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An adventure continued

Suzanne Vega is at that stage in her career when listeners' perceptions are set: people either like her or they don't; and if they do, they know which particular songs or versions of those tunes they prefer.

The singer-songwriter stays interesting to all of the above groups through re-invention and by embracing ideas others wouldn’t. One of these was Tom’s Album, a collection of cover versions of her hit Tom’s Diner, recorded by a number of admirers. Many artists, unsurprisingly, get sick of some of their bigger success stories, but Vega, in this case, embraced hers.

Another project was the re-recording of acoustic versions of her back catalogue, for the purposes of providing fans with new material as well as a way of creating a portfolio of work owned totally by her (Vega doesn’t own the masters to much of her early output).

“When I was a child of six or seven, I knew I wanted to be in the arts industry,” Vega says.

“A dancer, or a writer, or a singer – anything. That part of it still comes first, though I did have a foray into the pop world there for quite a while.

“I live life according to the long-term perspective. I’m a songwriter, and I tour – that’s how I make my money. My tools to make that work are a guitar, Twitter and a few other things.”

Folk music is at the core of Vega’s sound, but the connotations associated with the genre – simple, old-fashioned storytelling – provide no pointers to Vega’s position at the forefront of the migration to digital distribution. She was the first major musician to paly a live concert on the Second Life alternative reality platform, as well as one of the first to experiment with some aspects of podcasting her music.

Is this an area of fascination to her, or simply good business sense?

“I grew up in an interesting family,” she said, “that combined the arts and technology.

“My father was a writer and my mother was a computer systems analyst, working with fridge-sized machines in the Seventies.

“I’m comfortable coming from the folk world, but I grew up in New York, in an urban neighbourhood, seeing the sort of things you hear about in hip hop lyrics today. I’m always trying to figure out how to mix my guitar with whatever is vital and relevant at the time. And the songs require different handling as well – an acoustic treatment of Blood Makes Noise wouldn’t have worked.”

Ironically, being comfortable in so many niches makes Vega more difficult to market, not eaiser.

“If I’m billed as a traditional folk singer, I alienate about a third of the audience, who don’t like the more electronic, experimental stuff. I just think of myself as an adventurous songwriter.”

Have new methods of music consumption – including piracy – changed Vega’s approach to writing?

“No,” she says, “but I am aware that people don’t necessarily want to buy a whole album.

“I think we need to be creative in how we market music, like putting out four singles together or doing a little six-pack of songs on iTunes. I think we should do it all – have a full album, with the conceptual artwork and all the rest, and the other stuff.

“And radio still fascinates me. At my concerts, I have nine-year-old kids who hear me on the radio, feel ownership of my song and then get their parents to buy tickets.”

Vega was also trained in dance and drama early on, and taught to “leave her issues offstage”. But surely, going on angry or sad can result in something more focused or passionate, and help rather than hinder?

The singer agrees: “Sometimes I go on depressed or sad. I don’t talk about it, but I sometimes change the setlist, and I channel those feelings. I’m aware people are there to be entertained: I do tell stories, but I’m more inclined to make them laugh. The stage is not a space for me to vent.”

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