Another good job by Chris Serico of The Journal News/LoHud.com. Chris sat down with singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega on the eve of her headlining gig at the Clearwater Festival at Croton Point Park.
Here’s Chris’ piece on Vega, which ran in today’s editions:
Singer, songwriter, storyteller
By Chris Serico
Long before singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega scored hits with “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” she was a 12-year-old girl singing at the feet of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall.
As a student at the Children’s Community Workshop Elementary School in Manhattan, Vega had impressed Seeger, who had visited the school earlier to audition kids for the school fundraiser at Carnegie Hall.
“We all sat on the stoop, and I got really close to him, and sang ‘Guantanamera’ right at him, and he picked me as one of the kids to sit at his feet,” she says. “It was a very auspicious beginning. Pete Seeger’s always had a very special place in my heart — partly because of the songs that we sang of his growing up, but also because of that moment.”
Vega is one of dozens of musical acts performing at the Clearwater Festival at Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson this weekend. The two-day event will feature sets by Seeger, Vega, Drive-By Truckers, Martin Sexton, the Indigo Girls, Arlo Guthrie and the Josh Ritter Trio, among others.
In addition to Seeger’s musical influence on Vega, his organization’s message of environmental awareness and human-rights activism has always resonated with her. As an English major at Barnard College in New York City, she headed to Clearwater’s Beacon headquarters for research.
“I was working on a little film, and I went up to their offices to interview them about the (pollutants) that were in the Hudson water at that time,” she says. “… I grew up (in New York City) alongside the Hudson River; I lived like two or three blocks away from it. It was a big part of my life.”
Vega later made a name for herself as a storyteller with rich narratives fusing folk and pop sensibilities. After the critical success of her self-titled debut album, her second album, “Solitude Standing,” generated mainstream success with the unexpected pop hit, “Luka.” Told from the perspective of a physically abused child, the deceptively upbeat song soared toward the top of American pop charts in 1987.
That year, Vega also had success with “Tom’s Diner,” a humble, solo-vocal a cappella track that became a smash in 1990 once the British dance duo DNA injected it with bass, drums and keyboards. Instantly recognizable for its hypnotic, repeating chorus of “doo doo doo-doo,” the verses of “Tom’s Diner” tell tales of people’s interactions at Tom’s Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Although Vega sees those hits as blessings, she isn’t focused on writing another hit for the sake of writing another hit.
“I feel like I can go anywhere and sing those songs. They’ve allowed me great freedom and great audiences,” she says. “People who know my work and really love it also love the other songs; they love ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Carousel,’ and the other people, who think of me as a one-hit wonder, I don’t really care about. I mean, I just don’t think about them.”
“Tom’s Diner” also paved the way for a musical revolution. Audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was so enamored by the warmth of Vega’s vocals, he used the song as a model to refine the sound compression technology that became the MP3 — launching a digital music revolution.
She’s aware that, in a way, her voice is responsible for the technology that yielded both enhancements (iTunes) and detriments (piracy) to the music industry.
“On the one hand, I like MP3s because it’s made it easy to listen to music on the subway on my iPhone; it really is a kind of revolution,” Vega says. “On the other hand, it’s horrific what it’s done to devalue music in some respects, so I have mixed feelings about it. I’m proud to have been part of that moment in history. I sort of joke about it: Since I’m called ‘The Mother of the MP3,’ I say, ‘It’s hard to control your own offspring sometimes.'”
Vega revisits “Luka,” “Tom’s Diner,” deep album cuts and new works with the help of a guitar, bass and a string quartet on the second volume of her “Suzanne Vega: Close Up” acoustic album series. A third volume is slated for release this fall.
“These days, when I perform, I don’t perform with a full band; I perform with one or two other musicians, so it’s quite stripped-down,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Well, maybe the audience might like to hear these songs without the pop production of the ’80s or the ’90s. Maybe it would be very intimate.'”
Vega has also been bringing her voice to New York City’s theater scene. For a recent one-month engagement at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, she performed the title role in “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” her homage to the author and poet’s life, loves and works.
The show, which took its last bow on June 4 but may return with edits, marked her first theatrical collaboration with Duncan Sheik — who had pop-chart success of his own with “Barely Breathing” before becoming a Tony Award-winning songwriter for “Spring Awakening.” Sheik once opened for Vega in the ’90s.
“It was great working with him,” says Vega of Sheik, who cowrote the show’s music with her. “He’s so gifted. He can knock out a tune in 20 minutes, and you’re just sitting there with your mouth hanging open, going, ‘I can’t believe how beautiful this is.'”
With influences ranging from Seeger to Kanye West, Vega continues to embed herself in music, and doesn’t see herself leaving anytime soon. “Why not just do what you love,” she says, “especially if you can be good at it and make a living?”
If you go
Who: Pete Seeger, Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls, Drive-By Truckers and more.
What: Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival
When: Festival hours are 10 a.m. to dusk June 18 and 19
Where: Croton Point Park, 1A Croton Point Ave., Croton-on-Hudson
Tickets: For nonmembers, prices vary from $70 one-day-only advance tickets (you must buy them today) to $150 for a weekend and camping pass bought today or at the gate. Children 12 and under are free with an adult. Discounts are available to seniors, students and those with disabilities. Go to www.clearwaterfestival.org for complete details.
For information: Call 845-418-3596 or visit www.clearwaterfestival.org
Hudson valley metromix rolls out the blue carpet
Dave and the rest of the Metromix street team are invading waterfronts across the Hudson Valley this summer.
They will be handing out swag, their cameras will be flashing away and the party won’t start until they arrive.
Check the Metromix, Red Bull and Manhattan Beer crew out and about in the Hudson Valley this summer! Kick some back with our street team at any one (or all!) of their waterfront tour dates.
(And do us a favor: Ask them for their autographs.)
The street team will be at Torches, 120 Front St., Newburgh, at 10 p.m. on June 25:
DJ Homicide will be heating up the dance floor, and our street team will be flashing pics of the blue carpet and all of the crazy party action!
Score some sweet Metromix swag and try our sweet Metromix Blue Carpet Cooler drink for just $6!
Check back at hudsonvalley.metromix.com for more Blue Carpet events.
Fun for all generations
The Clearwater Festival — the country’s oldest music and environmental festival — is fun for the whole family, which is appropriate this year, as the theme is “Clearwater Generations.”
Music: Hundreds of artists will perform on the festival’s seven bio-diesel powered stages, and both days of the festival will close with “Generations” sets, including performances by Pete Seeger and Tao Seeger; Arlo Guthrie and Sarah Lee Guthrie; Peter Yarrow and Bethany Yarrow; Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon; Tom Chapin and Jen Chapin (Tom’s niece and Harry Chapin’s daughter); Jay Ungar and Ruthy Ungar Merenda; David Amram and Alana, Adira and Adam Amram. “Generations” artists will perform their solo sets throughout the weekend.
Dance: Dancers from around the world will perform a wide variety of dances, including zydeco, African and Haitian folk, contra, Balkan, Latin and jazz.
Storytelling: Story Grove will continue the long-standing traditions of storytelling with audience participation.
Children’s theater: Shows on the Family Stage include performances by Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, known for its mask and puppet theaters.
Crafts fair: More than 50 people will join the juried crafts fair, featuring handmade items, demonstrations and workshops.
Environmental education: The Green Living Expo Tent will educate about environmentally friendly products, services, concepts and technologies. The Discovery and Tideline tents will feature Clearwater’s environmental education programs and Hudson River research. The Environmental Action Tent will highlight Clearwater’s watershed and environmental justice initiatives in cities up and down the Hudson Valley.
Sailing: The sloop Clearwater, the schooner Mystic Whaler and other boats will sail throughout the weekend.
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