V – is for Suzanne Vega

Thursday 27th July

Ever since the early Seventies I have been looking out for female singer-songwriters.  Not that there weren’t plenty around then – Joni, Buffy, Joan Armatrading, Carly and Carole King were making the best records of their lives, and there were many others bubbling under.  But since that gloriously creative time they have seemed to come fewer and further between.  And every so often a new singer-songwriter has been hailed as the successor to Joni and Carole King.  Tori Amos, Sinead O’Connor, Tanita Tikaram and Julia Fordham were all splendid.  As was Suzanne Vega.  Although Suzanne’s fame rests almost entirely on only a handful of songs, and barely two or three albums.

Her first self-titled album was released in 1985 and had the single ‘Marlene on the Wall’.  It was a slow-burning hit, and it was certainly different.  A simple arrangement and a fairly undramatic vocal – but there was just something about the song that wound it’s way into your brain, and then refused to leave.  Her next album ‘Solitude Standing’ was probably her best.  It had the a cappella ‘Tom’s Diner’.  In essence this is just a few moments observing the staff and customers in a coffee shop.  But it is simply beautiful and carefully observed and sung again in an almost abstract disinterested way.  The album also contains the song ‘Luka’, about a physically abused child who refuses to seek help, almost defending his abuser.  Again, the vocal is almost detached and matter of fact “My name is Luka, I live on the second floor”, belying the seriousness of the situation.  The album sold millions, but Suzanne simply refused to be a star, even when it was released as a dance record by two record producers called DNA and became a worldwide hit.

And since then she has released an album every few years.  They are all quite good, but somehow lack the impact of her first two albums.  She shuns the spotlight and rarely appears live.  Her records sell less well these days – and even I haven’t bothered buying most of them.  In fact only the two songs most people have heard of hers are Marlene and Tom’s Diner.  But they are so remarkable in their simplicity and the lyrics and the melody that they still seem totally modern and relevant.  So, a minor addition to my collection of female singer-songwriters but still a treasured one.