The folk singer/songwriter discusses her new album, 'Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles,' which includes a 50 Cent sample and a Macklemore shout-out
"Every time I make an album, the idea is to mix the acoustic guitar, this beautiful, old-fashioned, almost ancient instrument, which is pretty much the only instrument I really relate to, with things that are modern and contemporary."
Suzanne Vega has a message for those who think they can pigeonhole her music.
"People who get lost in the myth that I used to do traditional folk and now I'm not doing that, you're wrong. Every single album has [incorporated] whatever was contemporary of the time."
At Billboard's New York studio, Vega chuckles at the potential bewilderment at her sample of 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" on "Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain," a track from her new album, the self-released "Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles." Her first studio set in seven years, and eighth overall, debuted at No. 5 on Billboard's Folk Albums chart earlier this month, triumphantly marking her first top five hit on a Billboard ranking since 1992 (when "Blood Makes Noise," which exhibited her then-foray into industrial influences, topped Alternative Songs).
"On the first album [1985's 'Suzanne Vega'], you hear synthesizers and electric guitar," Vega says. "So, for me to steal from 50 Cent and reference Macklemore is just not that big of a thing. It's just continuing on the path that I've always been on."
Vega was writing and recording spoken-word music long before the two rappers began their chart reigns. "On my very first record, the first song, 'Cracking,' the first thing you hear is Lenny Kaye's distorted electric guitar, and then a spoken-word song. Some people have said, 'Oh, it's so unlikely that you would be attracted to 50 Cent's music in any way, and I'm like, 'Why?' I come from New York City, he comes from Jamaica, Queens. The neighborhood that he grew up in is 30 blocks from where my uncle and my aunt live.
"I've read his biography – his circumstances were really dire," Vega notes of 50 Cent. "He grew up in the '80s, I grew up in the '60s, in East Harlem. Similar problems in the neighborhoods: how do you get out of the poverty that you grow up in? Kids take drugs, they don't know how to educate themselves, many don't know how to read. The problems that I grew up with were not so different than the problems he grew up with.
"Because he's younger than I am, his problems were deeper; now you have guns on the street. You didn't have that in the '60s. But, the worlds that we grew up in are not so different."
Neither, Vega says, are the seemingly incongruent sounds of folk and rap. "I grew up with an awareness of those games you play in school. Things people said in the street, the bragging, the rhyming. That was all going on in the '70s, so the roots of our music are way more similar than you'd ever imagine.
"I also think that there's an honesty to rap and folk music [lyrically], a kind of outsider status."
Vega says that "Uncork," an ode to the dangers, but also benefits, of thinking outside Pandora's box, has built up favorite status even if it's just now available commercially. "'Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain' is a song I've tried out live. I was writing it over a period of months while I was performing it on-stage, so I got to play with it to see if people would get it, and they did.
"The 50 Cent sample on that song was actually Gerry Leonard's idea, partly because I hadn't hired him yet to be the album's producer. I was thinking, 'Maybe I could get Timbaland to produce my album, maybe I could get Scott Storch [50 Cent, Dr. Dre, the Game] …' I kept shoving these names at Gerry. Well, Gerry was aiming for the job himself and was like, 'We don't need these expensive producers. Just sample it!' It worked so beautifully esthetically that I thought, this is going to work and we just went for it."
Also among the track's admirers: 50 Cent. "I have heard from 50 Cent," Vega says. "He said he was a big fan. We made a little [financial] deal; he was extremely reasonable, really great. I can't praise him enough.
"Macklemore … seems really busy. I've been following him on Instagram, though …
"It's a good word to sing, Macklemore. It sounds good, and everyone knows who I mean."
Next: Vega reveals the inspiration for the title of her new album. Plus, more exclusive live performances.