Suzanne Vega on Gender Identity, Britney Spears and New Concept Album
When Suzanne Vega premiered the play, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, five years ago in New York City, the evening of theatrical cabaret was the culmination of decades of investigation into the Southern author. But it didn't satiate her creative spark. This week the "Luka" singer releases Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers, a 10-song concept album that takes listeners on a journey through literary luminary's life and work.
Vega discovered Carson McCullers – author of novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding – as a teenager after reading her short story "Sucker," loving its language and modern feel. But she didn't realize it was written by a woman until she later read a biography, and her gender fluidity appealed to Vega.
She explains that, although she's heterosexual and has been married to men ("happily," she points out), there was a time when "I did not like being female, being a girl," which she expressed in her song "Small Blue Thing." "I wanted to be something other than that, not necessarily male – if I could have been a thing or a plant or anything … I really loved how she was so open about her bisexuality. She was dual-natured the way she lived her life.”
A collaboration with her friend, singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, this album is a witty, bluesy passageway into a previous era. "Harper Lee," a song packed with more literary references than seems feasible, is mined from actual things that McCullers said and wrote about her contemporaries. After the release of Lee's Go Set a Watchmen last year, people wondered if it would spur Vega to change the song in some way. "I think [Lee] has, in effect, only written one book," she explains. "It proves how prophetic Carson's spirit it. It's not the only thing that's of this time. There's quite a few things: gay people can marry … the Black Lives Matters movement has coalesced. The last song on the album, 'Carson's Last Supper,' has overtones of Bernie Sanders' [campaign] message. She was genuinely ahead of her time."
Despite a robust creative output over the years, perhaps Vega is still best remembered for her two earliest and biggest hits: the poetic observations in "Tom's Diner" and "Luka," which deals with child abuse. In fact, "Tom's Diner" was once again a radio hit last year – nearly 30 years after its original a capella release on her first studio album Solitude Standing – when Giorgio Moroder remade it with Britney Spears singing the familiar lines: "I am sitting in the morning/At the diner on the corner/I am waiting at the counter/For the man to pour the coffee …"
"I have to say, I was surprised," Vega says. "It came right on the heels of Fall Out Boy [who sampled the song on "Centuries"]. I thought, 'That's great that Britney Spears wants to do this.' I was impressed because it was her idea and … it's showing maturity in her career choices."
Vega admits she was also surprised how closely Moroder followed the DNA remix that hit Number Five on the Hot 100 in 1990 after its release, hoping it may take on a disco tinge. "I'm a big Donna Summer fan, and I was expecting a real transformation," she says. "I was thrilled [Britney] did it, and I hope she does it in her live show."
The first single of this latest album, "We of Me," may be a bit too transgressive to ever see such mainstream success, despite being the most contemporary-sounding song. The language is taken from The Member of the Wedding, and is sung from the perspective of the young protagonist, who wants to join her brother and his bride to be a perfect trio. "In Carson's own life, she ended up loving two people at the same time," Vega says. Alas, as joyful as it is, a song about a threesome – sexual or spiritual – may still be too much for someone to enjoy on their own wedding day.
Vega begins the North American leg of her Lover, Beloved tour later in October.