Suzanne Vega Talks About ‘99.9F°’ Turning 25 and Her New Carson McCullers Play

 

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Suzanne Vega (George Holz)

First published in The Huffington Post

by David Chiu

When Suzanne Vega released her fourth album, 99.9F°, back in 1992, it was generally perceived as the singer-songwriter’s complete foray into the world of electronic music. After all, 99.9F° was just two years removed from the unexpected success of “Tom’s Diner,” a song from her 1987 album Solitude Standing that was later remixed as a dance track by the British collective DNA. While 99.9F° certainly incorporated electronic elements, it still retained the distinct folk/pop sound and introspective songwriting that had marked Vega’s previous work.

“Everyone seemed to think of it as this wild left turn,” the musician now recalls of 99.9F°. “But it really wasn’t. It was kind of like, ‘Okay, these are the ideas that we’re working with at the moment,’ and it really has a wide range for an album that goes from acoustic to electric. There’s a lot of contrast in the album, which is one of the things I really love about it.”

From September 17 to 19, Vega will be marking the 25th anniversary of that record–as well as the 30th anniversary of Solitude Standing–with three consecutive sold-out shows at New York’s City Winery, where she will perform all the songs from both albums. While Solitude Standing is the better-known record because of “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” 99.9F° still holds up artistically. In his New York Times review from 1992, Stephen Holden described 99.9F° as Vega’s “most rewarding album”; he wrote: “…the record is filled with intriguing Dadaist clangs, clunks and honks that silhouette her ruminations in a stylized carnival atmosphere…In these fascinating songs, Vega has taken a large step in defining her artistic identity.”

“I think we caught a great energy that was happening at that moment in time,” Vega says about 99.9F°. “I remember thinking finally I get to hear songs the way that I feel and hear them in my mind.”

The album’s then-new direction could be viewed as a reaction to both the reception of the “Tom’s Diner” remix and her 1990 record Days of Open Hand. “It was a combination of both and also probably other things as well,” she says. “I felt that we had been very cautious during Days of Open Hand. In the end, I just really wanted to cut loose from that. I had gained confidence by the public’s acceptance of [DNA’s remix] of “Tom’s Diner.” I thought it was so great that everybody seemed to love that.”

99.9F° marked the beginning of Vega’s collaboration with producer Mitchell Froom, whom she would later marry; he had previously worked on albums by Crowded House, Los Lobos, and Elvis Costello. Initially Vega had attempted to produce the record by herself but it didn’t yield the results she wanted. “I interviewed three producers,” she says, “and Mitchell came through loud and clear because his suggestions were the best. He had some criticisms of how I produced it myself, and then he had very clear and concrete ideas as to how to get an edgier sound. I just really liked the way he thought—I thought this is someone I could really work with.”

She remembers that Froom in the initial stages of the album “would record on this boombox and it made everything sound very compressed. So he would make quick demos of the ideas that we were working on. By the end of the working day, we had more or less a rough sketch of what the final product might sound like.”

Among the participants on 99.9F° included drummer Jerry Marrotta; bassists Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Attractions), Jerry Scheff (Elvis Presley) and Mike Visceglia; and guitarists David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) and Richard Thompson. “[Mitchell] would think of the right musicians to play that particular feel,” says Vega. “He knew how to cast a song depending on what type of song it was. And his knowledge of music is encyclopedic. It was very exciting to work with him because music was his passion and he knew so much about it.”

Indicative of the album’s bold sonic direction was the single, “Blood Makes Noise,” which later peaked at number one on the Billboard Modern Rock singles chart. “He had that anvil sound and he had that bass line,” Vega says of Froom for that song. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is so far beyond anything I could’ve imagined.’ I had imagined it being a nervous sounding guitar song, like the Ramones’ fast guitar playing. But he didn’t hear it that way at all. He heard it with bass and this crashing anvil sound.”

Accompanied by a stylish video, “Blood Makes Noise” had been viewed by some as a commentary about AIDS. But it wasn’t the intended subject, according to Vega. “It was based on a visit to the doctor,” she explains. “I don’t really say what the topic is…it is the idea of fear and having a panic attack. That’s why blood is making noise, because of the fear of talking about certain topics with this doctor.”

It could be argued that her combination of acoustic folk and electronic pop sounds on 99.9F° was a precursor of folktronica. “I like all kinds of music,” Vega says, “and with every album I’ve made, including the first [Suzanne Vega] and second [Solitude Standing], I always try to mix my instrument, which is the acoustic guitar, with whatever the technology was of the day.”

Amid the upcoming shows to mark the special milestones of Solitude Standing and 99.9F°, Vega will also be making an appearance in New York City for a special event on October 15 celebrating her friend, the late Lou Reed, at 92nd Street Y. It is tied to Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis’ new and extensive biography on the legendary rocker titled Lou Reed: A Life, for which Vega was one of its many interviewees. She remembers as a 19-year-old seeing Lou Reed in concert at Columbia University.

““I’ve never seen anything really like it,” she says of her experience of Reed’s show. “He was very dramatic, knocking over his equipment, and pretending to shoot up onstage. It was very punk. All of that was interesting, but what really impressed me was his songwriting because I started to really listen to his lyrics. Based on that, I started to buy his albums. Every time he played in New York, I would go and see him sing.”

Then in 1986, the two met during a taping for an episode of MTV’s 120 Minutes. “I came in completely unprepared,” Vega remembers. “I was supposed to be talking about Greenpeace, and nobody had really prepped me or told me what Greenpeace was. So he takes off his glasses and he looks at me and asks, ‘What’s Greenpeace is all about?’ I suddenly go blank and lose my cool completely. So that was my meeting with Lou Reed. Then after that, we started to see each other at all these different events, awards shows, or parties. And we stayed friends ever since. I knew Laurie [Anderson, whom Reed later married] also from before the two of them got together. So we remained friends ever since and became fairly close for the last five years of his life.”

Meanwhile, Vega is prepping for the upcoming premiere of her musical play, Lover, Beloved: An Evening With Carson McCullers, about the famed Southern writer best known for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding, which is slated to debut in February 2018 at Houston’s Alley Theatre. (A previous version of the play, titled Carson McCullers Talks Abut Love, was performed back in 2011) . Last year, Vega’s album, Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, was released to coincide with this new production, which features music composed by Vega and Duncan Sheik.

“It’s completely different,” she says of Lover, Beloved: An Evening With Carson McCullers. “The entire premise is different now. The music is the same and has been since I was in my college years. The first iteration of the play was a half-hour play called Nothing Human, which I did at Barnard College. Carson McCullers Talks About Love was the second version in 2011. Hopefully this is the third and final version of this play. It’s an all-new play, even though I’ve been working on it for a long time.”

While she always had an appreciation for McCullers, Vega admits how prescient the writer was about important topics that are still relevant today. “What’s shocking to me is how the times have curled around to make these issues that she wrote about not just historical but contemporary,” Vega says. “That even between 2011 [around the time of Carson McCullers Talks About Love] and 2017— repression of gays, issues of civil rights, issues of Black Lives Matter—all of these are things that Carson wrote about with great empathy. It’s shocking to think that these issues are current now with the new administration. That is really the thing that has impressed me the most was not just that Carson McCullers was ahead of her time, but truly timeless because we’re still battling with these issues now.”

The songwriter is hoping that the production of Lover, Beloved: An Evening With Carson McCullers will eventually be performed in her hometown of New York City. “[The play in] Houston is a world premiere, so I can’t do it anywhere else before then. But once it comes out, I’ll see how the reviews are, and hopefully New York City will be the second stop on this adventure.”

Suzanne Vega’s most recent album is Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers. For information on the upcoming premiere of the play, Lover, Beloved: An Evening With Carson McCullers, at Houston’s Alley Theatre in February 2018, click on this link.

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