Shortly after Thanksgiving, the New York Dolls had to bow out of their scheduled First Night Boston appearance. Fortunately, the Dolls and Suzanne Vega share a tour manager and a solution was crafted in short order to fill the vacancy for the big New Year’s Eve arts festival.
Now, those who find Vega an odd swap for the Dolls should rethink that position. Both are metropolitan poets of sorts, sharing stories learned living in New York City. Both bring a discernible edge to their work, albeit the Dolls with a bit more volume. And neither is opposed to dressing up a bit.
Vega says she is thinking about appropriating Marlene Dietrich’s look for New Year’s Eve and focusing on songs that resonate with glamour and romance.
“And I’ll probably do ‘Blood Makes Noise’ too, just because that’s always interesting to play,’’ Vega says of the song that is more dire than glamorous.
Vega was reached a couple of days after returning from Prague where she attended the state funeral held for Václav Havel, the playwright-turned-dissident-turned-president. Vega says she admired Havel’s plays and politics long before meeting the former Czech president. Vega and Havel finally met after she performed “Tom’s Diner’’ on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 2006.
“It was something broadcast back to him in Prague. He said he wanted to meet me, and after that he came to a few of my concerts,’’ Vega recalls. “He was an interesting man for his times. He had the courage to articulate a lot of different feelings of other people who could not articulate them.’’
Voicing myriad emotions is a skill Vega shares with Havel. Many of her songs are an act of immersion, with Vega delivering lyrics from the perspective of her characters, as was heard with her early hit “Luka,’’ sung in the voice of an abused child.
Vega’s style of writing has kept alive many of her songs, even ones she wrote back in her late teens and early 20s, such as “Gypsy.’’
“I’m not the same person now I was then when I wrote that song, but I can still feel it. I can still pull up the emotion,’’ says Vega, now 52. “I remember some woman once wrote about me performing that song and complaining it was not suited for someone my age, and this is when I was in my mid-40s. I just have to disagree.’’
Vega’s disagreement is based on the nature of her songwriting. She contrasts what she does as a songwriter to what her father did as a novelist.
“He thought in a narrative line. A story had a beginning from which you moved away. My mind is circular. I’m always doubling back to where I begin, always hashing out something,’’ she says. “It all comes around again, like a chorus in a song.’’ While she can usually feel if a song is working, Vega almost misjudged “Marlene on the Wall,’’ an early number that remains popular.
“I just thought that the references in the song were so obscure that nobody would get it. I crumpled up the song and threw it in the garbage,’’ she recalls. “My guitarist at the time pulled it out and convinced me it was a good, uptempo song if we did it in a major key. I still open every show with it because it’s a good uptempo song in a major key.’’
Vega has been re-recording songs for thematic volumes. She calls the series “Close-Up,’’ as the new arrangements are more stripped-down than her original recordings. Volume 1 gathers love songs; Volume 2 is dedicated to people and places; and Volume 3 focuses on states of being. Earlier this month she sent out a tweet saying Volume 4, songs about family, is almost done.
The “Close-Up’’ series was an experiment in taking control of her recording career, and she says she is adjusting well to the new realities of the music business. Vega was first signed to A&M Records, which released her debut album in 1985. She stayed with the label through six albums, the final one being “Songs in Red and Gray’’ from 2001. Vega did not release her next album until 2007, when she put out “Beauty & Crime’’ on Blue Note. She and that label parted ways after that project.
“When I began, it was a pretty prestigious thing to have a record deal, and it was pretty prestigious to keep a record deal for so long, like I had. That’s all switched over,’’ she says.
But teaming with Michael Hausman, the ’Til Tuesday drummer who became a manager and joint founder of the United Musicians collective, gave Vega a good independent business model moving forward. Once the “Close-Up’’ project is done she’ll be releasing new songs, material spun from what she describes as “a new burst of energy.’’
That seems like an apt sentiment for ringing in the new year.Scott McLennan can be reached at email@example.com.