And The Song Still Sticks
Folk singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega can be thanked, or blamed, for crafting a tune 25 years ago so memorable it still runs through the American mind. “Tom’s Diner,” from Vega’s 1987 album Solitude Standing, launched a kind of virus through American music with her ad-libbed outro (which won’t be printed here, else it sticks in your head all day). The song, which along with the child-abuse tale “Luka,” launched Vega to international success, and went on to propagate through dozens of other songs and remixes.
The ubiquity of “Tom’s Diner” is characteristic of Vega’s strange presence in the culture, the coincidences that keep her popping up. The actual diner on which the song is based, for example, is the one seen in nearly every episode of “Seinfeld.” Vega’s daughter’s name, Ruby Froom, inspired the Soul Coughing album Ruby Vroom. “Tom’s Diner” was used in the development of the MP3 audio compression system; its creator knew he’d refined his algorithm when he didn’t lose any of the warmth of Vega’s voice. Consequently, she’s now known as “the Mother of the MP3.”
Last year Vega co-wrote a musical play about the writer Carson McCullers. She’s also finished three volumes of re-recordings from her back catalogue, with a fourth planned.
Vega will be playing Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall April 21. We talked to her about writing songs that stick in the brain, the American mood at the moment and her cosmic feelings on all those weird coincidences.
435 South: It was interesting in the origin of “Tom’s Diner” that your photographer friend described seeing the world through a pane of glass, but then in your last album Beauty & Crime there’s a mix of the objective and the personal. How do you balance the two? Do the stories just come to you that way?
Suzanne Vega: That’s exactly right. It just comes to me in a certain way. Sometimes I feel the need to write a personal story, a personal song. I think “Anniversary” [from Beauty & Crime] is in its way very personal. But then others are more, like “Angel’s Doorway” is more of a reporting angle. So that’s just the way my mind works. Sometimes I feel personally involved and sometimes I feel that I can be more objective. And I sort of like playing with going back and forth between those two viewpoints.
435: What’s interesting about your songs is this balance between having strong opinions about a subject without being overtly political. Do you consider yourself political or try to avoid all that stuff?
SV: Well, I’ve always really disliked political songs, I have to say. I was raised in a very political climate with very political parents who took me to a lot of demonstrations, who were very vocal. And I was raised on a lot of Pete Seeger. So I have to say that I suppose it was my way of not exactly rebelling but just being skeptical.
But I do feel myself to be deeply involved in social issues. I grew up in really rough neighborhoods in New York City and my family benefited a lot of times from government-sponsored workshops or food programs. So I grew up in a climate where I was, whether I liked it or not, socially involved. So I try to write songs that reflect the realities but I prefer to look at it through the lens of social issues rather than political messages. Because I find the politics change depending on who’s in office, but to be honest, the social issues never go away.
435: What’s interesting about “Tom’s Diner” is that that’s something that immediately got away from you. There have been a million different remixes and all those things…
SV: And there are! I think Snoop Dogg is the last one, so yeah it just doesn’t stop.
435: What is the cause of that?
SV: Well, some of it is just the melody, just the way it appeared in my mind and played in my own mind for several days when I first heard it. It kind of gets under your skin, and then on top of that I think it’s become a cultural phenomenon where people feel that it’s sort of a rite of passage to use it. If you can interpolate “Tom’s Diner” or if you can remix “Tom’s Diner,” that’s a threshold that you have to cross over and then you move on to other things, I suppose. It’s become kind of a touchstone and that’s cultural.
435: You’ve toured all over the world and in your interactions with people from stage to audience, you must be able to develop a sense of the people. What’s the American mood these days based on what you’re seeing from the stage?
SV: Something that I’ve seen from the stage starting about five years ago is the economy. I remember I’ve toured America since the mid-80s and there’s such a difference in the mood and in the climate now than there was then. Cities that were thriving 10 years ago, 15 years ago, you really feel the difference.
You see whole downtown areas with stores that were once vibrant are now all for rent or for sale. You can just see these things just from coming into the city in the vehicle, just looking out the window. So America’s really struggling to recover from this in a very street-level way. And I don’t really feel that in other places. I feel the economy crunch in other countries but I don’t see it as directly.
435: And so does that translate into people wanting your saddest songs…
SV: No no, I mean yeah. My sad songs always do really well. (laughs) Everybody wants to hear “The Queen and the Soldier.” … What it really impacts is where I’m asked to go play. I’m asked to play in different places than I used to be. Because as a performer, I have to go where I’m invited and where they have the money to pay. So that’s how it’s changed.
435: You’ve been a famous person for long enough that you’re going to see some cultural intersections, but you seem to be a magnet for some weird resonances: “Tom’s Diner” and Seinfeld, Soul Coughing and so on. Is that something that you’ve thought about?
SV: I have thought about it. Here’s my conclusion. I feel that in some way I’m meant to be, like a lightning rod for certain ideas… There must be something elemental about who I am and what I do that allows for ideas to pass through me. It seems to work best when I am sitting here minding my own business, just working on my own projects and putting them out into the world and letting them be used as they are used.
I’ve had songs that I’ve thought were gonna be big hits and nothing has ever happened with them and there have been other projects that I’ve tried to force this way or that way. So it has nothing to do with my personal will. It just really does seem to work best when I sit here, working on my own things. For some reason I feel that that’s been part of my usefulness, is to allow myself to be used in that way by the powers that exist.
Suzanne Vega, who pairs her acoustic guitar with the songs she writes, performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 21, in the Carlsen Center’s Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College. Joining Vega on stage will be Duncan Sheik, composer of the Tony Award-winning Broadway smash Spring Awakening. For ticket information, visit jccc.edu/TheSeries or call (913) 469-4445.