By David Hennessy
Almost three decades since she arrived on the scene with her self-titled debut in 1985, eclectic folk-inspired singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega is back with album number eight. Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles will be her first studio recording of new material in seven years. Produced by Gerry Leonard, who has been David Bowie’s musical director for more than a decade, the new collection is ten songs that each tell a story of the material world and the world of the spirit and how they intersect.
Well known for eighties hits such as Luka and Tom’s Diner, the new album displays a new sound but the singer laughs when The Irish World says this: “I guess they say that with every album. Every time I make an album, people go ‘oh, it’s a new departure for you’. I guess my whole career is paved with departures. But yes, I agree. I think it is somewhat different flavour from what I’ve done before.”
A track sure to surprise a few people is Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain as it samples hip-hop artist 50 Cent’s Candy Shop. How did this idea come to Suzanne? “I have very eclectic tastes and an open mind. (The idea) didn’t come to me. It came to Gerry Leonard who is the producer of the album and who is Irish by the way, comes from Dublin.
“I kept forcing poor Gerry to listen to all this gangster rap and I like the productions of Scott Storch who works with 50 Cent and he’s also worked with Beyonce and the thing that I’ve always liked about Scott Storch’s productions is the Arab sounding strings which he uses a lot, they’re sort of a trademark. I kept telling Gerry: ‘Listen to this, isn’t this great? This is so cool. It would be great if we could get Scott Storch who’s like $80-90,000 a track or something. Gerry said: ‘Why don’t you just take the sample?’ And then he did. He took the sample, he put it into the track and I was thrilled. I thought it sounded so good and I wouldn’t have used it if I didn’t think it worked artistically so it wasn’t so much that I was looking around for something to steal. It was really more that Gerry put it in and I thought it sounded great so we kept it.
“It worked so well with the verse. There’s the verse about the thrift shop and the genie coming out of the bottle so I thought that would have been clever so Gerry took it a step further and I thought it was great.”
Describing the album track Song of the Stoic, Suzanne says: If Luka grew to be a man who worked say, as a roadie, this could be his story. Was this perhaps her starting point for the song? “No actually, it was the end point. I wrote the song and then realised that it was a kind of later version: That the characters were linked, they were kind of related but I didn’t start off with that idea.”
Speaking of Luka, can its writer believe it is now 26 years since it was released? “I am so bad with time that I can’t believe it honestly. I remember things from those days as though it were yesterday so I don’t know what to say about that except we all keep climbing up and up but that’s ok, I don’t mind it. It’s kind of astonishing to look back and go: ‘Yep, oh my God. It’s been 25 years.”
Suzanne has spoken in the past of being surprised by the phenomenal success of her song about child abuse but it does not surprise her with hindsight: “I’ve thought about it and looking back on it, I think that there are reasons why it was so successful. One is that my manager worked really hard on the production, he worked on that production for about 2 years trying all different arrangements. We tried listening to the song on different speakers and different types of speakers to see if it would do well at radio because he had said that it was going to be a radio hit, so it was his hard work and also his conviction that it was a song about a social issue. And that was the surprising thing, realising how many people understood the song and related to it. I hear that a lot, that Luka means a lot to people.
That’s the thing I could not have predicted. He predicted it though and it came true the way he thought it would but I did not predict that. There’s a reason they call it a hit and I guess that’s because you can kind of feel it hitting the world, people respond and it’s not something you can plan or count on. You can try and craft a hit but honestly, it’s kind of a mysterious thing.”
A very personal song from her new record is Silver Bridge. Asked about its meaning, Suzanne explains: “I’m at that point in my life now where one’s parents are struggling and getting on so it’s a song I wrote for my father-in-law on the day he died. It pretty much happened the way I say it in the song, it’s kind of a telling of what happened on that day and my impressions because I was the last person to speak to him and the first person to find him so it’s kind of a gentle telling of what happened on that day.
“The first verse goes: My heart is full today for the recently departed , of sorrow and of sympathy into the land uncharted” so I find myself thinking about it whenever anyone passes on. When Lou Reed passed on, I sang the song in public in his memory because it just made me think of that and it is emotional but eventually it becomes something that you sing so often that you feel it but you don’t feel it quite as personally as when you’re writing it.”
Suzanne has also lost a brother, Tim Vega. Tim worked in the World Trade Centre and while he was not working on the day of the 9/11 attacks, he did lose his job. Tim had battled with alcohol since his teens and drank himself to death in the eight months that followed the terrorist attacks. He died at just 36 years old in 2002. Does Silver Bridge make Suzanne think of him? “I guess I don’t think of him in specific because that was more untimely, it had a very different feeling to it and also I was much closer to my brother. He was my baby brother so from the time he came home from hospital, he was always a handful and we knew each other so well so that had a different feeling.
“This song has a slightly more formal feeling because he was an older man and he was dear to me but he was my father-in-law so there was a slight formality between us and that I think is reflected in the song as well.”
For the full interview, see the January 11 Irish World.
Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega is out in February. Suzanne tours the UK from January 30. For more information, go to: http://www.suzannevega.com/.