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Suzanne Nadine Vega (born July 11, 1959) is an American songwriter and singer known for her eclectic folk-inspired music.
Two of Vega's songs (both from her second album Solitude Standing, 1987) reached the top 10 of various international chart listings: "Luka" and "Tom's Diner". The latter was originally an a cappella version on Vega's album, which was then remade in 1990 as a dance track produced by the British dance production team DNA.
Vega has released eight studio albums to date, the latest of which is Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles which was released in 2014.
Vega was born July 11, 1959 in Santa Monica, California. Her mother, Pat Vega, is a computer systems analyst of German-Swedish heritage. Her father, Richard Peck, is of Scottish-English-Irish origin. They divorced soon after her birth. Her stepfather, Edgardo Vega Yunqué, also known as Ed Vega, was a writer and teacher from Puerto Rico.
When Vega was two and a half, the family moved to New York City. She grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side. At the age of nine she began to write poetry; she wrote her first song at age 14. Later she attended New York's prestigious High School of Performing Arts (now called LaGuardia High School). There she studied modern dance and graduated in 1977.
While majoring in English literature at Barnard College, she performed in small venues in Greenwich Village, where she was a regular contributor to Jack Hardy's Monday night songwriters' group at the Cornelia Street Cafe and had some of her first songs published on Fast Folk anthology albums. In 1984, she received a major label recording contract, making her one of the first Fast Folk artists to break out on a major label.
Vega's self-titled debut album was released in 1985 and was well received by critics in the U.S.; it reached platinum status in the United Kingdom. Produced by Lenny Kaye and Steve Addabbo, the songs feature Vega's acoustic guitar in straightforward arrangements. A video was released for the album's song "Marlene on the Wall", which went into MTV and VH1's rotations. During this period Vega also wrote lyrics for two songs on Songs from Liquid Days by composer Philip Glass.
Her next effort, Solitude Standing (1987), garnered critical and commercial success including the hit single "Luka", an international success. "Luka" is written about, and from the point of view of, an abused child—at the time an uncommon subject for a pop hit. While continuing a focus on Vega's acoustic guitar, the music is more strongly pop-oriented and features fuller arrangements. The a cappella "Tom's Diner" from this album was later a hit, remixed by two British dance producers under the name DNA, in 1990. The track was originally a bootleg, until Vega allowed DNA to release through her record company, and it became her all-time biggest hit.
Vega's song "Tom's Diner" was used as the reference track in an early trial of the MP3 compression system, thus earning her the distinction of being named "The Mother of the MP3". Because it is an a cappella vocal with relatively little reverberation, it was used as the model for Karlheinz Brandenburg's sound compression algorithm. Brandenburg heard "Tom's Diner" on a radio playing the song and was excited and at first convinced it would be "nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice."
"Tom's Diner" takes place in Tom's Restaurant at 112th Street and Broadway in New York City. Exterior shots of the same restaurant appear in the television sitcom Seinfeld as Monk's, which is the eatery where Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer hang out. The DNA remix of the track was so popular that it inspired many cover versions—the best of which were eventually collected by Vega on an album titled Tom's Album. The remixed version of "Tom's Diner" was later sampled by hip hop artist Nikki D in her single "Daddy's Little Girl". Rapper Tupac Shakur sampled the track in "Dopefiend's Diner".
On July 28, 2012, Vega and the Soul Rebels Brass Band shared the stage and performed "Tom's Diner" together at the inaugural 2012 Boston Summer Arts Weekend in Copley Square.
On a 1987 Swedish television special, Vega said this about her song "Luka":
A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in front of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children. I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn't know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing. And his character is what I based the song Luka on. In the song, the boy Luka is an abused child—in real life I don't think he was. I think he was just different.
Also, in an ASCAP interview, she responded to a question about "Luka":
Interviewer: When you can touch so many people with songs like 'Luka', it must be pretty rewarding.
Vega: Yeah. It's an amazing feeling. Especially since that particular song is a very special song. It's a song about child abuse, so therefore it does touch a lot of people in a different way than if it were, say, a love song or some other kind of song.
"Luka" was covered by The Lemonheads on the 1989 album Lick, shortly before the band was signed by Atlantic Records, and was a minor college-airplay hit.
Vega's third album, Days of Open Hand (1990) continued in the style of her first two albums.
In 1992 she released the album 99.9F°. It consists of a mixture of folk music, dance beats and industrial music.
Her fifth album, Nine Objects of Desire, was released in 1996. The music varies between a frugal, simple style and the industrial production of 99.9F°. This album contains "Caramel", featured in the movie The Truth About Cats & Dogs and, later, the trailer for the movie Closer. A song not included on that album, "Woman on the Tier", was featured on the soundtrack of the movie Dead Man Walking.
In 1997 she took a singing part on the concept album Heaven and Hell, a musical interpretation of the Seven deadly sins by her colleague Joe Jackson, with whom she had already collaborated in 1986 on "Left of Center" from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack (with Vega singing and Jackson playing piano).
In 1999, Avon Books published Vega's book "The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writings Of Suzanne Vega"; a volume of poems, lyrics, essays and journalistic pieces.
September 2001 saw the release of a new album, Songs In Red and Gray. Three songs deal with Vega's divorce from first husband Mitchell Froom.
At the memorial concert for her brother Tim Vega in December 2002, she began as the long-term subject of a direct cinema documentary, Some Journey, by director Christopher Seufert of Mooncusser Films. This has not been completed.
In 2003, the twenty-one-song greatest hits compilation Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega was released. (The UK version of Retrospective included an eight-song bonus CD as well as a DVD containing twelve songs.) In the same year she was invited by Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, to play at the Century of Song concerts at the famed RuhrTriennale in Germany.
In 2003, she hosted the American Public Media radio series American Mavericks, about 20th century American composers, which received the prestigious Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting.
On August 3, 2006, Vega became the first major recording artist to perform live in the Internet-based virtual world, Second Life. The event was hosted by John Hockenberry of public radio's The Infinite Mind.
On September 17, 2006, she performed in Central Park, as part of a benefit concert for the Save Darfur Coalition. During the concert she highlighted her support for Amnesty International, of which she has been a member since 1988.
In early October 2006, Vega took part in the Academia Film Olomouc (AFO) in Olomouc, the Czech Republic, the oldest festival of documentary films in Europe, in which she appeared as a main guest. She was invited there as the subject of the documentary film by director Christopher Seufert, that had a test screening at the festival. At the end of the festival she performed her classical songs, and added one brand new piece called "New York Is a Woman".
Vega is also interviewed in the book Everything Is Just a Bet which was published in Czech in October 2006. The book contains twelve interview transcriptions from the talk show called Stage Talks that regularly runs in the Švandovo divadlo (Švandovo Theatre) in Prague. Vega introduced the book to the audience of the Švandovo divadlo (Švandovo Theatre), and together with some other Czech celebrities gave a signing session.
She signed a new recording contract with Blue Note Records in the spring of 2006, and released Beauty & Crime on July 17, 2007. The album was produced by Jimmy Hogarth, which won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. Her contract was not renewed and she was dropped in June 2008.
In 2007, Vega followed the lead of numerous other mainstream artists and released her track "Pornographer's Dream" as podsafe. The song spent two weeks at #1 during 2007 and finished as the #11 hit of the year on the PMC Top10's annual countdown. Vega joined the 10th annual Independent Music Awards judging panel to assist independent musicians' careers. She was also a judge for the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Independent Music Awards.
A partial cover version of her song "Tom's Diner" was used to introduce the 2010 British movie 22.214.171.124, with its lyrics largely rewritten to echo the plot. This musical hybrid was released as "Keep Moving". Vega participated in the Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse/David Lynch collaboration "Dark Night of the Soul". She wrote both melody and lyrics for her song, which is titled "The Man Who Played God", inspired by a biography of Pablo Picasso. Vega sang lead vocals on the song "Now I Am an Arsonist" with singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton on his 2011 album, Artificial Heart. On July 28, 2012, Vega and the Soul Rebels Brass Band shared the stage and performed "Tom's Diner" together at the inaugural 2012 Boston Summer Arts Weekend in Copley Square.
Vega has re-recorded her back-catalogue, both for artistic and commercial (and control) reasons, in the Close-up series. Vol.1 (Love Songs) and Vol. 2 (People & Places) appeared in 2010 while Vol. 3 (States of Being) was released in July 2011 followed by Vol. 4 (Songs of Family) in September 2012. Volumes 2, 3 and 4 of the "Close-Up" albums included previously unrecorded material; Volumes 2 and 3 each included one new collaboratively written song, while Volume 4 included three songs that Vega had written years earlier, but had not previously gotten around to recording. In all, Vega's "Close-Up" series features 60 re-recorded songs and five new compositions, representing about three-quarters of her lifetime songwriting output.
While performing live, Vega and long-term collaborator Gerry Leonard began to introduce a number of new songs into the setlist, including the live-favourite 'I Never Wear White'. Over the course of a year, the songs were completed and recorded in a live-studio setting with the help of a number of guests. Produced by Leonard, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, was released in February 2014. It was her first album of new material in seven years and became Vega's first studio album to reach the UK Top 40 since 1992, peaking at #37.
Vega and Duncan Sheik wrote a play "Carson McCullers Talks About Love," about the life of the writer Carson McCullers. In the play, which premiered in 2011, Vega alternates between monologue and songs. Vega and Sheik were nominated for Outstanding Music in a Play for the 57th annual Drama Desk awards.
On March 17, 1995, Vega married Mitchell Froom, a musician and a record producer (who played in and produced 99.9F° and Nine Objects of Desire). They have a daughter, Ruby Froom (born July 8, 1994). The band Soul Coughing's Ruby Vroom album was named after her, with Vega's approval, though she requested a slight change. Recently Ruby sang with her mother on a couple of occasions. Vega and Froom separated in 1998.
On February 11, 2006, Vega married Paul Mills, a lawyer. They originally met at Gerde's Folk City on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village when singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, a friend of both, introduced them. In the words of her website, "The couple met at Folk City on West 4th Street in 1981. Mr. Mills proposed to Miss Vega in May, 1983, and she accepted his proposal on Christmas Day, 2005."
Vega practices Nichiren Buddhism and is a member of the US branch of the worldwide Buddhist association Soka Gakkai International.