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In tune with Suzanne Vega

Folk singer Suzanne Vega struck gold in the 1980s with hits “Tom’s Diner,” “Left of Center,” and the ubiquitous radio hit, “Luka,” which was one of the first popular songs to tackle the subject of child abuse.
Image: Suzanne Vega
'I tend to write about things that are very average and kind of gritty. Like Liverpool, England, for example. It’s not glamorous, even though it has a great history. It’s a gritty kind of glamour.'Jim Cooper / AP
/ Source: Special to

Folk singer Suzanne Vega struck gold in the 1980s with hits “Tom’s Diner,” “Left of Center,” and the ubiquitous radio hit, “Luka,” which was one of the first popular songs to tackle the subject of child abuse. Vega is still making quality, critically acclaimed albums, such as her latest, "Beauty & Crime", which she has described as a love letter to her hometown of New York City. We caught up with her on her cell phone recently while navigating the United States on yet another tour and talked travel.

Q: Your new album is all about New York, and one of the songs deals with the aftermath of Sept. 11. Is the city a safer place to travel now, more than six years after that day, and what haunts should people check out?

A: In some ways, this city is safer than it was before. Now, for example, if you go to Central Park, it’s a beautiful place to visit. It wasn’t always that way. But there’s so much to do and so much to see. You can go highbrow to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), which is always beautiful no matter what they’re showing. Also, MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) has been revamped. Central Park is glorious. All the shopping is amazing on Fifth Avenue. And if you want to go funkier, you can go to the Lower East Side. There’s still a music scene down in the (Greenwich) Village, too. It’s sad that quite a few musical landmarks have closed down, like CBGB and The Bottom Line, but the Cornelia Street Café is still thriving and doing well, and the Sidewalk Café is still there, too.

Q: You’re doing an “on the road” blog on your Web site. What have you discovered around the country on this tour that you’re going to make sure you come back to, travel-wise?

A: There’s a Tom’s Diner in Pittsburgh that I saw from the outside, but everybody says it’s not really so great. The original Tom’s Diner is not so great either. I wrote about it because it was a little funky dive at 112th Street and Broadway in New York. It’s the one they filmed from the outside in those “Seinfeld” scenes. It’s actually become very famous in spite of the quality of the food. There’s another Tom’s Diner in Brooklyn that boasts that it’s the one from the song. I’ve never been to the place. At some point I’ll have to take the train out there. Everyone says it’s got great food and it’s a real mom-and-pop kind of place. But I’ll have to figure out how to get there, because Brooklyn to me is a foreign country.

Q: Do you seek out different kinds of food when you’re on the road?

A: I do love food, and I do get a lot of comfort from it. Is it the first thing I think about when I’m in different places. There are countries where I’m always excited to eat. Basically, anywhere you go in Italy — any truck stop, anybody’s house, anywhere — it’s really high-quality, delicious food. French food is really good, but my stomach is a little delicate. I also love Japan — the sushi, the fish, the rice. I love rice. I grew up eating a lot of it.

Q: What does the ultimate Suzanne Vega vacation include?

A: It’s funny that you would ask me that because I went on a vacation in March of this year and I hadn’t been on vacation in 17 years. I just don’t do it that much. I usually just work. But we went to Hawaii and I thought it was great. We didn’t have one of those great old-fashioned Hawaiian luaus, but if I could have I would have. I’m recently married to a man I’ve known for 25 years and also have a young daughter who’s 13. We’re still learning each other’s vacation styles, and we figured a few things out. The first is that none of us want to stay in a condo again where you have to do your own cooking, shopping and cleaning. My daughter has done a bunch of Club Meds with my sister, and they like the buffet style, so maybe we’ll do something like that next. All of us love snorkeling and love the beaches, so that was something that we all definitely agreed on. And we went to the volcanoes, which we all thought were great. It was a mixture of active stuff, reading time and just relaxing. I think I’ll have to go on more vacations to keep figuring this stuff out. Maybe I can get my accountant to agree with that.

Q: Do places you’ve traveled inspire you to write songs?

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Q: Name a few places you absolutely have to visit in your life.

A: I’ve been to most of the places I had my big curiosities about. Places I have not been are India and Africa, partly because I’m sensitive to the changes in climate and I tend to get sick easily. My system can get completely ravaged. Even though I have a curiosity about it, I would be nervous to go there. Places I love going back to are Spain and Italy, and I like a lot of harbor towns, even in America. I’m drawn to boats and ships. There are little towns in Portugal I’ll always remember with harbors and the feeling of wind coming in off the ocean.

Q: Any good horror stories from the road?

A: Ha. Too many to recount. I think there’s one every year at this point after 25 years of traveling. But here’s a good one: The tour bus exploded once when we were trying to get from Greece on a Tuesday to the next show in Italy that Thursday. There were monsoon type winds at the time, though, so much that one of the ferries had sunk and ours got canceled. So we had to drive back and forth from the main harbor town to one city to Patria, a day of driving on tiny roads with hairpin turns during these monumental rain and winds, passing by the shrines with flowers and handmade crosses on the side of the road where other people had died. We missed the boat, had to drive back again, and we ended up flying to Rome, while most of our stuff was left back in Greece because we flew unexpectedly. On top of all of this, I was coming down with a sore throat. So I fly to Rome, and I tried to cancel the show in Bari that night. But when I landed, I was met at the Rome airport by the promoter, who had sent a private jet, and who was surrounded by a bunch of guys who strongly encouraged me to perform. Which I did. Down in Bari, people had been waiting in the rain for a sold-out show. It was just mayhem on all sides. I did the show, got on the private plane, flew back to Rome, got to the hotel, and just collapsed.

Q: What’s the best vacation you ever had?

A: I’d have to say the last one in Hawaii. It was so wonderful to spend a whole week with my daughter and husband. It was a great template. I want to do it every year. I felt like we really got down how to vacation together, or something like that.