Suzanne Vega (courtesy The Windish Agency)
Suzanne Vega planted some of the 1980s' most durable melodies in our heads: "Tom's Diner" with its memorable chorus, and "Luka," about an abused boy living on the second floor. In 2011, Vega performed a one-woman show about Southern gothic novelist Carson McCullers, which she co-wrote with Broadway composer and singer Duncan Sheik, and she expects to bring an updated version to the stage next year. Sheik joins her on tour this month, with a stop at the University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall on Nov. 20. Vega talked with us by phone from her music studio in New York City's Brooklyn borough.
Richmond magazine: Tell me about playing Carson McCullers. How much acting have you done before?
Vega: I minored in theater in college, and Carson McCullers is pretty much the only role I've ever done. I love her, and I love her work. I've rewritten the play from top to bottom, so it's probably going to be called An Evening with Carson McCullers and not Carson McCullers Talks About Love anymore. She dies at 50, which is young these days. I have her talking about what happened to her as a teenager, when she contracted rheumatic fever and was never diagnosed properly, and then the stroke she had.
RM: You and Duncan Sheik will be playing a few songs about New York City. What's one of your earliest memories there?
Vega: I came to East Harlem when I was 2 1/2 years old with my parents. Those are my earliest memories, of living on East 109th Street - hot weather, people all around. It was a very poor neighborhood, but we were a big family.
RM: I wanted to ask you about two songs you wrote that are earworms - in a good way - "99.9F" and "Tom's Diner."
Vega: A melody will pop into my head and circle around for days. "Tom's Diner" was one. It just sits there and plays around, and then I put words to it, and I'm able to finish it. Those are real gifts. You kind of receive it: it pops into your head, and you think, "I'd better write this down, or else how will it get out of my head?"
RM: What do you have that you're working on now, other than the tour?
Vega: The main project is finishing the Carson McCullers play, which I hope will be produced next year, and I hope to originate the part and then give it off to other people to do. We're going to be recording the songs this December, so I have to finish the songs and make sure they're what I want them to be.
RM: If you were to meet the boy who inspired "Luka," what kind of grownup do you think he would be?
Vega: People should really know that he was not an abused child. He was just a very interesting boy who lived upstairs. I'm assuming he's still alive. He's probably wondering why I took his name. A couple of years after I wrote the song, he came to the door and asked [my roommate], "Could you please tell this girl that Suzanne Vega really lived here?" At least one time, he was impressing a girl with this story.