With her 1985 self-titled debut album and its follow up, 1987’s Solitude Standing, celebrated singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has shown that she’s an expert at writing unforgettable and thought-provoking material. With nine studio albums and hits like “Luka,” “Tom’s Diner,” “Left of Center” and “99.9F°,” she has gained a fervent fanbase around the world, and has won or been nominated for numerous awards, from the Grammys to the Billboard Music Awards. Her latest release, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories (released on September 11) is a live album that spans all of her greatest material.
Given her lengthy and impressive career, Vega is definitely in a position to offer useful advice to songwriters wishing to follow her lead. Her main recommendation is: “It really helps to listen to other people,” she says, “especially people who can teach you something, people who are not like you.”
Even with all her songwriting experience and success, Vega says she still works at educating herself in this way. “When I want to learn from someone, I go back to the old masters. I listen to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, I listen to Elvis Costello, who I find very inspiring because he writes punchy, melodic songs with a lot of wordplay. I find that inspiring because my tendency is to want to write ballad-y, slower type things. So to get myself out of that, I’ll listen to those guys.”
Also, Vega adds, “It helps to learn other people’s songs – how to play them – to learn chords, phrasing, timing. When you sing and play someone else’s song, it stretches your own abilities. You don’t have to sing them for anybody else. You can just sing them for yourself. But it’s a great way to open up.”
To do this type of exercise, Vega recommends, “Get those little songbooks.” In particular, she recommends that new songwriters seek out the songbooks of Paul Simon’s work. For herself, she says she’s recently been delving into Bob Dylan’s material, because “He made such different choices then I would have made. It was really thrilling to put my fingers where his had been and think, ‘That’s how he did that!’ It is really cool and it’s really fun.”
It would also be a good idea for a beginning songwriter to study Vega’s work, as well. After all, with “Luka,” she shows how to tackle a taboo topic (child abuse) with empathy and grace. She is equally adept at taking a seemingly mundane slice-of-life story and turn it into a memorable, evocative song like “Tom’s Diner.” With An Evening of New York Songs and Stories (recorded in 2019 during Vega’s two-week residency at New York’s legendary Carlyle Café), she plays homage to her beloved hometown – and provides a master class in articulate, striking songwriting.
Suzanne Vega’s An Evening of New York Songs was released on September 11 and is available across all DSP and on CD.