Pop: Her name is Vega

Suzanne paved the way for Alanis and co to hold sway in today's charts. But don't hold that against her. She's back, with a baby, and a sharper, grittier sound. By Lucy O'Brien
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The Independent Culture
`I can't listen to Days of Open Hand without feeling like I'm getting hives. It was such a difficult album to make, I was doing it under such pressure. I can feel myself getting weird as soon as I hear it," says Suzanne Vega, sitting in a downbeat cafe near her Soho apartment in New York, reassessing earlier albums. Although the recent release of her fifth, Nine Objects of Desire, marks 12 years in the business ("or 22, if you count the 10 years before I got a record deal"), she is sanguine about her success, claiming in her quietly precise way that at 37 she has just started to scratch the surface of "what I'm capable of".

It was in 1985 that Vega emerged from the Greenwich Village folk circuit to release her self-titled debut, a sharp, thoughtful collection reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro that completely went against the grain of the punchy, video-led chart pop of the time. She was being groomed by A&M for critical cult status and modest sales when the 1987 follow- up, Solitude Standing, became an unexpected hit, selling over six million copies worldwide and yielding the No 3 UK hit "Luka", a dispassionate, moving song about child abuse. Her hypnotic street lullaby "Tom's Diner" then became a smash in 1991 when dance remix duo DNA slipped a hip hop beat under her vocals.

Proving that a "serious" female singer / songwriter could sell, Vega's success opened the door for a whole new generation of women artists, from Tracy Chapman to Michelle Shocked, and latterly, Alanis Morissette and Alaskan songstress Jewel.

Vega's brand of subtle observation, however, hasn't always worked with critics. Her third album, Days Of Open Hand was seen as a detached, lacklustre affair with disappointing sales. But by 1993 she had evolved a much grittier, more declarative sound on the album 99.9 F, and Nine Objects of Desire, with its sharp songwriting and neat combination of rock, bossa nova and percussive beats, is considered to be her best yet. Gone is the earlier self-consciousness of lines like: "Today I am/ A small blue thing/ Like a marble/ Or an eye".

Back in 1992 Vega was a resolutely single girl until she fell in love with Mitchell Froom, top producer for acts like Elvis Costello and Chrissie Hynde, when they were working together on her 99.9 F album. "I felt like somebody had cast a spell over me and I didn't appreciate it, it seemed unfair, there was no way to fight back."

Because he was married at the time they didn't act on it until later. "After we finished the album I wasn't sure if I was going to see him again. I didn't want him to leave his family but there was this feeling of destiny, a weightiness I was puzzled by." Eventually Froom left his wife for Vega, but while she was doing press for the album they kept the affair secret. "I found that strange. Everything had a double meaning - like when a journalist said, `I really admire Mitchell Froom's production but I wish he'd leave his organ out of it.' I'd go red, thinking, What's the matter with you, there's nothing wrong with it!"

Two years after they officially became an "item" Vega had a baby girl, Ruby, an event she depicts with clattering unsentimentality in the song "Birth-Day". It was through her daughter that Vega became aware again of music's everyday importance. "You forget that as a singer because music just becomes a daily grind. But I found that singing to my daughter was the one way I could get her attention. When I first did it I felt really shy - what if she hated it? Normally it calms her down, but one time I sang to her in a fake opera voice and she started screaming. That cured me of doing that again!"

Having Ruby has also changed her life in terms of the mundane practicalities of being a musician. "I wonder why before I had her I never realised how free I was, because I'll never be that free again," she says, somewhat wistfully. She finds the age-old struggle of career versus bringing up baby "as hard as hell". On her forthcoming tour, for instance, Vega is scheduled to sleep on a bus for two weeks in the coldest parts of Europe, including the former Yugoslavia. "This is a nice place to bring a two- and-a-half-year-old baby girl whose immune system isn't fully developed yet," she says. "Are they nuts? I have to fight with everyone - my manager, my agent - and ask them if they've lost their minds. Ruby should be going to nursery school, not dragging around with a bunch of guys with tattoos."

Though she is also aware that the country is a healthier place to bring up a child, Vega is reluctant to leave New York, her home and her muse "There's a state of mind in this city that allows me to write," she says. "The feeling of being alone in a crowd. Even though people are smashing up against you, you can be private and self-contained." For Vega there is rich experience to draw on and every part of the city has a memory, from the High School she went to near Times Square, to uptown Spanish Harlem where she grew up. "New York has the quality of a problem that's not solved yet. So I keep coming back."

One issue she has gradually reconciled over the years is the split identity of growing up white in a Hispanic neighbourhood with a Puerto Rican stepfather, the novelist Ed Vega. "Until I was nine I thought he was my real father, and when I was told he wasn't it came as a shock. I felt embarrassed, my idea of white people then was stereotypical and I assumed my natural father would be a very nerdy guy."

She joined a street performance group called The Alliance of Latin Arts as a way of fitting in, "to try to prove myself to my stepfather". She was never fully accepted. Once the group did a show in the South Bronx and they were pelted with eggs. People accused her of trying to pass herself off as Puerto Rican. "I still have a flyer that shows all these brown- skinned girls standing in a line and at the end of it there's me, a very white girl whose completely withdrawn, as if Emily Dickinson had wandered into the wrong picture. It was totally wrong."

It wasn't until she left home and carved a career in folk music that Vega found a separate identity. Yet although she felt she had to distance herself from him, she acknowledges that her stepfather was one of the biggest influences in her life. "He was a person who really believed in being true to your artistic `calling'.

"I saw how dedicated he was to his writing, how he put that above everything else. I wish I could do the same in my household, declare, `I'm the breadwinner, I'm the artist - if I wanna stay up all night and write I can and you better not wake me in the morning.' I find if difficult to put my foot down and say, `My writing comes first'." She pauses, stirs her tea and then says with a smile, "But I will. When I'm older. I'll be like Martha Graham, the Queen of the Castle"n

`Nine Objects of Desire' is out now on A&M. Her UK tour starts 8 Feb

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