Still following her dreams
Back in Britain for the Isle of Wight festival, Suzanne Vega talks to The Lady about Buddhism, her beloved Ruby - and the city she loves
Ask anyone over 35 about Suzanne Vega and the response is interesting. It is as if time is frozen, and she is forever and always their favourite songstress. Suzanne exploded on to the coffee-house folk scene in the 1980s, dressed in a mannish trouser suit and a fedora, singing magnetic songs about nature and New York life. She made folk seem hip again. More than two decades later, she is still as prolific as ever, more recently adding a play about the life of another interesting American, the writer Carson McCullers, to her repertoire.
This weekend she will make a welcome return to the Isle of Wight Festival and also find time to dip into the island’s vibrant literary and artistic culture, which pulls her back. Suzanne loves to go for afternoon tea at the Dimbola Museum to admire the ‘incredibly beautiful pictures’ of remarkable Victorian portrait photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Suzanne originally trained as a dancer but longs to be a nomad, living on the road. She believes it is her Buddhist faith that still gives her the space and confidence to follow her dreams. ‘My stepfather was brought up by protestant ministers but renounced any form of organised religion. One day, when I was 16, he came home and announced that he thought Buddhism was something the family should explore.’ Far from rebelling against the idea, she says she embraced it. ‘I found it satisfying on every level. You can chant for specific things in your life that you want to make better. It was practical in the way you want things to be when you are 16, and also more philosophically profound, as you want things to be when you are older.’
Over the years, Suzanne says she has lapsed from Buddhism but always comes back because she finds it grounds her. ‘The idea is that you chant for what your earthly desires are and, in that way, you learn what your real desires are. Then, in achieving your desires, you see over time what is important. That’s probably been the most helpful thing as an artist.’
Suzanne confesses that she can be ‘inward looking’ and a bit ‘crabby’, and that Buddhism entices her out of her shell. ‘It is really important to remain optimistic and not become cynical. Also, Buddhism is about extending yourself to others and helping in every way you can. You can’t just look out for yourself. I think that is probably the most transforming thing you can do.’
True to her word, Suzanne comes across as remarkably open with a restless, enquiring spirit and a generous heart. She supports the work of Amnesty International and collects money at her concerts for Casa Alianza, a charity that highlights the plight of street children in South America. She admits to dipping into her horoscope (Cancer) and recently learned how to read the tarot. At times, too, during this interview, she ventures into more personal topics and talks with a warm, maternal pride about her daughter Ruby, who is 17.
‘She’s great at music in ways that I’m not. She’s good at music theory and composition, and she plays piano. She sings classically too. She also wants to study neuroscience.’
When she isn’t living as a New York wife, mother and artist, Suzanne paints a rich picture of life soaking up experiences in her other favourite city, London. ‘Before I started a family, I lived in London for a few months. The place that’s most special to me is Hazlitt’s Hotel in Soho. I bought a lot of books, read a lot, caught up with friends and walked around Bloomsbury.’ One day during her stay in London she happened to collide with U2.
‘The band was filming a video in Piccadilly, and they had decided to use several rooms at Hazlitt’s as dressing rooms. Bono had taken over a room for his sunglasses. He asked me which pair I liked – not that it would have made any difference!’
As the interview draws to a close, it occurs to me that Suzanne clearly loves to construct a stage persona, dressing in those sharp suits, usually with a scarf and gamine crop; a play on masculine and feminine but never sugar sweet. Is there a reason we never see her in a dress or a flowing gown? ‘I do love fashion and, yes, I love to wear a beautiful gown, something ethereal and lovely by Carolina Herrera.’
Suzanne Vega plays the Isle of Wight Festival on 24 June 2012. For details: www.suzannevega.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918