When Suzanne Vega Peeled Away Her Folkie Label, Fans Found a Pop-Rock Star
She is the unlikeliest of pop stars. Pale, soft-spoken, schoolgirl plain in pictures and serenely pretty in person, Suzanne Vega at 27 looks better suited to writing sonnets in a college dorm than to holding court before cheering concert crowds. Onstage she makes no attempt at rock 'n' roll flash; standing almost motionless, she strums her acoustic guitar and chats, coffeehouse style, with even the largest of audiences. Her lilting, minor-keyed ballads inspire comparisons with Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, and as Vega herself will tell you, there is precious little call for most folk music these days. "Record companies don't want to hear about it," she says. "Most people in life don't either, actually. They say, 'Folk music? Gross. What are you, like, some kind of '60s revival?' "
Against those odds, Vega has spent the past several years climbing toward pop-rock fame. Her debut album, Suzanne Vega, released in 1985, drew critical accolades. Though U.S. sales were only moderate, the album shot to the top in Britain and sold 800,000 copies worldwide. Eight weeks ago she released her harder-rocking second album, Solitude Standing. It hit the U.K. charts at No. 2, and this time Vega's countrymen seem to be catching on as well. (It's currently in Billboard's Top 40.)
But is she some kind of '60s throwback to the days of peace, love and guitar-toting flower children? Ron Fierstein, Vega's manager (and playwright Harvey's brother), cringes at the idea. "Suzanne is not a folk artist!" he barks. "She got a record contract because people finally realized she was more like David Byrne or Sting than Joan Baez." Vega agrees. "What I do is actually very contemporary," she says. Luka, her new, synthesizer-driven single about a battered child, is testimony to that. So are earlier songs like Cracking, which use the clipped, deadpan diction of Vega's primary rock 'n' roll idol, Lou Reed. "If I had never said I was a folk singer," she insists, "no one could have told."
There is no dispute, however, about Suzanne's folkie musical roots. Growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, she was exposed early to the records of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Cisco Houston. Her stepfather, a Puerto Rican novelist (her father left the family when Suzanne was 6 months old), and her mother, a computer analyst, played the guitar and sang for their four children. "When I was 7 or 8 I started singing as well to keep my brothers and sisters from fighting with each other," says Suzanne. "Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But my father told me I had a nice voice."
She had other talents as well. At the High School of Performing Arts she studied modern dance and wrote folk songs in her spare time "as a way to put things in order. Writing was like having a friend you could really talk to." While majoring in English at Barnard, she finally hung up her leotards when she realized she would "never make it out of the chorus. And I wanted to be excellent at something." The decision to make that something singing was tough. "All of my friends were into David Bowie and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I'm sitting there with my acoustic guitar," she remembers. "People would say, 'You have excellent songs, but you're too quiet,' or 'You need a band,' or 'Why don't you learn some Top 40,' or 'Why don't you learn to type?' "
Undaunted, Vega persevered—and learned to type. Working as a receptionist by day, she managed to keep up regular folk-club gigs in the evenings and eventually found a producer. Her songs grew sparer and tougher, and her luck got better; finally, after a series of rejections, she wrangled a contract from A&M records.
These days, her life is increasingly hectic. Her two-year live-in relationship with folk singer Frank Christian ended in December, and Suzanne now lives alone in an airy Greenwich Village studio. She likes to spend her few free hours chanting at a small, wooden altar (she has been a Buddhist for more than 10 years), reading or simply "looking out the window and thinking about things. It's one of my favorite ways to amuse myself."
For now, Vega's world-watching will have to be done from plane windows and concert stages. A worldwide tour through Europe, the Far East, Canada and the U.S. began this month and will keep her away from her village apartment until mid-December. The trek just might help put an end to that mistaken image of the shy and quiet, retiring poet. After all, "If I were really introverted," she says firmly, "I'd still be a receptionist."
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