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TEMPERATURE’S RISING : She May Look the Same, But Songstress Suzanne Vega Says, ‘I’m More Confident Now’

Richard Cromelin is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times.

The term waif-like seems permanently attached to Suzanne Vega’s name, but that doesn’t mean the singer is a slave to the austere, folk-derived music that made her a pop-music force when she released her first album in 1985.

The New York native made a mold-breaking move in her fourth album, “99.9 F.” Inspired by the irreverent spirit--though not the precise sound--of the English production duo D.N.A.'s 1990 dance remix of her a cappella recording “Tom’s Diner,” Vega pumped up the volume, incorporating adventurous, electronic elements into her folk foundation. While sales haven’t been spectacular, the reviews have been among the best of her career.

Vega’s biggest hit, 1987’s Grammy-nominated “Luka,” was the cry of an abused child, and though she has changed sounds and broadened her persona on “99.9 F,” she remains drawn to characters who fall between society’s cracks. The new album’s “Bad Wisdom” tracks a young girl’s emotional dread in the wake of an unwanted sexual encounter, while the clanging “Blood Makes Noise” captures the singer’s mounting panic during a medical examination.

Vega’s musical redefinition follows a period of personal discovery, centered largely on her developing relationship with her natural father, whom she tracked down in 1987. Vega, 33, grew up in East Harlem and other parts of upper Manhattan thinking she was of mixed heritage: Her stepfather is Puerto Rican author Ed Vega.

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Vega was interviewed by phone from New York just before starting a concert tour that brings her to Southern California for a series of shows: Sunday at the Ventura Theatre in Ventura, Monday at San Diego State University, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, and Feb. 18 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and Feb. 22 at San Diego State University.

Question: Do you think the sound of this album is a radical change?

Answer: I don’t think it’s as radical as it appears to be. I think “Blood Makes Noise” probably surprised a few people. 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” which 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.”

Q: Did you feel your music needed a change?

A: The last record (1990’s “Days of Open Hand”) took me about a year to record. . . . We were very careful and very painstaking with it and this time I just wanted to break loose a little bit more. On the last one I was tired, and it sounded careful and tired--although I’m not unhappy with it. I don’t go in for trashing my old work. I like to think of it as a progression. I do think there’s a consistency in all the four albums. But yeah, I was feeling restless.

Q: Are you resigned to being called waif-like all your life?

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A: It depends on the way you think of it. In my mind’s eye I’ve always felt much bigger and darker and tougher than I appear. And so it’s always been a shock to me to see myself on television, because I realize now why they call me that. It’s because I do look that way in fact. But it depends on how you see a waif. If you see the waif as like one of those velvet paintings with the big tear rolling down your cheek, that is not me. But if you think of a waif as a Dickensian sort of person who’s been around for a long time and older than her years, that more or less could be accurate.

Q: Are you a private person, or do you enjoy the spotlight?

A: I enjoy the spotlight I’ve carved out for myself. I don’t think I’d want to be much bigger than this. I enjoy it more than I thought I would, actually. I think there was a time in 1988 when I felt really squashed for a while. A simple thing like getting up in the morning and trying to decide what to wear becomes a huge ordeal because you’re being judged by what you look like. Unconsciously, you’re always trying to conform to what people want of you. Sometimes you find yourself feeling confused about who you are.

Q: How did you deal with it?

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A: I just stopped. I could feel everything getting larger and larger and I stopped working. I stopped touring. I just went home and tried to get the whole thing in perspective. It’s fairly easy to do. You can always lose publicity. The hard part is getting publicity. You can always become anonymous. I cut my hair a couple of months after “Luka” was a really big hit and I could walk down any street and nobody knew who I was. And it’s still pretty much like that.

Q: Do you have a sense of who your audience is?

A: No, not really. I know other people think that my audience is made entirely of yuppies. Or at least that was true five years ago. I don’t think there are many yuppies around anymore. We went into a depression and suddenly they vanished.

But I’ve always seen my audience as a very widely scattered group of eclectic individuals, from little kids who like “The Queen and the Soldier” and “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka” to older people who like poetry, who like the feeling of lyrics in the ‘60s. Lately, with “Tom’s Diner” it was like every black and Puerto Rican kid said hi to me in the street. I thought it was cool, considering that I’d grown up in some of those same neighborhoods, and it used to be if I walked down the street people would say, you know, “Yo, white bitch!” Now they say, “Hi, Suzanne.”

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Q: Interpretations of your songs are pretty varied. Do you like to keep them open to interpretation?

A: That wasn’t my specific intention. Usually, I’m writing about something specific, and usually a big problem. Like with “Luka” the big problem with child abuse. And I always tend to be drawn to these things that are hidden in daily life. No one comes out and says, “I’m an abused child.”

So I feel sometimes that in writing these things, you have to keep it hidden because that’s the way it’s presented in life. And that makes it open to interpretation. It’s not that I’m being vague. It’s not like a riddle; I’m not trying to consciously tease the audience. But at the same time I’m writing about things that are hard and things that are usually hidden.

In “Bad Wisdom,” the problem that I was specifically thinking of was a girl who’s about 12 or 13 years old who’s had a sexual encounter that she didn’t want. But I’ve read reviews that say it could be that she has AIDS or that she’s pregnant. The interesting thing to me about that is that if you don’t state what the problem is, you realize how much these people have in common.

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Q: Why are you attracted to a Luka and other people in dire straits?

A: Because it’s what I see around me. 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, and the world I grew up in was very a 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.

Q: Do you think artists have an obligation to express their views on social and political issues?

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A: I have mixed feelings about it, because there are some people you wish would not. There are some people you just don’t want to hear from anymore. I used to say no, I don’t think an artist does. But on the other hand when I read somebody like Woody Guthrie, it’s hard not to be moved by his life and what he stood for, and I think a person should write about the world that they live in, and politics is part of it. But it all really depends on how it’s done. I don’t like being hit over the head with it.

Q: You’re part of a very active arts community. What’s your feeling about government’s role in supporting the arts?

A: That’s so hard to form a clear opinion on, because if someone’s gonna pay money for something they’re gonna want control over it. Eventually, you can’t trust it if it’s paid for by the government. I myself have always tried to be really independent. I’ve always tried to earn what I get. But on the other hand, then you’re a slave to a different kind of system. And there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t exist except for grants. My personal value system says if you don’t want people telling you what to do, then don’t get them to pay for it. But people like (performance artist) Karen Finley need protection and there ought to be some corner of the government that’s sensitive to that.

Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during your career?

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A: Not to be arrogant. Not to feel you have anything coming to you. I’ve had a few experiences that really knocked me on my face. . . . I’ll tell you one that’s kind of embarrassing. Once I was in Australia and I got to the venue and I saw this line of people waiting outside, and I’m like, “Oh look, these are my fans.” Then the bus came and everyone got on the bus and went away. It was a bus stop. It was one of those private moments where you go, “Whoa.”

Q: You were 9 when you were told that you weren’t half Puerto Rican. What was that like for you?

S: I think I must have suspected I was different, but it was a shock. I felt really weird to find out that I was white. For a long time I just tried to pretend that nothing happened.

R: That must have been a strain.

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A: My entire life has been a strain. I was born two months early, and 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.


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