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Suzanne Vega brings 'Old Songs, New Songs and Other Songs' tour to Ithaca for sold-out show

Suzanne Vega
George Holz
Suzanne Vega

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega returns to Ithaca on Wednesday night for a sold-out show. She’ll bring her “Old Songs, New Songs and Other Songs” tour to the Hangar Theatre, where she last performed in 2014.

Vega will be joined by her longtime guitarist and music director Gerry Leonard, who also has worked with David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright, Laurie Anderson, and Duncan Sheik, among others.

Since emerging on the music scene in 1985 with her self-titled debut album, Vega has scored plenty of hits, including “Marlene on the Wall,” “Solitude Standing,” “Left of Center,” “Luka,” and “Tom's Diner.” Her latest album, 2020’s “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories,” was recorded live at Manhattan’s Café Carlyle and includes songs from her entire career performing in a stripped-down, intimate setting.

Vega recently spoke with The Route via Zoom from her home in New York City, and talked about her new songs, songwriting process, and why she’s known as “the Mother of the MP3.”

Q: Thanks for taking the time today. I saw you at the Hangar Theatre almost 10 years ago. Your upcoming tour is titled “Old Songs, New Songs, and Other Songs.” I’m excited about the “New Songs” part of it.

Suzanne Vega: I'm glad you noticed that part.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about some of your new songs? Are they part of an album yet? Are they just random ones? How would you describe them?

SV: They are both kind of random, and also part of an album that I'm working to finish. I mean, all songs are random until you gather them up into a final collection. We’ve been trying out new songs all year, but we're trying to give this a push so we may be doing even newer songs than usual.

Of the songs we've done so far, we have one called “Rats,” which is kind of a punk rock song sort of loosely based on the Ramones. It's a post-apocalyptic view of New York City, post-COVID and during COVID, based on notes I've taken about all the different rat stories I was hearing. We have that to look forward to. It’s very energetic – as I said, it's punk rock.

There’s also a song about caretaking for someone who's ill, and that's called “Flying with Angels.” It’s more of a singer-songwriter type of song. And we'll be trying out some brand-new songs, also, so I'm really looking forward to this tour. And I'm really glad that there are people who want to hear the new songs, because, to be honest, most people really like to hear the old ones.

Suzanne Vega
George Holz
Suzanne Vega

Q: At this point in your career you have a bunch of songs that could be considered your greatest hits, which you’re sort of obligated to play at your shows. But what are your thoughts on playing some of those older songs, some of which are almost 40 years old? Do you relate to them any differently? Do you still like playing them? Or are you tempted to change them up and do them differently?

SV: Oh, no, I'm not. Who needs to reinterpret the old material? That thing that Bob Dylan does is not for me. I like doing the old ones, and I do them sincerely, each time. A song like “Gypsy,” which I wrote when I was in my teens, I still feel it every time I sing it. It's about young love and first love and that's the reason to keep singing it because it sort of brings you back to that moment in time. So I love it.

If there's a song I really hate or don't like doing, I usually do fight to keep it out of the set. Sometimes Gerry Leonard, my musical director, makes me put it back in. “Solitude Standing,” for example, is really hard to play so I usually fight to keep it out. But sometimes he makes me put it in.

So, I like doing the old songs. I usually do them at the beginning and at the end of the set, so that everybody's relaxed and comfortable. And “Tom's Diner” is just a joy to sing because everybody gets so excited. It’s multigenerational at this point. Everybody loves it, and so do I.

Q: Speaking of Gerry Leonard, can you talk about working with him and what he brings to your music?

SV: Yeah, he's great to play with. We met in 2000 when we were working on the “Songs in Red and Gray” album. And he came over to me and said something very unusual. He said, “I can play your guitar parts just like you do.” Which I have to say no other guitar player in my life has ever said that to me, because my way of playing is very idiosyncratic. So I thought, “Well, that's nice,” and I just kind of put that aside.

And then I broke my arm in 2001. We were promoting that album, so I asked him if he would come on tour with me to play my guitar parts the way I play them. And he did. He played my guitar parts and his own parts, and I was very impressed by this. And this started a professional relationship, which has continued.

So he's great, and we keep each other entertained and amused, and we challenge each other all the time. But he's Irish, so he has that Celtic soulful way of playing the acoustic guitar. But because he's played with David Bowie, and because he has this other side to him, he can also just conceptualize almost any song you give him. And he'll really work it, so he's unique in that way.

You know, I never feel overpowered by him; I always feel that I'm somehow supported. Like, I'm free to run around the stage and play to the audience in a way that I can't always do with other musicians because I usually stay at the microphone and play my guitar. But playing with Gerry, I'm free to do anything I want.

Q: “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories,” which came out in 2020, was your last official release. From its title it’s a theme album, but one that hits home for you being a New Yorker for so long. The city has been a recurring character in your life and career. I read that you currently live near where you grew up in the city, so what has it been like to go back to the old neighborhood?

SV: Well, at first, I found it disturbing because I was haunted, you know, by old memories. But then once you live there, and you keep living there, there's sort of a new building up of new memories and new associations, so I don't feel that way so much anymore. It's a different city than it was in the 60s and 70s. But not by that much, honestly. When people complain and go, “Oh, I miss the old days.” I don't really miss the old days. And I still find pockets of New York that are just as bad as it was then, so if you really miss the old days, why don't you come to these neighborhoods and check it out? You know, you might feel return of that old soulfulness or whatever it is, you feel New York is missing now. So, you know, New York changes, and we change with it.

Q: Can you talk about your songwriting process? Do you start with the lyrics when you write? How do you actually write your songs?

SV: It's still a very mysterious process. Sometimes it starts with a melody. Sometimes it starts with actual verses. Sometimes I can write all the lyrics in a kind of poem and then set it to music. But that's those are not the songs I prefer. The songs I really like are the mysterious ones where you hear a melody or you hear that concept in your mind, and then you sing, and then you figure it out from there. So it's like a mysterious puzzle, and every time is slightly different.

Q: You did some acting recently in the Off-Broadway production of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” (The New York Times said of her performance, “As our polymorphic host, the brandy-voiced Vega…is a delightful, smoothly sardonic presence…a discreetly entertaining font of omniscience.”) What was that like? Was that fun, challenging, or both?

SV: I've always been fascinated by acting, and by the idea of expressing emotions on command. And I love the theater. And I love the stage, generally, and I've always loved dressing up in costume and pretending to be someone else. So all of that made it a thrill to do those roles. But yeah, it's a challenge. I find it difficult in real life to express emotions. And so that's why I think I'm drawn to that kind of work.

Q: I was reading some old articles about you and somebody referred to you as the “Mother of the mp3.” That's an interesting title to be awarded, I suppose. But I guess the original “Tom’s Diner” track was especially sonically impressive, which made it useful for other things.

SV: What happened was that in 1987, we put out that track acapella. And I started to hear sometime around 1987 or 88, that people would use that track to test their speakers because it was such a clean exposed track – if there were any issues with the sound, you could hear it right away, because all it was this simple, vocal track.

And somehow that got into the hands of Karlheinz Brandenburg, who had been working on this thing called the mp3. And he said, “If what I've done here is correct, I can run that voice through this device, and it will recreate it faithfully.” So he did that, and it did not recreate it faithfully – it sounded awful.
So he worked for months running “Tom's Diner” through the mp3 and tweaking and fixing it, and finally he got to a nearly perfect facsimile of the voice. So that's why I’ve been called the “Mother of the mp3,” because my voice was used in the creation of it.

Q: The third part of your tour title is “Other Songs.” I know you covered “Walk on the Wild Side” on the “New York” album. But are there other songs that you're thinking about playing? Or do you rotate those in and out?

SV: Yeah, sometimes Gerry and I do covers, depending on what the theme is, or what we're feeling. I think the “Other Songs" also may refer to just some deep tracks that are interesting at the moment or something that strikes that fits the mood of the current theme.

We're going to be rehearsing on Monday and leaving town on Tuesday, so we don't quite know what we're doing until that afternoon. But yeah, that's what those “Other Songs” are. They're either my songs, which are some that maybe you don’t hear that often, or covers.

Q: It sounds like this coming tour will be a lot of fun for you.

SV: Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. I think it's gonna be crazy. it'll be like a once-in-a-while, never-to-be-repeated moment in time when the songs are new.

If you go

Who: Suzanne Vega

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Hangar Theatre

Cost: SOLD OUT!!

Event Info

Suzanne Vega waves to the audience after performing "Tom's Diner" at the Hangar Theatre in Sept. 2014.
Jim Catalano
Suzanne Vega waves to the audience after performing "Tom's Diner" at the Hangar Theatre in Sept. 2014.

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, and its affiliates.