“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.
MAKING HEADS OF ‘TALES’
Vega explains that the title “Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles” was born of her attraction to the tarot. “I love the tarot, which I’m new at. About three years ago, I bought a deck of tarot cards and I bought a book, ‘Beginning Tarot,’ or something like that.
“The tarot makes this beautiful prism through which you can see your life. And, it’s this beautiful world in and of itself, with the characters and the situations that you find each one in. It can be very fascinating and very seductive. So, the songs are kind of reflections of certain situations in my life as seen through that prism.
“The reason I chose it for the title is because the pentacles in the tarot deck are the real world, the material world, the world of money, the world of health, the world of the body, and these are all things that I’ve been struggling with and I know everybody else has,” Vega muses. “Since the last album came out, the economy has taken its dive. Pentacles are coins. So, I wanted to write about the spiritual world and the real world and where they intersect. That is the realm of the queen of pentacles. So, every song on this album talks about the world of the spirit as seen through the real world.
“It sounds sort of flaky and very mystic-y, but there was a reason behind it.”
Despite interest in “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain,” and the new album’s independent release status, Vega has teamed with Sony Music promo arm RED, which will work the song “I Never Wear White” as the first single to U.S. adult alternative radio.
“‘I Never Wear White’ is pretty straight-forward,” Vega says. “I never wear white myself. I look in the closet, I see what’s there and I usually choose black or some other dark color, maybe blue-ish.
“I tried to sit down and define why I don’t really feel comfortable in white. It’s partially a response to my mother and my daughter, who really love color. My mother will wear five colors at once. My daughter, too, and they both shout at me if I wear black. So, I thought, let me just try to define this for myself.”
Ultimately, Vega deduced that her fashion sense stems not only from her love for music, but the entirety of her artistic expression. “I’ve studied many art forms, and dance was one of them. One of the first things I learned as a ballet dancer was that we head to wear black on top and pink on the bottom. Then, when I switched to modern dance, it was pretty much all black, all the time, and I really got into it, I loved it.
“It was extreme, it really made a statement, it showed off the outlines of your body. Then, in the punk era in the ’80s, it’s all anybody wore.
“So, it’s not just the dark side of a singer/songwriter. It’s there in every art form: sculpture, dance and songwriting … That extreme lack of color, it’s an element in art.”
‘MY OWN BOSS’
While Vega hadn’t released a new studio album since 2007’s “Beauty & Crime,” she’d remained busy offering her four-part “Close Up” series, in which she reinvents hits and favorites from her catalog acoustically. Songs receiving makeovers include her breakout smash “Luka,” which soared to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987, and “Tom’s Diner,” a surprise No. 5 Hot 100 hit in 1990 after DNA remixed it after it was first released in a cappella form on “Luka” parent album “Solitude Standing.”
The “Close Up” chain and the new set mark a distinct evolution in the business side of Vega’s career. After her first seven studio albums were released on major labels (the first six on A&M, the last on Blue Note), she’s started her own label, Amanuensis Productions. (The word amanuensis derives from ancient Rome and can be loosely translated as, unsurprisingly, “scribe.”)
Vega has taken to her expanded role. “It’s very interesting running my own label. I’m getting my feet wet in that world of independent labels,” she says.
“It’s great in that I have artistic control, which I had before, to be honest. I also have control of my schedule, which is not such a great thing, because I’m really, really slow. If I didn’t have [producer] Gerry Leonard pushing me along, I probably would’ve taken another three years …”
Vega says that her transition to self-releasing music, and all the tasks and decisions it brings, has, perhaps ironically, afforded her more personal liberties. “I’ve been living my life, raising my daughter. Also, between these last two albums, I didn’t have the major-label structure. I didn’t have somebody nudging me along.
“One of the great things about having my own record label at this point is that I can follow my instincts, I can follow my sense of humor. I don’t feel that I’m going to be censored.
“I’m my own record company executive. I’m my own boss! So, if I think something’s funny, or if I’m getting a good response from the audience, I can go with it.
“I know I’m committed to it, so I know I’m going to be in it for the long run and that makes all the difference.”