Suzanne Vega interview: ‘It was as if we had forgotten how to be public humans’
Before talking to the iconic Suzanne Vega, who will be playing at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, I googled “catchiest songs ever written”, fully expecting Tom’s Diner, her memorable 1987 hit, to be on the list, with its infectious “do do do do do do do do” refrain. Scandalously, I didn’t spot it.
“Well thank you,” says the California-born New Yorker, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from her home in NYC – a town which has become synonymous with her music – the day before she was due to kick off a US tour in New Jersey.
“It sort of got stuck in my own head, the way it got stuck in other people’s heads. I remember having the melody for the first time and walking down Broadway and it definitely stuck with me for days and so I filled it up with the lyrics and it’s its own funny thing and it just seems to keep going. I like it – I’m very fond of it.”
Suzanne, an experienced and widely respected singer-songwriter grounded in the folk tradition, who released her first (self-titled) album in 1985, revealed that she was “a bit nervous [about the tour], but I’m also looking forward to it.”
She added that she did a few dates last autumn, where she and her band would go out and do a few gigs at a time and then come back. “We were sort of testing the waters,” she explains, “so that was fun – if a little weird – and then I went earlier this year and did four shows in the UK and one in Paris, and that was amazing.
“So now I’m doing this little jaunt through the mid-west of America and it’s about two and a half weeks.”
How did it feel going back to live performance after so long without it? “It was weird,” admits the star. “It’s almost as though we all had forgotten how to be public human beings.
“The very first show I did [after the pandemic] was just very odd; people got really drunk and it took a while for people to settle down... they were excited but they also wanted to shout and they wanted to join in inappropriately.
“It was bizarre, and that was the very first show that we did last September. And then over the course of a couple of months, it got better and better and people seemed to remember that just because we’d had a pandemic that didn’t mean they could just do what they want.
“For a while we were seeing that on airplanes, for example: people fighting and just being weird. I guess sitting at home for two years is not good for people.”
Suzanne, whose most recent long-playing effort An Evening of New York Songs and Stories came out in 2020 – she hopes to have new music out next year – did a few livestreams from her home during lockdown, noting that it felt good.
“You sort of have to imagine your audience,” she says, “but it worked up to a point.” A lot of the time, though, her mind was elsewhere. “Most of my energy was spent trying to figure out what was going on and whether the transmission rate was high or low,” she recalls, “and whether the supply chain was going to hold, what the groceries were going to be like – that kind of thing.
“I was trying to help relatives who were either sick or didn’t have a stockpile of groceries, that very hands-on type of thing – that’s how I spent the pandemic.”
Suzanne says it was nice in a way to have a break from decades of touring but observes: “I wish I could have relaxed into it but I found myself facing this stockpile of stuff. My life has been go on tour, buy things you need and then bring them home, and then add them to the other pile of stuff that’s already home. So I spent two years facing this stockpile of things that I had to clean up and organise.
“So it really wasn’t that much fun, but it [the time off] was in some ways great. I mean I loved spending time with my family, loved spending time with my husband and my dog, so thank God for that because if I had been stuck with someone I didn’t like, or didn’t love, it probably would have been a lot more difficult.”
It certainly won’t be Suzanne Vega’s first time appearing at the Cambridge Folk Festival when she takes the stage at Cherry Hinton Hall on the Friday.
“It’s very kind of you to think that I might remember how many times I’ve played at a particular venue,” she says, “but honestly I couldn’t tell you. It’s probably once or twice, at least – I’d have to look it up.”
Suzanne, who reveals she’d like to write more prose and also get back into sculpting – something she did as a teenager – has also played the Corn Exchange before. Does she feel a real appreciation for her brand of folk music whenever she’s here?
“Yeah, I do feel that,” she replies, “and especially the older songs – some of the ones with the more classic structure; I’m thinking The Queen and the Soldier and Gypsy and songs that are more melodic. Yeah, I always look forward to going to Cambridge. Playing outdoors in the summertime is lovely and I’m looking forward to being back.”
Although she has travelled all over the world, Suzanne says she would like to go to India and China – two places she’s never been to before. That said, she feels she might have a problem if she tries to visit the latter.
“I think I’m on their forbidden list,” she notes. “I think I did one benefit for the Tibet House Trust and so that’s put me on the government’s black list. But I think it would be interesting to go to Shanghai.”
Suzanne Vega will be appearing at the Cambridge Folk Festival on Friday, July 29. Visit cambridgelive.org.uk/folk-festival. She has also announced a date at the Cambridge Corn Exchange for Thursday, February 23, 2023 (cornex.co.uk). For more on Suzanne, go to suzannevega.com.