got into it. I could act out all these things I wasn’t inclined to do privately. She drank, she smoked, she apparently had all these affairs with different men and women. So I did my senior thesis on her and then put the project away for 30 years.”

In the meantime, of course, she came to prominence as the singer-songwriter of Marlene on the Wall, Luka and Tom’s Diner. She arrived in the mid-1980s, aged 25, during the height of female flamboyance, when Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were strutting their exhibitionist stuff. By contrast she looked as if she was going for a coffee in the student union. “I always felt that I knew myself pretty well and I didn’t really bother with having an image,” she says.

But pop abhors a vacuum, so the image she got lumped with was of an earnest young folk singer who was too po-faced to play the game. In truth she was not immune to the pressures of success. By her third album, Days of Open Hand, released in 1990, she felt trapped by industry expectation.

“We worked for a whole year on that album. In the end I wasn’t really happy with it and there was this palpable sense of disappointment that we’d only sold a million copies. Now that seems really ridiculous. It felt like a crime that we didn’t sell three million!”

Watch the video for Suzanne Vega’s Luka.

Subsequently her sales have steadily diminished, though she retains a hardcore of devoted fans. There is an echo here of McCullers’s career, who also started out with great success, publishing her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, in 1940 at the age of 23. Although she continued to produce acclaimed works like Reflections in a Golden Eye and the collection The Balad of the Sad Cafe, she began to fall out of fashion towards the end of her career, and when she died from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 50, she had been supplanted in the public imagination by other southern writers such as Harper Lee, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

Just as Vega had started out as a dancer in New York, McCullers initially set out on a different track, studying piano at Manhattan’s Juilliard School. But after developing rheumatic fever, she took up writing seriously.

Often bracketed in the genre of southern gothic, McCullers wrote about her characters with an acute appreciation for human diversity and vulnerability. For Vega, the novelist was decades ahead of her time.

“From her disabilities to her bisexuality, what she called her dual nature, she was so modern. She was interested in writing from the point of view of black people. And she embodied these things. It wasn’t just ‘Oh I think I’ll write about civil rights’. She was deep in everything she wrote, and I think she suffered from it too.”

Like her heroine, Vega also has a gift for narrative empathy. Her songs often feature characters that feel novelistic in their realisation. After all, Luka was about the abuse of a young boy. At her best she brings to bear formidable powers of writerly observation, which may have something to do with a slight outsider’s perspective developed in her unorthodox cross-cultural upbringing.

Vega grew up in the Latino neighbourhood of East Harlem in New York and until she was nine years old, she believed that her stepfather, the Puerto Rican writer Ed Vega, was her father.

“I didn’t know my real father at all,” she says. “It was a huge shock and very embarrassing. All kinds of issues came up, mostly of identity. Because I was raised to be a proud half-Puerto Rican girl, and I loved my grandmother and aunt and I’d been to Puerto Rico, and I spoke Spanish and ate Puerto Rican food. And suddenly to be told that I was not Puerto Rican at all, that I was white!”

Watch the video for 99.9 F° by Suzanne Vega.

In her teens and early 20s, when she was reading a lot of revolutionary writers, she felt uncomfortable with her ethnic status. “It’s taken me a while to say ‘You are what you are, it’s fine’.”

She didn’t meet her biological father, Richard Peck, until she was in her late 20s, after she had gained international recognition. She says they have been in each other’s lives ever since and that he’s been very understanding of her sense of dislocation, having been an adopted child himself.

For the past 10 years she has been married to a lawyer called Paul Mills, and she has a 22-year-old daughter from a previous marriage to the musician and record producer Mitchell Froom.

If her own personal life is pretty stable, that wasn’t the case with McCullers. She married a soldier and wannabe writer, Reeves McCullers, when she was just 20, and thereafter suffered a torturous relationship based on that familiar but unhealthy dynamic of not being able to live together, and not being able to be apart.

It ended 16 years later, after various splits and reconciliations, a divorce and remarriage, with Reeves killing himself in what he hoped, mistakenly, would be a double suicide pact with his wife.

“They were almost always out of control,” says Vega, “but they really sort of needed each other. She took his name, but he kept trying to take bits of her identity, forging her cheques and professing to have all this writing talent himself, though he never put anything on the page.”

There were rumours, the kind often associated with successful women, that it was Reeves, who was the real author of the work. Vega knows the syndrome well. Her first husband produced her fourth album, which marked a significant shift towards a more electronic style of music. At the time there were suggestions that Froom drove the change.

“There was a camp of people who said, ‘Oh she changed her style to suit her husband’, which is nonsense. I hired him to do the thing that he did, and he did it really well, and that’s what I wanted him to do.”

But while McCullers was the obvious author of her own work, Vega believes her writing lost something when Reeves died, some of its earlier passion and social vision. What McCullers never lost, and Vega makes gentle fun of in one song entitled Harper Lee, is her competitive spirit. The song runs through McCullers’s opinions of other writers – “Virginia Woolf/She leaves me cold/I recognise the genius/But I’m twice as bold” – and boasts the catchy chorus: “Oh, Harper, Harper./Lee. Lee. Lee./She only wrote that one book!/I’ve written more than three.”

“She was trained by her mother to be a genius,” Vega says of McCuller’s motivation. “So you get the sense if you’re not a great genius maybe your mother won’t love you. She wasn’t going to let that go, and if that wrecked your marriage, well then that’s just too bad.”

I ask her if she feels competitive with other musicians.

“Yes,” she says without prevarication. “I have a jealous streak. I’m jealous of other people’s success, their acclaim, their recognition I guess. But over the years I’ve had to say, you just have to put that away. What I’m not jealous of is people’s freedoms. Because I’ve done what I’ve wanted. So I don’t begrudge anybody’s art. But sometimes I say, ‘Oh, they’re not up to much.’ I have to wrestle with that, though, because ultimately it will poison your art.”

A former Orange prize judge, she says she doesn’t read much modern fiction, preferring classics like Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, James Joyce and Hemingway. The most up-to-the-moment novel she has read recently is 25 years old – Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which she didn’t finish first time round. She appreciated the satire much more this time.

But what she really loves are biographies, particularly of creative people. Although she’s very careful about maintaining the privacy of her own life, she’s not one of those artists who argue that it’s all about the work. For her, it’s knowledge of the life that enhances appreciation of the work.

Watch the video for Book of Dreams by Suzanne Vega.

“Say Francis Bacon,” she explains. “You see his work on the canvas, but it’s so much more enriching when you know some of them are his lovers and this is how he lived. This is what his room looked like.”

I say it’s notable that Bacon, like McCullers, led a chaotic, alcoholic life.

“I think that’s why you become an artist,” she says, “to clear all that out. You have this troubled life and you figure, where am I going to put all this? And you put it on the canvas or the page as overspill in a way.”

What survives from that overspill is entirely unpredictable. I tell her that on the way to the interview, I suddenly found myself humming the insanely catchy melody to Tom’s Diner, and having to remind myself to stop, in case she thought I was mocking her.

She laughs, but she’s grown used to its background ubiquity. She wrote the song in 1982 and it lay dormant for five years, before becoming a huge global hit. Since then it has been covered, sampled and resampled by everyone from REM to Snoop Dogg.

As for McCullers’s legacy, Vega would like to see her read more widely. Her work, she says, is growing more relevant by the day.

“Even in the last five years between the last production [of her McCullers show] and this one, so much has changed. The fact that gay people can marry each other now is an amazing leap forward. And that, sadly, we have to have Black Lives Matter – that [campaign] would be shocking to her. She wrote about police brutality very early in her career. The things that she was thinking of, and embodied, are very current. So I think there’s a whole generation of people who might find in her a kindred spirit. They just don’t know.”

Perhaps, with Vega’s help, they will soon.

Suzanne Vega performs Lover, Beloved at the Queens Hall Edinburgh (9 Oct), RNCM Manchester (10 Oct), Cadogan Hall London (11 Oct) and the Town Hall Birmingham (13 Oct). The album Lover, Beloved is out on Friday


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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