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Pop Music

Making Changes, Moving On

After her life turned upside-down, singer Suzanne Vega bounced back.

October 04, 2001|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even when she talked about characters such as the abused child "Luka" or places like "Tom's Diner," singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega's work always had an intimate feeling. Now, following several major shake-ups in Vega's life, the tunes on her new album, "Songs in Red and Gray," have come out more personal than ever.

Since releasing her previous studio recording, 1996's "Nine Objects of Desire," Vega, 42, has separated from her husband, producer Mitchell Froom, with whom she has a 7-year-old daughter, Ruby.

She sold her apartment and moved, left her manager, and even fired her assistant.

"Everything that had been stable just kind of flew up in the air," the New Yorker says. "It took me a little while to find my feet again. It was a very confusing and bewildering time. But once I got more stability, I was able to set aside the time to write and experiment."

Such new tracks as "Widow's Walk" and "Soap and Water" reflect the falling-apart-marriage aspect of her life, prompting some critics to note that this collection draws from more internal sources.

"That's accurate, right now," concurs Vega, who will perform at UCLA's Royce Hall tonight and the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday. "But it doesn't mean I'm going to write this kind of song forever."

Indeed, it's not as if she has only been wallowing in emotional travails these past five years. Along with doing concert tours in the U.S. and Europe, she put out a 1998 best-of collection and published a 1999 book of lyrics, poems, and essays, "The Passionate Eye," which was issued in paperback in May. In her best work, Vega's literary perceptions mix with a sensitive humanity, and it is partly this perspective that makes her see parallels between her home city's recovery from terrorism and the new album's theme of coping after a crisis.

"It's my own small personal crisis," she says, "but some things have a bit of resonance with the times." More pressingly, her songwriter friend Jack Hardy, who wrote the album's "St. Clare," has a brother among the missing. His song has "a healing energy," she says, "so it's poignant to me that that's the way the album ends."

Yet despite the somber theme, the collection's not all moping and melancholy. Vega has a bit of fun with "(I'll Never Be) Your Maggie May," wittily turning the tables on the young man of the 1971 Rod Stewart hit. "It was an idea I couldn't resist," she says. "I always liked the original 'Maggie May,' but I was, like, 12 when it came out. Now I'm waaay older than that." She laughs. "I couldn't help but examine it from the opposite perspective, being the age I am now."

Splitting from Froom, who produced "Nine Objects" and 1992's "99.9 F," hasn't prompted Vega to erase all memory of him professionally.

In fact, she liked the grooves they put into her work. With "Songs in Red and Gray," she sought to balance the more rhythmic sound of those recordings with the acoustic immediacy of her earlier albums and recent live performances.

"There has been some really interesting music in the last 10 years that mixes acoustic with really cool hip-hop grooves and that kind of thing," says Vega, who became an early beneficiary of such tinkering in 1990, when the British DJ group DNA remixed her a cappella "Tom's Diner," yielding a No. 5 hit.

Vega has also found time for leisurely things such as riding her bicycle, and she recently broke her arm doing just that. She's not sure whether she'll be completely healed, but the Southland shows will definitely go on.

"I'm going to sing and read from the book and talk to the audience," she says, "but my guitarist may be playing my parts."

*

Suzanne Vega, with Marshall Crenshaw, Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, tonight at 8. $20 to $35. (310) 825-2101. Also Sunday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, 5 p.m. $35 to $45. (800) 300-4345.

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