Suzanne Vega is Tidying Her Home and Tending Her Soul (in Sensible Jackets)
The singer and songwriter, hunkered down in New York as she prepares to release a live album of songs about her longtime hometown, shared her list of cultural must-haves.
By Olivia Horn
Once a haunt for the Kennedy clan and Marilyn Monroe, the Café Carlyle retains its reputation as a stronghold of old New York grandeur. For musicians, an invitation to entertain its well-heeled patrons grants entrance to an elite club with members including Judy Collins and Elaine Stritch. So when the singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, a longtime New Yorker, was asked back for a second residency at the Upper East Side cabaret last year, she had a reputation to uphold.
“I felt like I had to up my game,” she said.
Figuring that a New York-themed show would be a hit with tourists and locals alike, Vega mined her back catalog. The resulting set list included “Frank and Ava,” about one of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s infamous fights at their apartment on Central Park South; “Tom’s Diner,” her irresistible calling card named for Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway and 112th; and “Anniversary,” which remembers the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Recordings from her engagement at the Carlyle made their way onto a new live album, “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories,” due this Sept. 11.
Asked about the loaded release date, Vega said it was a startling coincidence: “I couldn’t believe it when they told me. When something like that happens, it’s kind of a jolt from the universe.”
Vega, 61, is attentive to the realm of the unseen. Her list of 10 cultural must-haves includes high-minded yet pragmatic texts on spirituality, as well as tools for simple homemaking, healthy eating and everyday glamour. Calling from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she’s hunkered down with her husband, Paul; cat, Cinnamon; and dog, Molly (who was eager to chime in), she broke down her selections. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. Vinegar and Microfiber Cloths
The first thing I had to do [after stay-at-home orders] was figure out how to clean. In “the before days,” as we call them, I had a team of people that would help me. Suddenly all of that stopped, so I wanted a basic, simple system to teach me how to clean the house. I got way into those microfiber cloths and hot water and vinegar.
2. “Care of the Soul,” by Thomas Moore
It makes you think about a dimension of life that most of us sense or feel but don’t necessarily articulate. I’m always joyful when I recognize some spiritual feeling that I’ve felt, written down in a book. I felt a lot of those things growing up, but you never have the words to express them unless you’re raised with a religious doctrine, which I wasn’t, until I became a Buddhist at the age of 16. And it’s interestingly practical. One of the things it says is that if you take the time to wash the dishes by hand, for example, that’s one way of cultivating the soul.
3. “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” by William James
When I was living in a townhouse with a lot of room, I decided to subscribe to something like the “100 Best Books of the 20th Century” club. It hadn’t really hit me that 100 books were going to actually come through the door of my house. By the time I got 30 or 40, I was like, “Whoa, wait a minute.” This might have been one of those.
You don’t think of William James as being humorous. But it really is, once you get past the language — or even because of the language, which was so formal. He’s talking about classifying people, or classifying anything, really, and he says: “The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say; ‘I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.’” And I just love that, and I so identify with that crab.
4. “The Art of Simplicity,” by Dominique Loreau
The subtitle is “How to live more with less.” My house has become very cluttered. You can imagine how much stuff I, who would subscribe to “100 Best Books of the 20th Century” without even thinking twice about it, have in my house. So it’s not that I live this way, but I aspire to it. It boils down a way of living that is practical and beautiful, and applies to everything from what you own, to how you eat, to how you exercise. I love Marie Kondo’s book [“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”], and I also use that as an organizing tool. If you had asked me last year, that probably would have been on the 10.
5. “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser
I discovered this on the bookshelf when I was in my teens. My stepfather was a writer. Sometimes he would let me use his electric typewriter to write plays or short stories or whatever I wanted. So, in an effort to be a better writer, I discovered this book. It’s another one where the idea is to get rid of clutter. “Simplify, simplify.” I try to use his principles anytime I write. It really is sort of ironic that my stepfather would have had this on his shelf, because he could have a sentence that would go on for three pages, with very little punctuation. We would have arguments about how to edit.
6. “Eat, Drink, and Be Gorgeous,” by Esther Blum
This is a surprising little workhorse of a book. It looks so frilly and so frivolous: It’s this bright pink book with a woman sitting in a martini glass, holding a martini glass. I really like martinis, so I thought, “OK, I’ll take a look at this.” It has great information about how to take care of your body, for everything from low energy to quitting smoking to thinning hair and sugar cravings. It has very concrete information about all of that, as well as recipes and advice for how to live in a way that’s not quite the austerity of “The Art of Simplicity.” This is “The Art of Simplicity,” but with more partying.
7. “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” by Mireille Guiliano
Guiliano has a lovely, healthy way of thinking about food, which is to use the fruits and vegetables that are local and in season. For me, health comes before beauty. It’s hard to be or feel beautiful if you’re sick. So I read it not for the “don’t get fat” part, but for the recipes that are all about cooking your vegetables so they’re really tasty.
8. Revlon “Cherries in the Snow” Lipstick
It’s my go-to lipstick. For any occasion, whether it’s formal or informal; whether I’m doing a Zoom meeting, or going to some gala, “Cherries in the Snow” is my go-to top of glamour.
9. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The first time I went to the Met, I thought: “I belong here. This belongs to me.” It mattered more to me than, say, the Modern. My parents and my teachers were always taking us down to MoMA to learn about modern art, and because it was the ’60s and modern art was very modern back then. I love the sense of history, and it also has its modern wing, so it’s not just like a mausoleum. It’s a place that I go to be renewed and refreshed.
10. Miu Miu Black Jackets
The designer I’m most impressed with is actually Dries Van Noten, who is very colorful. But I buy the pieces and then I never wear them. The thing I find myself reaching for all the time are these little Miu Miu jackets that I get through consignment. They’re black, and cut very close to the body, and super useful: I can wear them onstage or I can wear them to walk in the park. My favorite way of dressing, at the moment, is mixing high and low, so I mix them with Old Navy or with Converse. Because after all, what am I doing? I’m cleaning the house. And so you have both elegance and comfort.