We’ve Got A File On You: Suzanne Vega
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
If you only know Suzanne Vega for one thing, it’s probably the “doo-to-doo-doo-to-doo-doo-doo” hook of “Tom’s Diner.” An existential reflection on the feeling that you’re observing life instead of living it, the song continues to have one of the most unexpected journeys in popular music. It started as an a cappella ode to the coffee shop Vega frequented as a student at Barnard College — which was immortalized as an exterior shot in Seinfeld — and was later remixed into an underground dance hit by the duo DNA. “Tom’s Diner” would go on to become an unexpected hip-hop touchstone, and served as the basis for the first MP3 ever mastered.
If you only know Vega for two things, then the second is likely “Luka.” Next only to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” it’s the ultimate example of a 1980s Social Message Song, a somber and empathic meditation on child abuse and society’s ability to ignore that which makes it uncomfortable. It’s not the sort of song that you’d think would promote someone to festival headlining status, but that’s the sort of career Vega’s had.
But if you only know Vega for those two songs, that’s a bit of a shame, as she has a rich and often surprising body of work that has stretched across decades. While attending Barnard, she began performing at folk music clubs in Greenwich Village. She helped establish the Fast Folk anthology series, which also served as a launching pad for artists such as Chapman and Shawn Colvin. Back when music best-of lists were rarer and therefore more meaningful, Rolling Stone named her 1985 self-titled debut one of the best of the decade.
She’s a master of the urban-folk sound, but her career has also spun off into all manner of strange detours over the years, from the industrial and R&B tinged art-pop of her third album 99.9F° (1992) and the sultry follow-up Nine Objects Of Desire (1996) to her off-Broadway excursions, including a play she co-wrote about the life of writer Carson McCullers. If you’d like to get caught up or reacquainted with Vega, her new live album An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories is a stripped-down, intimate tour through her songbook, highlighting her rich voice and novelistic approach to lyrics. Calling from New York, Vega reflected on coming up in the NYC club scene and getting back in touch with her roots. She also told us why she had to wear a bulletproof vest while headlining Glastonbury Festival, how she lost out on starring in Desperately Seeking Susan, and why she’s sorry for ruining the music industry.
An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories (2020)
STEREOGUM: What made you pick Café Carlyle as the place to set up shop and explore your catalog for a while?
SUZANNE VEGA: Well, it was really more that Café Carlyle invited us. It was my second time playing there, and I love it as a venue. It has an atmosphere, really unlike any other New York City atmosphere. So when they invited me to come back, I said, “Oh yes, of course.” First of all, you play for two weeks, so it’s really more like putting together a show with an opening night, and then you just run the show for the two weeks that you’re there. So very different from a rock ‘n’ roll show, where you change the set or you have a lot more spontaneity.
So there we were, in the Café Carlyle, and I thought, “Oh, since we’re gonna have it be more like a show, let’s make a theme.” And a theme I thought would work really well in there was the New York theme of songs that were either written in New York, or about New York, or had New York as a character. And somewhere in the second week, we started to realize how great this was. The audiences were getting bigger and bigger, and the buzz was great. People, apparently, were talking about it in the elevator, so we were getting all this good feedback from the elevator operators, because the Café Carlyle is a hotel as well. So, we said, “Yeah, let’s record it and see what happens.” And we liked what we had, so we thought, “Well, let’s put out an album.”
The Play Carson McCullers Talks About Love (2011) And Album Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers (2016)
STEREOGUM: What was it about Carson McCullers’ work that inspired you to, alongside Duncan Sheik, write a play and later an album about her life?
VEGA: I had been fascinated by Carson McCullers ever since I was in college, really. I’d read a couple of her shorter pieces when I was in high school, and then when I was college, I was taking some acting classes. And we had an assignment to come in dressed as someone in the arts who was no longer alive and be ready to field questions as though you were on a TV show.
You had to immerse yourself in the world of that person. You had to dress like them, act like them, move like them, use their props, and know enough about their history that if someone asked you questions about your childhood, you had to be able to answer them. So I chose her because I thought there was a sort of passing resemblance. I had seen a photograph of her — the biography about her had just come out in the ’70s, so I had seen it somewhere in a library — and I thought, “Oh, I could probably imitate that person.” I had already thought that before I even took the acting class. So when I got the assignment, that’s the character I chose.
STEREOGUM: Later you would take that play about her to off-Broadway, and you would do a monologue between songs, right?
VEGA: Yeah. There’s been different versions of it. There’s been a more recent version that did not come back to New York. The version that was in New York was a kind of experimental version where I sort of turned into her and then came back to myself at the end. That version of the play doesn’t exist anymore. So yeah, it’s basically a one-woman show with music, where I would act and sing as Carson McCullers.
Playing The “Band Leader” In An Off-Broadway Production Of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (2020)
VEGA: I played all the characters that were not Bob, or Carol, or Ted, or Alice. I played a character that was called Band Leader, for lack of a better term, and I had small cameos of about 10 characters, male and female, all ages, and it was great fun. I loved it, I loved it. It was fantastic.
STEREOGUM: Did that get cut short by the pandemic?
VEGA: It did by about a week and a half, which I was very sad about because I had been really having a great time and the audience just really seemed to love it.
Auditioning For Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), The Color Of Money (1986), Miami Blues (1990), & Sister Act (1992)
STEREOGUM: Now, you’ve done these off-Broadway shows, and you said you took acting classes back in college. Was there ever a part of you that was like, “Well, maybe I should try my hand at the movies”?
VEGA: So you haven’t read all of the movies that I have been turned down for then.
STEREOGUM: I have not.
VEGA: [Laughs] OK, well. This will be fun. In the ’80s, I would go read from time to time when I’d get a call from a casting director and they’d say, “Oh, come and read for this part,” and then I would get turned down. One role that I was turned down for was the role of Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan that was later played by Madonna.
STEREOGUM: Oh, wow.
VEGA: Yes, they were looking for a female musician who was underground. And so they had me read for the part and then in the end, they said I was too serene. And I agree that Madonna was the exact right person for that part. So I wasn’t sorry about that. Another role I was turned down for was in The Color Of Money. There was a role played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and I think they wanted someone who was more ethnic-looking. And somewhere, they’d gotten a photograph of me where my eyes looked dark and my hair looked brown. And since my name is Vega, I think they thought I was gonna be Hispanic. And so when I walked through the door, they were really shocked. [Laughs] They were like, “Wow, you look really different than we were expecting.” And so that was the end of that audition.
The other character I tried out for was a sweet-faced nun in Sister Act with red hair and bangs, and long hair the way I wore my hair back then. So I tried out for that movie, but I think I had done a bit of the Carson McCullers’ monologue and the woman looked at me and she said, “This is a Disney film, do you think you can lighten it up?” And I honestly couldn’t. I didn’t really know what they were looking for. And again, once I saw what the character was and I saw the girl who got it, I thought, “She’s perfect for this part. I would not have fit. I couldn’t sing the way that woman sang.” And we had a passing resemblance, but that was it.
The last part I remember passing on was, there was a movie called Miami Blues with a very young … well, it was Jennifer Jason Leigh who got the main part. And the other one was Alec Baldwin. I think he was in his… just 30 or 31. I read the script and one of the producers wanted me to go for the part. And I thought, “This is not the part for me.” It was Jennifer Jason Leigh who plays the hooker who was sweet, but not really very smart. And I just thought, “I don’t mind playing a hooker but I didn’t wanna play a dumb one.”
And again, I have so much respect for Jennifer Jason Leigh. She made a career playing all these really fantastically far-out characters. She would take all these down and dirty characters. And so I admired her and I agree, she was the right person. I somehow didn’t get matched up with any parts that seemed appropriate.
STEREOGUM: So, at some point you were thinking, “I wanna just stick to music. It’s working better for me.”
VEGA: Well, eventually, I wrote a play and I’ve actually made a film of the play. So I finally, last November, got to be in a film. It’s in post-production and hopefully we’ll be done this fall. And that was a new experience for me.
Collaborating With Joe Jackson On “Left Of Center” From The Pretty In Pink Soundtrack (1986) And On His Album Heaven & Hell (1997)
STEREOGUM: Speaking of films, your song “Left Of Center” was on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack, which is one the most iconic movies of the ’80s. What do you remember from that experience, and what was it like working with Joe Jackson, who played piano on the song?
VEGA: I remember being thrilled about being asked. I remember receiving my copy of the script and reading it. I wrote the song to fit with the Molly Ringwald character’s point of view. It was great working with Joe Jackson. I was already a fan, and he was very easy to work with. He was easy to work with in that project, much more difficult to work with when I worked with him doing the Seven Deadly Sins [on Heaven & Hell]. That turned out to be much more difficult because he was the boss and he was much more of a taskmaster when I did my little role. I guess I was Lust in the Seven Deadly Sins with Joe Jackson. But overall, I consider him a friend and I think he’s wildly talented.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, the album was an opera song-cycle that you sang on. Was he just really micromanaging, making sure everyone got it correctly?
VEGA: Yes, exactly. Yes, he was micromanaging it. There was no room for improvisation, including by an eighth of a note. If my timing was off in any way, he would make me go back and do it again. Very, very exacting.
Performing On Second Life (2006)
VEGA: I really loved it. I’d never heard of this kind of thing before. I had to create an avatar. Or actually, the avatar was created for me. I ended up working on the avatar so it would reflect my sartorial choices better, as I recall. The event itself was surprisingly spiritual, I thought, because you could be in this area with these creatures really. And this is so early on in the technology that the hair of the avatars took up too much bandwidth or something. So, they had to separate everyone’s hair from their avatar which is quite weird. So, you had people kind of in the space with you and you could see them. Some would be flying around, some would be sitting quietly. But I could see that everyone stayed.
And I knew that the people who are operating these avatars were all over the world, in all different time zones. But yet, we were all present in this cyberspace, which I loved. And I could also read everyone’s comments. So, it was almost better than being in a real concert because I could actually see their thoughts, which was kind of mind-blowing at that moment in time. It was a bit like today’s livestream. You can do a livestream and see people expressing their thoughts. But there was a sense of wonder about the whole thing. And I really loved it.
STEREOGUM: Was your kid big into video games or internet stuff? Did this impress her?
VEGA: My daughter, yeah, she had something called Neopets and all of that kind of thing. I don’t remember if she was impressed. She tended, as a rule, not to be impressed by stuff that I did. Or if she did, I’d see her tell her friends once in a while. But for the most part, she wasn’t like, “Wow! That’s so cool, mom.” She was a little cooler than that.
STEREOGUM: I guess that’s how it goes.
VEGA: Yeah. So, I don’t remember any particular enthusiasm. Let’s put it that way.
Getting Interviewed By Lou Reed On 120 Minutes To Promote A Greenpeace Benefit Show (1986)
STEREOGUM: On your new album you cover “Walk On The Wild Wide” and you were interviewed by Lou Reed in 1986 for 120 Minutes. Lou wasn’t known as a particularly warm individual, but he seemed to really love your music. What was that experience like for you?
VEGA: That was the turning point in my life. I had been a rabid Lou Reed fan for seven years up until that point. I saw his concert in 1979. I’d seen him all over New York City, mostly at the Ritz, probably eight or nine times. Whenever he played in New York, I would go there and usually alone. I’d never met him, but I knew a lot about him. I’ve read all his biographies. And it was my birthday, my 26th birthday, or maybe my 27th. So, I went to do this interview. And they hadn’t told me it was gonna be Lou Reed. They just said “You’re gonna do this interview on 120 Minutes, and you’re gonna promote the benefit.” But I didn’t do any research about Greenpeace. And I certainly didn’t know I was gonna be face-to-face with Lou Reed.
So, I had just been told that 10 minutes before. So, that’s why I totally … I’m doing my very best, you can see that in the film. But a couple of times, I just give up and put my hands over my face because I can’t believe this is really happening. Yeah. And he was very cute. And in between shots, he would say things like, “Oh, let me take off my glasses so I don’t frighten you,” and stuff like that. So, he was a bit like Howard Stern, in that he was a different person off-camera than he was on camera. We became friends after that. We would run into each other at these different awards shows and different events, and would always say hi. And then we became very close at the end of his life.
STEREOGUM: I was watching the interview thinking “I wonder if he’s gonna take his sunglasses off.”
VEGA: He did eventually, didn’t he?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, eventually.
VEGA: Yeah. I think he did. ‘Cause I think he said, “Let me take my sunglasses off, so I don’t frighten you.” I think I went home and wrote it all down in my journal.
“Marlene On The Wall” Video (1985)
STEREOGUM: I was gonna ask about this later, but with you mentioning your sartorial choices, let’s get into your first video, for “Marlene On The Wall.” How would you describe the look you were going for back in the day?
VEGA: The way it came out was very different from what I wanted. Back then I didn’t really have a vocabulary to describe any kind of style. I had wanted something that was a little more Patti Smith, a little more urban. If we had been in like some tenement on the Lower East Side, I would have been happy with that. But instead, we did it in Hollywood, and it looks very Hollywood to me. They liked my idea where I would pretend to be Marlene, and then I would sort of be myself as a more androgynous character.
I always did sort of regret that I had this big red suit, since I was really into black and things that were a little more tight fitting, things that were a little more new wave looking, or punk looking. The director was a friend of the art director’s at the time, for A&M, and so that’s how she got the job. And I basically did what I was told. I remember getting on the steps and looking into the camera, and that was the first set up, the shot that we had done, and I remember hearing one crew guy say to the other, “This is her first video, I think she’s doing very well.” [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Well, that’s encouraging.
VEGA: That was very heartening. And the other thing I remember again is my manager saying, “Wow, Sue, your hips look as big as mine.” And since he was a big man of more than 350 pounds … it’s one of those things you just don’t say to somebody. Yeah, it was one of those days. But in the end, I have to say now, looking back on it, I think it came off pretty well. I would have liked to have looked a little more like the actual Marlene Dietrich. I would have had to have different hair and not these chains thrown around my neck. I’m very sure Marlene Dietrich didn’t have that ’80s hair, and the chains around my neck, but … anyway, it’s all in the past.
Collaborating With Philip Glass On Songs From Liquid Days (1986)
VEGA: I love working with Philip Glass. He’s such a smart, funny, intense guy, and I’ve worked with him many times now over many years, over many decades, actually. And he’s always the same, and I always love seeing him.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any memories of working on the songs “Lightning” and “Freezing” from his Songs From Liquid Days album?
VEGA: Yes, that was the first time I met him. I went to his house, and it was a hot summer day, I think. And I showed up on the doorstep eating an ice cream cone. And I knocked on the door with my little sheet of poetry and my ice cream cone, and he looked down at me and he said, “If I’d known you were hungry, I would have prepared you lunch.” And I thought it was very kind of him, but completely unnecessary. And I thought, “Wow, he’s so caring.” And then he looked through all my sheets of poetry and he picked out two, he picked out “Freezing” and “Lightning,” and he said, “I think I’ll pick these two because they both contain an apocalyptic vision of nature, and yet they’re opposed to each other.” Which I thought was remarkably analytical for someone who had just seen these things for the first time. That shows you how his mind works. We sifted through probably 35 poems and bits of lyrics that I had been working on, and he instantly made this connection between those two and took them to work on. I was so impressed.
The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writing Of Suzanne Vega (2001)
STEREOGUM: You’ve been writing poems as long as you’ve been writing music. What was it like working on The Passionate Eye, your first collection of writing? You’d already established yourself in music, but how was it putting yourself out there in this form?
VEGA: I guess I had always considered myself a writer, so I was a little puzzled by the response to The Passionate Eye. Some people disregarded it because the first few poems are from when I was very young, and so people never made it past those first three or four pages. The last time I read the reviews, which was a long time ago, other people seemed surprised that I could write anything at all, in terms of prose. So … I don’t know. I remember working with the editor and we had this idea that this was gonna be a non-linear kind of book, which meant that we didn’t put any page numbers in it or a table of contents, which made it completely impossible to find anything later. I’d have the book with me onstage and I’d be trying to find a particular poem and it would be a nightmare because I’d be thumbing through 120 pages just going, “What happened? Where is it?” In subsequent printings, I’ve made sure that we’ve had page numbers in it and a table of contents.
Her Debut Album Suzanne Vega (1985)
STEREOGUM: You mentioned Patti Smith earlier. What was it like making your first album, knowing that you were working with Lenny Kaye, her guitarist? Were you intimidated, because it’s your first album?
VEGA: Surprisingly, I was not intimidated. I loved Lenny, and Lenny was such a sweet guy. I was thinking maybe we would rock out like he did with Patti. And the first thing he did was, he said he wanted to make an album like Nico’s Chelsea Girl, and I couldn’t believe it because Chelsea Girl was all of these strings and flutes and harmoniums, and I thought, “No way.” I just fought that so hard. I was like, there’s no way that my voice is just gonna stand up to that. It’s one thing to be Nico and have this dark voice, but I felt that that would never work with me. And he was very respectful and he said, “OK,” and so we had to work really hard to figure out how to treat my music. But I must say, they looked to me for leadership and I had to provide it. So I learned not to be intimidated.
Beauty & Crime (2007)
STEREOGUM: So in 2007, you had taken a break for six years, and you came back with an album on the label Blue Note.
VEGA: Beauty & Crime was a response to 9/11. And 9/11 didn’t just hit New York. I mean, it did hit New York, but it hit me personally because of the death of my brother, Tim. He had been working at the World Trade Center, and he died eight months afterwards. So I really had to process that and I lost my record deal around that time, my record deal with A&M, the one I’d had for so many years; I think I was with A&M for 18 years. So, by then I was in my early 40s, and I think Jimmy Iovine had decided that I was at the end of my tether there, and so I left. I was dropped, actually, from A&M. So that was something I had to adjust to. I had gotten new management during that time as well, and I had gotten married for the second time. So that was what was going on and what might have looked like a break, but actually there was all this stuff going on. In the end, it took me six years to respond to 9/11 because I was also adjusting to all of these other things going on in my private life.
“Blood Makes Noise” And 99.9F°
STEREOGUM: In 1992, alternative rock and grunge were conquering the world, and you had topped the Billboard Modern Rock charts with “Blood Makes Noise,” which had an industrial feel to it. The album 99.9F° was very different from what people knew from you at the time.
VEGA: It’s my favorite album. It was a real thrill working with Mitchell Froom for that album. We had an instant chemistry, and the things that we did on that album were so far beyond what I had pictured. I thought I was gonna get a solid pop producer and we would do work like what he did with Crowded House. I was a Crowded House fan, I loved it. And I thought, “Yeah. It’s gonna sound like that.” But Mitchell actually changes from artist to artist, and a lot of the time, he’ll take his cues from the artist he’s working with. So “Blood Makes Noise” was the first thing we did together. [Laughs] Which is mind-blowing. We were there in this little room and I said, “I have this idea for this song.” and he said, “Well, what is it?” And I just sort of chanted the words into the air and he recorded it. And when I came in the next day, he had that anvil sound and the crashing loop and the bassline.
And I said, “Wow, this is awesome.” What I had told them before I’d left for the day, the very first day we worked together, I said, “I kind of hear this like a Ramones song with a lot of fast nervous guitar.” So what he did instead was he found this loop — he was thinking of “Blood Makes Noise” and the idea of noise — and so he’d gone through his bag of sounds and those were the two that he came up with and I thought it was amazing, and I loved it. It made me laugh. So we just kept working on that, and that’s how we started our relationship, which eventually spilled over into being a personal one. And it wasn’t like I had an idea like, “Oh, let’s do something industrial.” Although afterwards I did become a big Trent Reznor fan. But it was more like, “What can we do to make this song really cool?”
The Debut Soul Coughing Album Ruby Vroom (1994)
STEREOGUM: Speaking of Mitchell Froom, the New York band Soul Coughing named their first album as a tribute to your daughter. Did she ever listen to the album?
VEGA: Yeah, she did listen to it, she thought it was cool. And in fact, when Mike Doughty came to New York for the 25th anniversary show of that album, I went with Ruby. The two of us went down to see him play the whole record. It was fantastic. There’s a photograph somewhere of us on Facebook at this event. I wondered how he was gonna do it without Soul Coughing but he had some great ideas and I loved watching him.
Headlining England’s Glastonbury Festival (1989)
STEREOGUM: In 1989, you were the first female artist to headline Glastonbury, correct?
VEGA: That is correct.
STEREOGUM: And from what I was reading, you had to wear a bulletproof vest while you performed, because there had been death threats?
VEGA: That is also correct.
STEREOGUM: It sounds really scary.
VEGA: It was scary. The day began with these threats that were posed against my bass player Mike, from some woman who was infatuated with him. And he made it clear to her that he was not interested, and so then the whole thing kind of got out of hand. It was a man and a woman. A woman with a partner. So Scotland Yard was called in, and all day long they were trying to find both of these suspects. So we had already decided to make sure Mikey would play off stage, but about an hour before we went on stage, the police had a little meeting with me in our dressing van. It was one of those little RVs. And they said, “We have to advise you officially that we think you should not do the show because you were also threatened.” Which they hadn’t told me before.
STEREOGUM: That’s terrible.
VEGA: They told me this at the last minute that the threats were also against me. So I was like, “Whoa.” And then they said, “And we haven’t found both parties yet, so we have to advise you officially that we think you shouldn’t do the show.” And I was like, “This is Glastonbury, and I’m headlining. I’m the first woman to headline the show. Of course I’m gonna do the show. What are you, crazy?” I was like, “There’s no way I’m not doing it.” So then they said, “OK, well, you have to wear a bulletproof vest,” and one of the police who was there, a big stocky guy, gave me his vest and they had to gaffer’s tape me into it because I was much smaller than this man. And then I had to wear this huge jean jacket over everything so that it wouldn’t show. And then I walked out there and I did the show.
STEREOGUM: Was it hard to be in the performer zone?
VEGA: Yeah, it was. They had the lights trained on the audience so that they could continue surveying the audience to make sure that there were no weapons in the audience. Weapons in the UK are not as plentiful as they are here in the US. So every time the lights would do one of these switches and go into the audience, I would jump a little bit thinking, “Oh, they found somebody.” Mikey was not onstage, but his amp was onstage. So I could hear him but I couldn’t see him, and every song felt like it was 20 minutes long. That hour felt like it just went on for like a year. And then we had to cut it short because there was a curfew that no one had told us about. So Anton [Sanko] ran over to me and said, “Sing ‘Luka’ and get off stage.” And for a minute I thought, “Oh my God, something’s happened.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “I’ll tell you later.” And it turned out there was a curfew because there was a farm nearby, and if it went beyond 12:30, the cows would get upset.
STEREOGUM: Can’t upset the cows.
VEGA: We can’t upset the cows. No, apparently not. I came off stage very relieved. We did our best. It was a huge, huge audience, probably the biggest one I’ve ever had. It was something like 200,000 people. There were people all the way to the horizon. It was awesome. And then we get stuck in traffic getting out.
We felt like we’d done this heroic thing, and if it had been a movie we would have been helicoptered out of there, but as it was, we were just stuck in traffic until 5:30 in the morning.
The Folk City Years
STEREOGUM: So on YouTube I found a 1982 demo of “Gypsy” from one of the Fast Folk compilations. What are your memories of this early period when you’re playing places in Greenwich Village like the Cornelia Street Cafe, before you got signed?
VEGA: I love those five years when I was part of the group down at Folk City. I was so happy to find this group of people that were interested in my writing, and I was interested in their writing. Before this, I had tried to get a gig at the Bitter End, unsuccessfully. The guy who ran the club said my lyrics were too much like poetry, and if I could write that stuff, I could write real songs. [Laughs] So I saw eventually that I wasn’t gonna get anywhere over there, and I finally worked up the courage to go to Folk City and I found all these people that I am still friends with. And I really learned my craft there. I learned more about melody and about metaphor and how to give a show. I’ve watched so many people at Folk City perform, like Mose Allison and Rick Danko and anybody who played down there. We were always down there, hanging out, and I learned a lot from that group.
STEREOGUM: And the Fast Folk anthology came out of Fast Folk Musical Magazine?
VEGA: And I was one of the founders. In the very beginning, I used to handle the subscriptions. The Fast Folk anthology was the brainchild of Jack Hardy and Brian Rose, who were my good friends, and at least that’s the way I remember it. There were so many people around, but I remember it was definitely Jack Hardy’s project. And we all chipped in. It was very exciting. The whole idea was exciting, and so I was one of the founders.
“Tom’s Diner” (1987) And The Remix By DNA
STEREOGUM: Does it ever surprise you, the life that “Tom’s Diner” has beyond you and your career, and just how out in the world it is?
VEGA: It always surprises me. It just proves that the success or the failure of something really has nothing to do with the intentions behind it. You can craft something to pieces and you can have all the best intentions of the world and you can put millions of dollars behind something, or you can have a song like “Tom’s Diner” that just seems to keep growing no matter what. I had never intended for it to be a hit, I never thought about it, but it keeps going and keeps going. People have adopted it and made it their own. And I’m just … I’m very grateful and I think it’s very funny.
STEREOGUM: When it first started catching was there a part of you like, “Why was it the a cappella song? A cappella songs don’t really get on the radio.” I know there’s a full-band version on the album as well, but you know what I mean.
VEGA: When I had only the a cappella version, A&M Records, in England, did release it as a single. It got to something like, I don’t know, #57 or something like that — which is like, “Why would anyone even think of doing that?” But I did notice a few times that when I did it a cappella, that people would try and clap along, and my instinct was to try … I would then shift it so that they would stop doing that ’cause it was sort of counter-intuitive. And what the DNA guys did was they went with it. They felt the rhythm was already in the song, and they just found a beat that would go with it, and the rest is history.
STEREOGUM: What did you think when you first heard the remix?
VEGA: I loved it, it made me laugh and I thought this was really funny. And I was relieved too that they kept the vocal the way it was, and that they didn’t change the lyrics.
STEREOGUM: Did you suddenly find that, I don’t know, club kids and people who weren’t necessarily fans of yours started coming up and being like, “I love that song so much!”
VEGA: Yeah, yeah, in fact, it was my idea to release it and I thought, “Oh, we’ll just get some club play, it’ll be played in underground clubs or discos or something, and that will be the end of that.” To my surprise, it was a top 10 hit like all over the world. It was considered R&B. I got a plaque from ASCAP saying it was one of the most played R&B songs of 1990.
VEGA: Yes, yes, a lot of rappers, Drake, Danger Mouse, they do mash-ups. I mean, it was sort of a gateway thing for a while, where it’s like anybody who wanted to have a career in hip-hop would take “Tom’s Diner” and do something with it, and then go on to do other things.
STEREOGUM: What did you think when you first heard rappers sampling your song?
VEGA: Well, I mean, after the DNA remix, it just seemed like all bets were off. So I wasn’t that surprised. I was like, “OK, this is what we do now. We sample things.” So I said, “Oh, OK.” Yeah, I was for it. I was like, “Yeah, why not?” But one thing I do think is that people need to ask permission if they’re gonna make money out of it. So I’m very careful about that. If you’re gonna make money out of a sample of something I’ve done, then I want to know about it, and I want a piece of it.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, totally.
VEGA: There have been very few times where I’ve said no to a remix. Even if something’s offensive, if I feel it has artistic merit, I’ll generally approve it, but if there’s no artistic merit, then I just say no.
STEREOGUM: And because of this song, which was the first MP3 ever made, you’ve been called “The Mother Of The MP3.” How do you feel about the fact that that song was at the first wave in this gigantic sea change in how music is listened to these days?
VEGA: I am both proud of my tiny role in music history, and also a bit mortified that it turned out to be sort of the downfall of music as we knew it. It really has destroyed the industry. You’re not so aware of it when you’re in the middle of it, but … industries are fluid. Now that I’ve been alive for all these decades, I can look back and see how the music industry was different in the ’60s than it was in the ’70s, the ’70s was different than it was in the ’80s. It was bound to change at some point anyway, but for a while I felt personally responsible. I felt like I was personally responsible for the downfall of the music industry in the ’90s. It was like, “We can’t sell records anymore.” It was the whole Napster era, and so I felt a bit guilty, but now I think it was probably bound to change anyway.
STEREOGUM: If it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else.
VEGA: Well, that’s true. There’s that, yeah.
“Caramel” On The Soundtracks For The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996) And Closer (2004)
STEREOGUM: So your song “Caramel” was on The Truth About Cats & Dogs soundtrack and was featured in the movie, and was also in the film Closer.
VEGA: I loved seeing “Caramel” in the movie The Truth About Cats & Dogs. First of all, Uma Thurman is unbelievably beautiful, and then to watch her expressions as she’s being fed cake by this photographer — it was a perfect use of the song. And in fact, I remember when the music director called me, I was speaking to her on the phone as we were recording it, and I think I played it for her over the phone or sang it to her over the phone, and she agreed that it was the perfect song for that scene. They had been using “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak, but they switched that out and used “Caramel,” and I just thought it was awesome. I loved it. Yeah.
The Close-Up Series (2010-2014)
STEREOGUM: You started your own label and you re-recorded your songs for the Close-Up Series.
VEGA: What I wanted to do was just make a more acoustic version of the song, like a very different version of the masters that A&M had owned. I wanted it to be something special for the fans. And it’s very intimate, which the original recordings are not, necessarily.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, they’re really stripped down.
VEGA: And it’s not just that they’re stripped down, but that they are engineered so that if you listen to them with headphones, it really does sound like I’m in the room with you. Joe Blaney did something amazing. He was able to make it sound like I’m very present and I’m there with you in the room, close to you. Close-Up is not just that it’s stripped down and acoustic, it’s almost as though my voice is in your ear, which I thought was great fun. So that was a really fun project, and that’s actually been very lucrative for me.
STEREOGUM: Taylor Swift is also apparently planning to rerecord her catalog since it was sold. Any advice for her?
VEGA: I would say, you can’t go wrong. I wasn’t sure how it was all gonna pan out, but as a record label, I’ve done much better with streaming than I ever did as an artist. And people like the acoustic sound. If you’re in a restaurant and you hear a lot of female acoustic music, they like the Close-Up Series and they’ll license those, they’ll play those for example. So it gets a nice wide market, and as I said, I’ve done very well. I have not regretted it for one moment.
Guesting On “The Man Who Played God” From Danger Mouse And Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night Of The Soul (2009)
STEREOGUM: What do you remember about working with the late Mark Linkous?
VEGA: Mark Linkous really had this aura around him. I only met him, I think, once. I think it was the night of the release party. He was so sensitive and so fragile. I think I saw him standing in the corner of this room that was all like partying because of the release of this album, and he was standing there as though he was a stranger at his own party.
So I think I went running over to him and I was like, “Hey, man. How are you doing? This is a great album.” And he was just so, so shy and so introspective — that’s my main memory of Mark Linkous, just incredibly fragile. It made me wanna run over to him and protect him, which is what I did.
STEREOGUM: Sparklehorse was such an underrated band.
VEGA: Yeah, I listened to it. I mean I listened to it ’cause I wanted to know what to do with this track that Danger Mouse had sent me. He sent me just the track. With nothing on it. It was just this slow kind of track. It’s exactly the track that you hear, but imagine it without my vocal with no melody and nothing else on it, so I was like, “Whoa, what am I going to do with this?” I felt it should have a kind of psychedelic feel, so … I think there was something about Picasso that was in the news. A book or something that had come out, so I kinda went down that trip of thinking about imagination and how it can free you and free your mind and that was the inspiration for that. In the end, I was very proud of that track.
STEREOGUM: Did you get a lot of back and forth with Danger Mouse? Or is he more hands-off?
VEGA: He was surprisingly hands-off. We were friends back then. I would go to see him play, and he’d come out to see me play, and we would text each other and stuff like that. So I remember putting all that stuff, all those ideas down once I’ve figured out what I wanted to do. I think I did a demo, or I might have even done the actual thing in the studio since I was doing the Close-Up series at that time, I think. And then, yeah, I think he just liked it, I think he liked it pretty much the way it was, and then he mixed it and they mastered it, and that was that.
Sampling 50 Cent On “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” (2014)
STEREOGUM: Going back to hip-hop for a little bit, you sampled 50 Cent’s song “Candy Shop” on your song “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain.”
VEGA: That was kind of great. It was funny because I kept forcing (guitarist) Gerry Leonard to listen to all this hip-hop music that I liked. Gerry is not really a hip-hop kind of guy. He would force me to listen to Arcade Fire and I would force him to listen to 50 Cent. [Laughs] So I was like, “Do you think we’ll get a string section like that?” I think it was produced by Scott Storch. I loved his string arrangements, they were always kind of Arabic sounding stuff and it’s one of his trademarks. I was like, “I love all those Scott Storch strings. Can we do something like that?” So Gerry was like, “Just take it.” And I was like, “What? Oh, my God,” you know, it had never occurred to me that we could just take it. I’m used to people asking my permission and it never occurred to me that I would go steal somebody else’s sample. And we didn’t steal it, we asked and 50 Cent was very kind and gave it to us at a very reasonable rate.
STEREOGUM: When you were younger, you were growing up in the New York folk scene, but obviously there were so many different scenes going on in New York back then, there was hip-hop, dance music, punk, the no wave scene. You’ve kind of crossed over to a lot of different stuff over time. But when you were younger, did you strictly stick to your folk music scene or did you ever go to the hip-hop clubs or the dance clubs?
VEGA: Once in a while I’d go to a dance club because I liked to dance, I loved dancing. I was a dancer actually in my teens. And so I remember going once or twice to a club to dance with a guy if that’s what they wanted to do. But once I found Folk City, I just went there. That’s where my friends were. Although me and a couple of the other people were interested in the punk and new wave scene. And I wouldn’t go to CBGB’s, but I would listen to records at my friend Brian’s house. So he made me listen to Television, and of course, I listened to Blondie and I listened to the Ramones and eventually the Police. Yeah, so I sort of kept track of that scene without actually going and hanging out.
Getting On The Timothée Chalamet Bandwagon Well Before Everyone Else (2012)
STEREOGUM: So our Editor-In-Chief noticed that you posted a video to your YouTube page of a young Timothée Chalamet performing in 2012, and he demands that I ask you about it.
VEGA: [Laughs] Yes.
STEREOGUM: You were well ahead of the curve of loving Timothée Chalamet. What do you remember about seeing him? What made you think, “This kid’s going somewhere”?
VEGA: Oh my gosh, the first time I saw him was the year before that little film and he was calling himself Tiny Tim back then. He was 14 and he was a freshman and he had this whole rap act and he was calling himself, “The Tiny Tim,” and I just remember seeing him and turning to Ruby going, “This kid is awesome. He’s amazing.” So the following year, Ruby and a friend of hers were in charge of the talent show. And Ruby came home saying, “That kid that you like is doing it again this year. But he’s not calling himself Tiny Tim anymore. Now he’s calling himself Timmy Tim ’cause he grew by like a foot.” So I positioned myself in the front, so I would be there when he started his routine, and that’s why I got to a close-up view of Timothée Chalamet way before he hit big.
STEREOGUM: Wow, that’s amazing.
VEGA: He was on fire. He was amazing. A big fan.
STEREOGUM: I feel like the best place to end this is by talking about “Luka.” That’s also, along with “Tom’s Diner,” probably your best-known song. Does it ever surprise you that a song with that super sad subject matter became so popular worldwide?
VEGA: The only reason it didn’t surprise me is because Ron Fierstein, my manager, told me he thought it would be a hit from the minute he heard it. And I have to tell you, I thought he was crazy. I was like, “I really don’t see it.” When I played it acoustically, it wasn’t like people were clamoring to hear it. So I said, “Why would you say that?” And he said, “Because it’s about an issue, and in the ’80s, we don’t have songs about issues, we need more songs about issues.” And based on that, he thought that they could do a production that would make it a success. And he was absolutely right. So he wasn’t surprised.
STEREOGUM: In a low-key way, “Luka” is one of the most memorable videos of the ’80s. What do you remember about making it?
VEGA: Oh, the video was a two-day affair. I loved the kid who played Luka, Jason Cerbone, who went on to work in The Sopranos. They came to me and proudly showed me the prosthetic black eye that they had put on the child. And I said, “I hate this. Please take that off. I do not want to see a black eye on this child.” So they took him away and washed his face. I really thought that there was no reason for that. It made it very heavy-handed, and that’s not what I wanted.
STEREOGUM: Right, of course.
VEGA: I loved the people who made the video, they gave me very specific instructions. They said, “Bring a hat that you like, wear something that will move in the wind.” And so I did all of that stuff, I did exactly what they told me to do. I had liked their work because they had a big success with A-ha, that Norwegian band. So I’d like all those animations that they did. So yeah, I thought it was great.
STEREOGUM: After that song, you started working with Amnesty International and a lot of other different charities, and I have to assume that people would come up to you and tell you some pretty heavy stories.
VEGA: Oh, yeah.
STEREOGUM: How do you deal with that when someone just comes up to you and tells you about their own struggles with personal abuse or something terrible?
VEGA: I listen carefully and I thank them for sharing their story with me because it’s very difficult to share those kinds of things. At the moment when it was happening, I got a lot of snail mail. And so I made sure to answer each one separately and individually, and by hand. With the general mail, I would do a postcard mailing sort of saying, “Thanks for writing,” but with the people who wrote to me with their personal stories, I kept those letters and I wrote them back personally. Each one.
An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories is out 9/11 on Amanuensis/Cooking Vinyl. Pre-order it here.