"I've always felt like I'm between all these different worlds," says Suzanne Vega. It's easy to see why.
The singer-songwriter grew up in a European/Puerto Rican household in East Harlem and other parts of upper Manhattan. When she was 9 she was told that the man she knew as her father was actually her stepfather, and that in fact she was not half Puerto Rican.
Uprooted from her presumed heritage, she eventually took refuge from her cultural confusion in New York's mid-'70s folk music community. But some of her edgier songs made her an uneasy fit there too.
Vega eventually solved her identity problem by more or less inventing her own genre of modern folk-pop, starting with her first album in 1985. Since then the term "a Suzanne Vega type" has been applied to any number of serious-minded, acoustic-oriented, artful female singer-songwriters who have come along in her footsteps.
But now Vega has made herself a misfit again, breaking her self-defined mold with her fourth album, "99.9 F."
Inspired by the irreverent spirit of the English duo D.N.A.'s 1990 dance remix of her song "Tom's Diner," Vega pumped up the volume for "99.9 F," incorporating adventurous, electronic elements into her folk foundation.
"The attitude of 'Tom's Diner' was obviously playful," says Vega, whose lively manner and good humor during a phone interview from New York belie her image as an austere, frail creature to whom the term waif-like is invariably attached.
"I could tell that it was done very low-tech," she continues. "This is not a slick producer looking to make some money. This is two kids in a bedroom looking to make some money, or get some attention or something. That's what I liked about it, and the funniness of it."
In any case "99.9 F" is certainly a radical departure for Vega--or is it?
"I don't think it's as radical as it appears to be," says the singer, who plays on Sunday at the Ventura Theatre in Ventura, Tuesday and next Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, and Feb. 18 at the Wiltern Theatre.
"Those people who only know me from what's played on the radio were probably really surprised. But I think the people who've been listening to the music for a long time and reading the lyrics probably were not that surprised.
"I actually think the new style fits the lyrics better. It's more like what the lyrics are about. Like 'Blood Makes Noise' is about the sounds inside of a person's head. On the first album, there's a song called 'Cracking' that kind of deals with the exact same subject, but it was treated differently.
"It's just that I'm more confident now eight years later. The sounds are louder! Some of it is confidence. Some of it is recklessness. Some of it is like, 'Well, I'm 33 years old, if I don't make a noise now I guess I never will.' "
Vega's biggest hit, 1987's Grammy-nominated "Luka," was the cry of an abused child, and though Vega has retooled her sound and broadened her persona on "99.9 F," she remains drawn to characters who fall into society's cracks.
"It's what I see around me," says Vega. "It's what I feel in the air. It's not like I get it from the newspaper. I don't have to look very far for all of that information. Mostly what I'm trying to do is speak for people who I think need to have a voice. People who can speak for themselves will speak for themselves and I don't need to do it for them.
"It's part of my life. The way I was raised, the neighborhoods I grew up in, the fact that I came from a large family, the fact that my mother was 18 when I was born and she had four kids before she was 24 years old, and we spent five years in East Harlem.
"The world I grew up in was a very different one than the one I saw on television. And you start to feel that there are certain situations that need to be given a voice, and that's what's attractive to me."
Vega's musical redefinition follows a period of musical restlessness and personal transition.
"I suddenly felt this big burst of energy about a year and a half ago," she says. "You go through certain changes in your life and everything gets overhauled and you start wondering what you're on Earth for, and maybe it helps you to put things in perspective, and I think I went through something like that a while back. But I won't be any more specific than that."
One key event in Vega's life is her relationship with her natural father, whom she tracked down five years ago. One of the key things she discovered was that music runs in the family: Her grandmother was a drummer in a female band on the vaudeville circuit.
"It's a peculiar feeling to have picked a lifestyle thinking I was original and spontaneous, and suddenly realize your grandmother did the same thing 50 years ago. You feel your blood speaking to you. Your blood singing. You start to feel that you're part of something larger than yourself that's speaking through you. Which sounds really mystic, but it's pretty accurate."
This encounter with her true heritage has clearly helped ease the trauma of having her identity shattered as a child. When asked if it was a strain to go through that process, Vega laughs heartily before replying.
"My entire life has been a strain. No, really. I was born two months early, I weighed 2 1/2 pounds, I spent my first five weeks in an incubator. So in some ways I am a frail waif. But I don't make a big deal out of it. I just get on with my life.
"I feel much happier these days. Life is still a challenge but I don't feel quite as freaked out by it. I guess I feel that I can express myself through humor more and I can be a little more playful, in my dark way."