On Labor Day weekend in 2001, Suzanne Vega fell off her bicycle and broke her arm, just as she was rehearsing to go on tour in support of a new album. She could not yet have known that this—pathetic as it was—would turn out to be the least of her troubles.
Vega’s youngest brother, Tim, worked at the World Trade Center. And though he was not there on the day that the Twin Towers were destroyed, he lost his job at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council—and his very tenuous foothold in life. Tim, an alcoholic since his teens, drank himself to death in the eight months that followed the terrorist attacks. Not long after her brother’s death, Vega, whose record sales were in decline, was dropped by A&M, the label she’d been with since her 1985 debut. Shortly after that, she fired her manager, divorced her husband, and sank into a depression. The only thing that got her out of bed every day was the fact that she—a single mother raising a child alone in Manhattan—had to feed her daughter and get her off to school in the morning. “For a while there,” she says, “it was no manager, no record deal, no songs, no boyfriend, no husband. What am I doing here?”
This week, on July 11, Suzanne Vega turns 48. Last year, she got married to the civil-rights attorney Paul Mills, an old flame who proposed to her over twenty years ago, when he was more popularly known as Poez, the street poet who performed in Washington Square Park in the seventies and eighties. She has hired a new manager, Michael Hausman, the man who helped pull Aimee Mann’s career out of a major-label tailspin. Vega signed a deal with Blue Note, the legendary jazz label that now also brings you artists like Norah Jones. And after more than six years, Vega’s latest album, Beauty & Crime, will be released on July 17. “I have great expectations for this record as a career changer,” says Bruce Lundvall, the president and CEO of Blue Note. “It’s an important one for her. Six years is a long time in the music business.”
One scorching Sunday afternoon in June, I meet Vega for a late brunch at a bistro on 79th and Amsterdam, a dozen blocks south of the apartment she shares with Mills and Ruby, her 13-year-old daughter from her first marriage, to music producer Mitchell Froom. She arrives in black pointy flats, Capri pants, and a silvery gray camisole. Vega is well preserved. She looks like she could be Macaulay Culkin’s older, wiser sister, with her big, doleful eyes, porcelain skin, and poker-straight pageboy. She strikes me as shy and tentative—still a bit fragile. “In many ways I think New York has recovered and I have recovered,” she says, methodically poking around in her niçoise salad, “but in some ways it’s always kind of there under the surface.”
This is actually not the first time we’ve met. Almost ten years ago, I went on tour with Ani DiFranco for a profile for Spin magazine, and after a week and a half on the bus I wound up in DiFranco’s hometown of Buffalo, where she was headlining a festival—and Vega was opening for her. The two women had known each other for years, and it was fascinating to watch them interact, especially on an occasion when Vega, who had sold millions more records, was opening for DiFranco.
It’s not easy to remember what a big deal Vega was at the beginning of her career. (“I only felt like the queen of things for about eight months,” she jokes.) Her first album, Suzanne Vega, sold nearly 2 million copies worldwide, and her follow-up, Solitude Standing, produced two of the most surprising hits of that decade: “Luka,” a childlike song about child abuse, and “Tom’s Diner,” a spare spoken-word ditty that was remixed by no fewer than 25 dance-music producers around the world and turned Vega into a very unlikely genre-busting international sensation. That album went on to sell nearly 5 million copies worldwide. But after her first two successes, she had been losing currency, falling off the radar. You could practically hear her shrinking backstage in Buffalo.
Vega, I wrote in Spin, had been “compared to Dylan, touted as the eighties savior of folk music in Rolling Stone … But what happened to Vega? Nothing, it seems. After the rush of her first two albums she’s had almost no impact whatsoever. She pulled back when fame came calling.” In the next issue of Spin, they published an angry letter from Vega in which she took issue with a few things I’d written, particularly the notion that she had “pulled back.” “Did I?” she wrote. “How? By launching myself on three more world tours and releasing as many albums to excellent critical acclaim? I don’t think so. Celebrityhood came calling, with all the cheap histrionics it thrives on—and that I hate. I prefer to be judged by my work alone. So: Fuck you.”
She was right in some ways. Her next three albums were filled with great songs and brave experimentation, but Vega simply could not connect with listeners in the same way she had early on. Feeling a bit like I had kicked her when she was down, I take the opportunity to apologize shortly after we get settled in the restaurant. She accepts very graciously and makes it clear that she does not want to dwell on it. She has moved on.