Suzanne Vega Pays Homage to New York City on Her New Live Recording
On her 2007 album Beauty and Crime, the singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega recorded a song called “New York Is a Woman” in which she depicts the city as if it was an alluring female—with lyrics such as “New York is a woman, she’ll make you cry/And to her you’re just another guy”and “She’s happy that you’re here, but when you disappear/She won’t know that you’re gone to say goodbye.” In that one particular song, the musician—a longtime New Yorker herself—captures what makes the Big Apple so romantic and attractive to first-time visitors.
“There was a young man who told me that he’d spent a weekend in New York,” Vega recalls about writing that song. “He had gone there on a business trip and he just fell in love with the place. So he stayed for, I don’t know, a few months. And the way he described it, it really did sound like he was falling in love with a woman. He described it with the same kind of intensity you would use if you fell in love with a person. So that’s why I say ‘New York is a woman.’ And I noticed it’s a lot of men who tell me that they came to New York and fell in love with it.”
Vega’s “New York Is a Woman” also appears on her upcoming live record, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories (due out this Friday). It was recorded last year during her two-week residency at the legendary cabaret venue Cafe Carlyle in New York City’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Opened in 1955, the Cafe Carlyle conjures up visions of the Big Apple at its most elegant and glamorous from a bygone era.; it has hosted such legends as Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, Woody Allen and Elaine Stritch, as well as performers from the worlds of jazz and Broadway.
“It’s a very unique venue, it’s really not like other places,” Vega, who had previously performed there, says. “You don’t do a show or two nights there—you do two weeks. And they put a lot of emphasis on the opening night. So you’re expected to really give a show, and then you perform that show for two whole weeks.”
For her second time at the Cafe Carlyle in 2019, she thought it would be fun to do a set devoted to New York songs “because it’s not just the venue—the Carlyle is a hotel. They have all these guests that come from out of town and sometimes out of the country, and I thought: ‘Well, the out-of-towners would like the New York songs and so would the locals.’ Everybody loved [the show], and it was more and more sold out as the weeks went on. So we thought, ‘Okay, let’s record this.’”
As captured on the New York-themed recording—and backed by a band that included guitarist and musical director Gerry Leonard, bassist Jeff Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards—Vega performed what amounted to an overview of her career with such well-known songs as “Luka,” “Tom’s Diner,” “Marlene on the Wall” and “Gypsy.” But the set list also delved into some deep cuts from her catalog, including “Pornographer’s Dream” and “Freeze Tag.”
“I like to mix it up,” she says about the song selections. “First of all, I want them [the audience] to know that I am going to sing the classics, because people would always get nervous that you’re not going to sing their favorite song and it makes them upset. So I wanted them to know that I was going to do all the songs that they like. But I like it when people are surprised and go ‘Oh, I don’t remember that one,’ or ‘Oh yeah, that one is from Beauty and Crime’ or ‘That one is from Nine Objects of Desire.’ So I did that on purpose.”
One of the first songs unveiled from An Evening of New York Songs and Stories is her cover of “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, a musician who, like Vega, has been famously associated with the city; both he and Vega were longtime friends up until his death in 2013. “We started doing the song after Lou Reed passed away,” she says, “because Gerry Leonard and I were asked to sing at a lot of the memorials around that time. So I would usually go up to the musical director and ask, ‘Okay, what’s left? What songs are left that I can sing?’ And no one ever did “Walk on the Wild Side,” it was always available. So Gerry and I said, ‘Oh, I think we can do that.’ And then we just kept doing it.”
Vega attended a Lou Reed concert for the first time at Columbia University in 1979 while she was a student at Barnard College—an experience that impacted her as a then-aspiring musician. “There were other things in his music that I really related and responded to. It was amazing that he chose sometimes to write from a female perspective. I thought that was incredibly brave. Lou had this song called “Caroline Says,” part I and part II. And I just thought that was so amazing that he could take on a female persona and write from it. So that opened the door for me to write in a much freer way.”
Another song released ahead of the new live album is “New York Is My Destination,” which originally appeared on Vega’s 2016 record, Lover, Beloved: Songs From an Evening With Carson McCullers—based on her stage play about the famed writer. While the song’s lyrics were written specifically with McCullers in mind, its sentiment could apply to anyone who dreams about visiting New York City for the very first time. “I was hoping for that,” Vega says. “I told Duncan [Sheik, who co-wrote the music] that I wanted a song that was like an old classic. I wanted it to be a song that Rodgers and Hart might have written. I wanted it to have that theme of New York City as being this exciting place. And most of [the places] are still there: the Plaza Hotel, the Algonquin. I was looking for an old world glamour to capture in that song.”
The release of An Evening of New York Songs and Stories fittingly comes this year on the 35th anniversary of Vega’s critically-acclaimed self-titled debut album – a work that Rolling Stone once ranked as one of the 100 best albums of the 1980s. A number of its songs such as “Marlene on the Wall” and “Small Blue Thing” remain part of her touring repertoire throughout the years. More importantly, Suzanne Vega would be the launching pad for her commercial breakthroughs, 1987’s Solitude Standing albumand the hit song “Luka.”
“I’m still proud of that record,” she says now of her first album. “I remember working really hard on it and feeling that it was a debut of sorts. I worked really hard on the [song] selection. I’d written probably a hundred songs by then, so I picked the ones that I thought would be the best introduction. I think Lenny Kaye and Steve Addabbo did a great job on the production. Ron Fierstein, my manager at the time, really had faith in me and believed in me. I’m just thrilled that all these years later, I’m still singing the songs. I still have a lot of affection for them.”
In fact, some of those songs from Suzanne Vega also appear on An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. By coincidence, the new album’s arrival is quite timely given the recent talk on whether New York City can recover from the pandemic— especially stories of people leaving the city for the suburbs (Vega’s touring plans for this year to promote the new record have been put on hold).
“I think it’s an over-reaction,” she says of that chatter about the city. “I think that New York will come back. I think people are frightened right now, and they’re fleeing New York because they maybe need a little more space and they’re raising children. But the fact is that New York has already rebounded in an amazing way. We had the lockdown in March and then we had the apex in April, which was terrifying to live through. And now since June, the numbers have been really great. We’ve been able to keep it under control. People should be looking to New York to be a leader. They should look to New York and see how we were able to control the pandemic, because we’re doing it. How can New York die? New York is always going to come back.”