To say Suzanne Vega was skeptical that her song “Luka” could be a hit would be completely understating it.
“It was my manager at the time, Ron Fierstein, who heard in it a possible hit,” Vega says by telephone before a gig at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. “I didn’t hear it at all. I didn’t write it to be a hit. I wrote it as this little portrait. At the time, it wasn’t even a song that people responded to when I sang it live. Most people seemed kind of embarrassed by it and wanted to hear something more folky with a chorus, something like ‘Gypsy.'”
But it was “Luka,” told from the perspective of a 9-year-old abused child — and named after a boy who lived in Vega’s building who, by the way, wasn’t actually abused — that reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Vega is still best known to the general public for “Luka,” a single off her 1987 sophomore album, Solitude Standing, which continues to resonate today. It’s a fact that’s not lost on the singer-songwriter.
“It’s a subject matter that is still very timely,” Vega says. “There’s a lot of children who are still abused. It’s still in the news and men and women who were abused. But the second thing I think is the production. Ron Fierstein and Steve Addabbo spent years on the production for ‘Luka.’ We went through several versions of it, and they were very careful with the sound of it. They made sure it sounded good on the radio before we served it up to radio. It was painstakingly crafted. And the minute we gave it to radio it took off. There was a clear before and after.”
Vega has suffered through more than one setback in the years that have followed. She was dropped by two major labels and had to cope with the deaths of her brother Tim, and more recently longtime friend Lou Reed. But Vega, now 55, has rebounded. Five years ago she launched her own label, Amanuensis, rerecording her back catalog, spread out over four thematic compilations. In February, she released her first set of new material in seven years, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. The album features 10 new songs each telling a story that has to do with the material world, the spirit world and how they intersect. It blends a broad range of musical tastes and also offers contributions from Larry Campbell, the former Bob Dylan and Levon Helm sideman, and Tony Levin, bassist for Peter Gabriel and King Crimson.
“The album, if you want to say it has a theme, is the spiritual world and the real world and where they meet,” Vega says. “Another word for pentacles is coins or money so some of the songs have a thread of what is the value of money. The fool’s complaint is that the queen is too greedy and he himself doesn’t really believe in money, so there’s certainly a thread in there about what is real and what isn’t.”
The album was produced by noted guitarist Gerry Leonard, David Bowie’s musical director for more than a decade, with whom Vega has worked since 2000. Leonard is also touring with Vega, lending his trademark guitar to her concerts. It was Leonard who suggested Vega, an artist whose work is often sampled, take a stab at it herself. The song “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” includes a snippet from 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.”
“That was new for me,” Vega says, laughing. “When I listen to music I don’t tend to listen to it thinking what can I take, what can I steal from this. But I kept playing Gerry all these songs that I liked thinking, ‘why don’t we do a string chart like this’ or ‘why don’t we do a rhythm track like that.’ And he just said, ‘why should we? Why don’t we just sample it?’ And he did it. He sampled it and showed me how it would fit in the song and I liked it so much we kept it, and 50 Cent was really gracious about it.”
Vega, who was born in Santa Monica, CA, but raised in New York City, picked up the guitar at age 11 and started writing her own songs as a teenager. It was in 1979, when Vega attended a concert by Lou Reed, that her musical voice and vision for contemporary folk began to take shape. A receptionist by day, Vega was a regular contributor to Jack Hardy’s Monday night songwriters’ group at the Cornelia Street Cafe, and soon was playing iconic Greenwich Village venues like The Bottom Line and Folk City.
“I was very influenced by Lou Reed and new wave bands like the Police, and more indirectly by what was going to be called rap music,” Vega says. “The first songs I came out with had a spoken word feel to them. I think that was different than most of the people on the scene who loved Bob Dylan and who could get by through Bob Dylan’s way of writing.”
Vega’s demo tape was rejected by every major record company, including A&M, the label that eventually signed her. Her self-titled debut was released in 1985, co-produced by Addabbo and Lenny Kaye, the former guitarist for Patti Smith. Then came 1987’s Solitude Standing, and “Luka.”
“Things changed quickly for me,” Vega says. “I went from working as a receptionist in an office and having my demo tape rejected for three years to suddenly having those same songs just accepted by everybody and leading a troupe of men on tour around the world. It took adjusting, but at the same time I loved it. It was great feeling that I had an audience who listened to what I said. It was great feeling successful. It was beyond my wildest expectations, but there was also the pressure that comes with that.”
The opening song on Solitude Standing was an a cappella piece, “Tom’s Diner,” about a restaurant near Columbia University. It was remixed by U.K. electronic dance duo DNA and bootlegged as “Oh Susanne.” Vega permitted an official release of the remix of “Tom’s Diner” under its original title, which reached No. 5 on the Billboard pop chart.
“‘Tom’s Diner’ being remixed by DNA taught me something,” Vega says. “It taught me that sometimes it’s better to have a good, vibrant, lively idea. You don’t need a big budget or production to make it work. Those guys didn’t have any money. It was very clever, and I’ve pretty much embraced all the versions of ‘Tom’s Diner’ that have come out since then.”
Vega made three more albums for A&M, parted ways with the label, and then signed with Blue Note for 2007’s well-received “Beauty & Crime,” but that label also dropped her.
“I was shocked,” she says. “It was very well received and everybody at the label really seemed to like the songs until they dropped me. After that I didn’t really feel like writing a bunch of new songs and trying to get a label to put them out or putting them out myself to see if people would like them. So right or wrong, I started re-recording my old material as a way of owning the material physically and, in that way, making some money.”
Experiences like those have forced her to be economical. She mostly tours with only one musician these days, and recorded “Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles” in days instead of months. But she’s also never felt more at home on stage than she does now.
“I tried to have a long view of it,” Vega says. “I feel I am an artist first and foremost. I had been writing songs since I was 14 so even though I was still young, I was 27 when ‘Luka” became a hit and had been in the business for half my life at that point. I didn’t feel like I had to have another hit or I was going to die then, and I certainly don’t now. I’m just going to make my next group of songs and see what happens.”