Suzanne Vega | Arts & Culture
Ari Hest opening
The Center for the Arts presents
Thursday, May 22, 8:00PM
$45 members, $55 non-member
(Does not include applicable fees)
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“With her clear, unwavering voice and penchant for dark suits (the subject of the new album’s autobiographical “I Never Wear White”), Vega stood out from her fellow Village folkies of the early Eighties…” – Rolling Stone
Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant songwriters of her generation, Suzanne Vega emerged as a leading figure of the folk-music revival of the early 1980s when, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sang what has been labeled contemporary folk or neo-folk songs of her own creation in Greenwich Village clubs. Since the release of her self-titled, critically acclaimed 1985 debut album, she has given sold-out concerts in many of the world’s best-known halls. In performances devoid of outward drama that nevertheless convey deep emotion, Vega sings in a distinctive, clear vibrato-less voice that has been described as “a cool, dry sandpaper- brushed near-whisper” and as “plaintive but disarmingly powerful.”
Bearing the stamp of a masterful storyteller who “observed the world with a clinically poetic eye,” Suzanne’s songs have always tended to focus on city life, ordinary people and real world subjects. Notably succinct and understated, often cerebral but also streetwise, her lyrics invite multiple interpretations. In short, Suzanne Vega’s work is immediately recognizable, as utterly distinct and thoughtful, and as creative and musical now, as it was when her voice was first heard on the radio over 20 years ago.
Suzanne was born in Santa Monica, CA, but grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York City. She was influenced by her mother, a computer systems analyst and her stepfather, the Puerto Rican writer Egardo Vega Yunque. There was a heady mix of multicultural music playing at home: Motown, bossa nova, jazz and folk. At age 11 she picked up a guitar and as a teenager she started to write songs.
Suzanne studied dance at the High School for the Performing Arts and later attended Barnard College where she majored in English Literature. It was in 1979 when Suzanne attended a concert by Lou Reed and began to find her true artistic voice and distinctive vision for contemporary folk. Receptionist by day, Suzanne was hanging out at the Greenwich Village Songwriter’s Exchange by night. Soon she was playing iconic venues like The Bottom Line and Folk City. The word was out and audiences were catching on.
At first, record companies saw little prospect of commercial success. Suzanne’s demo tape was rejected by every major record company—and twice by the very label that eventually signed her: A&M Records. Her self-titled debut album was finally released in 1985, co-produced by Steve Addabbo and Lenny Kaye, the former guitarist for Patti Smith. The skeptical executives at A & M were expecting to sell 30,000 LP’s. 1,000,000 records later, it was clear that Suzanne’s voice was resonating around the world. Marlene on the Wall was a surprise hit in the U.K and Rolling Stone eventually included the record in their “100 Greatest Recordings of the 1980’s.” 1987’s follow up, Solitude Standing, again co-produced by Addabbo and Kaye, elevated her to star status. The album hit #2 in the UK and #11 in the States, was nominated for three Grammys including Record of the Year and went platinum. “Luka” is a song that has entered the cultural vernacular; certainly the only hit song ever written from the perspective of an abused boy.
The opening song on Solitude Standing was a strange little a cappella piece, “Tom’s Diner” about a non-descript restaurant near Columbia University uptown. Without Suzanne’s permission, it was remixed by U.K. electronic dance duo “DNA” and bootlegged as “Oh Susanne.” Suddenly her voice on this obscure tune was showing up in the most unlikely setting of all: the club. Suzanne permitted an official release of the remix of “Tom’s Diner” under its original title which reached #5 on the Billboard pop chart and went gold. In 1991 a compilation, Tom’s Album, brought together the remix and other unsolicited versions of the song. Meanwhile, Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German computer programmer was busy developing the technology that would come to be known as the MP3. He found that Vega’s voice was the perfect template with which to test the purity of the audio compression that he was aiming to perfect. Thus Suzanne earned the nickname “The Mother of the MP3.”
Suzanne co-produced the follow-up album with Anton Sanko, 1990’s Days Of Open Hand, which won a Grammy for Best Album Package. The album also featured a string arrangement by minimalist composer Philip Glass. Years earlier she had penned lyrics for his song cycle “Songs From Liquid Days.” Continuing to battle preconceptions, she teamed with producer Mitchell Froom for 1992’s 99.9F. The album’s sound instigated descriptions such as “industrial folk” and “technofolk.” Certified gold, 99.9F won a New York Music Award as Best Rock Album. Suzanne’s neo-folk style has ushered in a new female, acoustic, folk-pop singer-songwriter movement that would include the likes of Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, and Indigo Girls. In 1997, Suzanne joined Sarah McLachlan on her Lilith Fair tour which celebrated the female voice in rock and pop. She was one of the few artists invited back every year. Suzanne was also the host of the public radio series “American Mavericks,” thirteen hour-long programs featuring the histories and the music of the iconoclastic, contemporary classical composers who revolutionized the possibilities of new music. The show won the Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting.
In 1996, Vega returned with the similarly audacious Nine Objects Of Desire, also produced by Mitchell Froom, who by then was her husband. “Woman On The Tier (I’ll See You Through)” was released on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. Over the years, she has also been heard on the soundtracks to Pretty In Pink (“Left Of Center” with Joe Jackson) and The Truth About Cats & Dogs, and contributed to such diverse projects as the Disney compilation Stay Awake, Grateful Dead tribute Deadicated, Leonard Cohen tribute Tower Of Song, and Pavarotti & Friends. In 1999, The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writings Of Suzanne Vega, a volume of poems, lyrics, essays and journalistic pieces was published by Spike/ Avon Books. In 2001, she returned to her acoustic roots for her first new album in five years, the critics favorite, Songs In Red And Gray.
In 2007, Suzanne released Beauty & Crime on Blue Note Records, a deeply personal reflection of her native New York City in the wake of the loss of her brother Tim and the tragedy of 9/11. But the record is not a sad one, per se, as her love for the city shines through as both its subject and its setting. In it, Suzanne mixes the past and present, the public with the private, and familiar sounds with the utterly new, just like the city itself. “Anniversary,” which concludes Beauty & Crime, is an understated evocation of that time in the fall of 2002, when New Yorkers first commemorated the Twin Towers tragedy and when Suzanne recalls her brother’s passing. It’s more inspiration than elegy, though: “Make time for all your possibilities,” Vega sings at the end in that beautiful, hushed voice. “They live on every street.” Produced by the Scotsman, Jimmy Hogarth and featuring songs such as “New York is a Woman” and “Ludlow Street,” Beauty & Crime is that rare album by an artist in her third decade; an album that is as original and startling as her first. Beauty & Crime won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
In 2006, she became the first major recording artist to perform live in avatar form within the virtual world Second Life. She has dedicated much of her time and energy to charitable causes, notably Amnesty International, Casa Alianza, and the Save Darfur Coalition. Suzanne has a daughter, Ruby, by first husband Mitchell Froom. Ruby, like Suzanne before her, attends the High School for the Performing Arts. Suzanne is married to lawyer/poet Paul Mills who proposed to her originally in 1983. Suzanne accepted his proposal on Christmas Day 2005, twenty two years later.
Suzanne Vega is an artist that continues to surprise. In 2011 in New York City she premiered Carson McCullers Talks About Love, an original play written and performed by Ms. Vega with songs she wrote with Tony Award-winner Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) A pioneer among singer-songwriters. Suzanne has also embarked on a project to re-imagine her own songbook in a stripped down and intimate manner, creating 4 new thematic albums that will be released over the course of 2010-2012 called the Close-Up series.
Ms. Vega continues to tour constantly, having just played dates with artists as diverse as Moby and Bob Dylan. Suzanne is planning US and European dates this spring and summer.
On the L train heading East in New York City, Ari Hest is surrounded by business people, kids heading home from school, and foreigners looking at subway maps. Ari has his phone up to his mouth and he’s singing jibberish into the receiver. After a few seconds he stops, puts the phone down, and says, “Sorry, needed to get that outta my system.”
And I believe him. Hest doesn’t so much play music as it flows through him. He explains, “No matter what I’m doing, aside from sleeping, there’s a soundtrack to it. It’s a blessing and a curse, as it drives some people in my life nuts occasionally, but it’s how I’ve been and always will be.”
Music is Hest’s unparalleled passion, one that’s seen him create at an astounding pace since he began writing songs in his late teens. Aside from the hundreds of melody snippets swimming around in his iPhone recorder, Ari has hundreds more on his home computer. And then there’s the six albums, three EPs, and “52″ in 2008, an innovative project whereby he wrote, recorded and released a new song every Monday for a full year. There’s also educational music he’s written for kids and as he puts it, “songs I write with others in mind to sing them.”
And now, Ari is ready to release his seventh full length, The Fire Plays. Never has he put forth an album as cohesive and rife with personality. From producer Gerry Leonard’s hypnotic, ambient guitar on the gripping album starter, “Untitled Part 2″ to the final strum of the heartbreaking finale, “Something To Look Forward To,” you are taken on a journey of self-exploration. And like Ari, by the end of it, you are spent. He explains, “When Gerry and I chose the songs for the album, we focused on how they were going to both musically and lyrically connect. I wanted people to hear it and feel like they opened a window into someone’s thought process. Someone is drawn to something, a person or an idea of some kind, and there’s this ride of emotions that follow – optimism, gratitude, self-sabotage, and eventually a desire to keep it simple and not think so damn much.
Drawing inspiration from a wide range of musical influences, the songs of The Fire Plays fuse the sounds of 70′s pop era music akin to Gordon Lightfoot and James Taylor with the sprawling electric guitar soundscapes you’d hear from artist/producers like Ry Cooder and Daniel Lanois. At the forefront is Ari’s rugged yet subdued voice which one-time Hest producer Alex Wong described as, “a bear eating honey.” Throughout the album, Ari’s command of how each song should be sung is striking. He can sound vulnerable, formidable, angry and hopeful, all with an honesty and passion you simply don’t hear from most singers these days.
Lyrically speaking, Hest has never been a stranger to revealing the personal, and The Fire Plays is no exception. But unlike some previous efforts, lyrics on The Fire Plays are more easily relatable, perhaps a consequence of Ari’s steadfast commitment to improving his songwriting. Hest explores raw emotion the way an archeologist digs for clues to life – with unrestrained excitement. They range from the more abstract, “And as I let them go, water cries for my soul, stripping me down to the bone,” from the remorseful “Set In Stone” to the more straightforward but equally powerful refrain, “I play with fire, and the fire plays with me,” from the title track.
Though often melancholic, the album also reveals an optimism, as we hear on the fragile-sounding and nostalgic “Concrete Sky”: “Someday, I’m gonna cut through to you, and you won’t put up a fight,” and the playful “Winter of Yes”: “And my face is so cold that I tear, but I won’t let this be like any old year.” Whether light-hearted or dark and intense, Ari’s practical lyrics mold seamlessly with his grainy voice and quiet confidence to create an earnest, engaging delivery.
Hest’s music has been featured on numerous television shows including Private Practice, Army Wives, and One Tree Hill. He’s also scored a film called Dreamriders, which won several independent film awards. And throughout his career, he has toured worldwide relentlessly to support his records, most recently in Israel as well as several European countries, and built the kind of loyal fan base any musician would envy.
While The Fire Plays is an excellent indication of what Hest is capable of, his live show will leave even more of an impression. Watching him play, one can’t help but be thrust into his world, hanging on every word like a child listening to a ghost story. Some people smile, some people cry, but everyone at the least stops in their tracks to pay attention.
The Fire Plays released worldwide on November 13, 2012, and Ari is currently on tour supporting the album, making stops throughout North America and Europe, as well as Israel and other new territories.