Suzanne Vega has been in New York City since the coronavirus pandemic hit, hunkering down to write new music and playing the occasional live show from home.
“I’m doing OK,” she told HuffPost when asked how everything’s been going these last several months.
“The most shocking thing, I think, has been Hal Willner’s death, because I knew him, and I felt very grieved about that,” she said referring to her friend, the late “Saturday Night Live” music producer, who died in April after experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
“But overall I’m just grateful that more people I know haven’t been sick. My mother actually had it, but she wasn’t sure if she had it, and then it turned out that she did have it and she had the antibodies. So I’m also grateful that she made it through,” Vega said.
Prior to the pandemic, Vega had been starring in the off-Broadway musical, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” based on the Oscar-nominated 1970 film. Since the shutdown, she’s supported a few different causes by doing live virtual performances from home, which she admits has been “really weird” because you have to imagine the audience being there.
On Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, she’ll step out to play two globally livestreaming shows ― also without an audience ― from New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club. In an effort to support the struggling independent live music industry, she’s partnered with over 80 independent promoters, venues and festivals across the U.S. and abroad for the performance.
The gigs coincide with the release of a new career-spanning album, “An Evening of New York Songs and Stories,” recorded in 2019 at Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan. The album features a host of songs she’s written about New York City, including “Ludlow Street” and “New York Is My Destination,” along with her hits “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.”
Vega wrote “Tom’s Diner” more than 30 years ago, but she can still remember composing the track as if it were yesterday.
“I’d say I got the melody first. The melody got stuck in my head. Just the way it gets stuck in other people’s heads, it got stuck in mine,” she recalled about the song, which took about two months to write. “I was walking down Broadway ... And I thought, ‘Oh, I’d really like to write a song about just an ordinary place that people are sitting in.’ I used to eat at Tom’s Restaurant when I went to Barnard College, and so I started to think of it in terms almost like a little film.”
Unlike “Tom’s Diner,” “Luka” doesn’t have a catchy singalong chorus. Told from the perspective of a boy experiencing child abuse, “Luka” deals with an intense topic rarely addressed in music. It was Vega’s manager who convinced her to record and release it as a single in 1987. Grateful that she did, Vega still frequently hears from people from all over the world about the impact of song.
“There was a girl in the Midwest who wrote to me to tell me that her father had been physically abusing her to the point where she had to go to the hospital,” Vega said. “He had broken a bone of hers, and so she was able to tell the doctors what her father had done by referencing the song. She wrote to me to tell me this, and I was really moved by her story. I wrote back to her, and I felt very grateful that she was alive and that she was able to get out of her situation, and that she had used the song to do that.”
“More recently, I got a Facebook message from someone from South Korea who had been a homeless teenager. … Now he’s a successful businessman and married and has children, but at that time when it was a hit, he said he had left home because he didn’t want to be at home anymore. He heard the song coming out of a speaker in a store in the street, and even though he didn’t really speak English, he listened to the lyrics and he heard it, and he understood the meaning of the song,” Vega said. “And he felt that it saved his life. He said he felt that there was someone on this Earth who understood what he had experienced, and it’s always stayed with him.”
Vega is currently writing music for a new album, which she hopes to release in 2022. She’s been gathering ideas inspired by New York City amid the pandemic ― “just what it felt like to be on the streets.” Although she considers herself “pretty good” at songwriting, she wouldn’t call the process “easy.” She never has.
“What I mean by that is that even my first song that I wrote when I was 14 years old took me three years to write,” she said. “So it takes me a while to write it. And then it does come back. I get the inspiration, I hear the voices in my mind. There are certain things that speak to me and I start going, ‘Oh, I’ve got to write this down so I don’t forget it.’”
In the meantime, she’s looking forward to performing the live shows in New York virtually for fans.
“I’m thinking of keeping it pretty close to the album, but maybe putting in one or two songs that don’t have to do with New York,” Vega said.
Vega’s livestreaming virtual shows are slated for Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. ET and Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. ET. Tickets are available here.