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.
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?
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?
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.