The lights dim in Joe’s Pub, an elegant lounge in New York’s East Village, and Suzanne Vega and her band step out onto the tiny stage. The audience greets her warmly, enthusiastically, as if she’s a cherished friend they haven’t seen in a long while. She notes that it’s been six years since she released a studio album, 2001’s Songs in Red and Gray, and though she has continued to tour, even Vega seems a little nervous. In July, three years separating from her longtime label, A&M, the singer-songwriter is making her Blue Note debut with Beauty & Crime, an album inspired by New York after 9/11.
Vega—turned out in a fashionable charcoal top, slim black pants, and black patent-leather heels, a fringe of red bangs falling casually across her forehead—launches into “New York Is a Woman,” a metaphor-rich song about a man who comes to the big city and falls under its spell. She turns 48 on July 11, but her voice is as fresh and appealing as it was in 1987, when “Luka” dominated MTV and radio playlists alike. There is, however, something new in her delivery: a sense of urgency. Vega, usually so coolly matter-of-fact, at least in public, is on fire for this new material. And she’s not the only one. When she submitted the demos for Beauty & Crime to Blue Note, label president Bruce Lundvall’s response was unequivocally supportive.
“He had all this stuff to say about it,” recalls Vega in an interview with Paste at Blue Note’s New York City headquarters a few weeks before her Joe’s Pub gig. “You could tell that he really listened to it, that the poetry meant something to him. And it brought tears to my eyes because I was so startled. It felt like it had been a really long time since anyone from [a] record company had really listened to what I was doing.”
Vega’s music has always been personal—pointed ruminations on her place in the world (“Small Blue Thing,” “Left of Center,” “Tired of Sleeping”), the life she sees around her (“Tom’s Diner,” “Luka”), desire (“Caramel”), divorce (parts of Songs in Red and Gray, which came out after her breakup with then-husband Mitchell Froom, who produced her 1992 album 99.9 Fº). But Beauty & Crime is easily her most intimate effort. The album throbs with feeling, from opener “Ludlow Street,” a song about her late brother; to “As You Are Now,” written for her 13-year-old daughter, Ruby Froom; to “Bound,” which she wrote for her husband, Paul Mills, a civil-rights attorney and poet who she married in 2006. Well-placed orchestral embellishments, meanwhile, heighten the emotional intensity of her carefully wrought lyrics. Think Sufjan Stevens and Illinois or Sia’s 2004 song “Breathe Me,” a string-heavy track produced by Jimmy Hogarth, who Vega chose to produce Beauty & Crime.
As high-minded as that description sounds, the songs are firmly tethered to the earth; the singer-guitarist took pains to balance what she and her studio crew called the beauty and the crime on the record. “We didn’t want everything to be lush because of the string arrangements. We also wanted some kind of rougher edges in parts of it,” explains Vega, who is joined by labelmate KT Tunstall on the tracks “Zephyr” and first single “Frank & Ava,” a singer who appealed to her for the “rough edginess” of her voice. “As a kind of shorthand, we kept saying, ‘Well, there’s too much beauty, not enough crime.’ Or whatever.” That was their process, and it also became the album’s title.
It may seem strange that Vega would only now be releasing an album about 9/11. She has lived in New York City her whole life, apart from a brief detour in Santa Monica, California, when she was a child. She even went to college in the city, earning her degree in literature at Barnard. “I love New York. It drives me crazy sometimes, but I still love it,” she notes. “I’ve been here a long time. I feel part of the fabric of it.” But while there are songs on Beauty & Crime that are specifically about the terrorist attacks, like album closer “Anniversary,” this disc mostly feels like the convergence of age and life-changing events inspiring someone to look back on their life. And since Vega is an analytical person, she’s not inclined to just pour out a confession like a guest on Oprah. She takes the time she needs to get things right, or as right as they can be.
“Ludlow Street,” for example, is about visiting the neighborhood where her brother Tim, who died in 2002 at the age of 36, once lived. On 9/11, Tim was supposed to be working with a production crew for a concert that was to take place at the World Trade Center, but as fate would have it, he didn’t go in that day. “He wouldn’t even tell me all the things that the crew that did show up—what they saw, what they did, and all the tings that happened,” Vega says. “And he really, it kind of sent him. He became obsessive—he kept gong back to the site. His life just sort of became more and more out of control. He died eight months later.”
“Ludlow Street” is one of the last songs she finished for the album. “I found it really hard to write,” Vega says. “I had all of these things that I wanted to say and all these images that kept floating up in my brain. And I finally had to narrow it down to the most important ones.” Still, she says, the song is not complete. “It approximates what I have. There’s a more fully realized version somewhere else in space, in my mind.”
Will she come back to it? “No, I don’t think so. I think I have to let it go. I think once you go for it, and you achieve it as fully as you can, you can almost never go back. I’ve tried doing that with ‘Marlene on the Wall,’ and it doesn’t work.” She laughs. “Marlene,” from her 1985 self-titled debut, is among Vega’s best -known and best-loved songs, but she’s really not happy with it? “Well, no, not really. No. I’ve tried to go back with producers and see if we could fix it, and make it more—I wanted it to be more punky,” she says. “And it just—it will not go that way.”
We’re nearing the end of Vega’s hour-long showcase at Joe’s, and she’s introducing her next number. She’s decided to perform the song “as people know it,” and then she and her band—which includes a keyboardist/violinist—kick off a souped-up, DNA-remix-style version of “Tom’s Diner.” And there Vega is, her fingers poised to snap along to the beat, a wide grin occasionally spreading across her face.
She’s no longer the twenty-something folk-scene breakout star who showed off her dance training in that song’s video, just as New York will never again be quite as invincible as it once seemed. But the essence of both remains as potent as ever, and there’s every reason to believe that, as Frank Sinatra, another Manhattan icon, once sang, the best is yet to come. Vega plans to tour Europe this summer, and she and Lundvall have been tossing around the idea of her recording an album of standards. “I’d love to do some of those Sixties bossa nova songs. Like ‘How Insensitive.’ I think I could do a really good version of ‘How Insensitive,’” Vega says.
She’s clearly relishing the possibilities that being at Blue Note offers, dropping her wariness in favor of something that looks a lot like hope. “There was this wholehearted embracing of what I was doing, to the point that I was almost freaked out by it,” she laughs, remembering Lundvall’s reaction to her Beauty & Crime demos. “I had to stop thanking him. It’s been this wonderful feeling of, They like what I do, they accept what I do. I feel very sort of vibrant, like I’m in a very good place.”
Published in the April 2007 issue of Paste. This is the unedited version.