Strictly Suzanne

After making music for almost two decades, Grammy nominee Suzanne Vega, one of America's best-known pop-folk lyricists, is still undeniably unique. Vega describes herself as "handmade," and while her style crosses boundaries from folk to pop, it continues to evolve from three central elements: lyrics, guitar, and voice. This distinctive sound is underscored in Vega's latest album, Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega, which was released April 22. Retrospective is the first U.S.-issued anthology of Vega's extensive career, featuring 21 tracks that span her work from a 1985 debut to 2001's critically acclaimed Songs in Red and Gray.

Assembling the album gave the singer-songwriter the opportunity to reflect on her development over the past several years. "I enjoyed sitting and listening to the songs back to back," Vega says. "Despite all of the different production styles, there's a consistency that lets you know that it's the same person at the heart of the music." Whether it's a narrative or ballad, Vega's sonorous voice and literary lyrics have made their way into the American musical canon. This comes from an upbringing filled with diverse music and an early love of reading.

"I was about 5 or 6 when I started to write poems that rhymed, so when I started reading books, everything fell into place, and I became enthralled with language," Vega says. She began playing guitar at age 11 and as a teenager started to write songs. "It's not like I loved literature and then it occurred to me to put stories or poems to music," she explains. "Music and verse have always gone hand in hand for me. The constant in my music is the lyrics. For me, there's no point to writing a song unless I can make it work on the page as well as musically."

Vega brought hits like "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" to the charts and was instrumental in paving the way for other contemporary female, folk-pop singer/songwriters such as Tracy Chapman, Sarah McLachlan, and the Indigo Girls in the late 1980s. A pioneer of sorts, Vega this spring will try her hand at sharing her love of songwriting with others. Besides continuing to record and tour, Vega will host public radio's American Mavericks, an hourlong series of programs that features the histories and performances of tradition-breaking American composers.

Vega's presence in South Florida is long-awaited. Before 9/11, she was set to perform songs from Songs in Red and Gray, but those dates had to be postponed. Now, audiences will have a one-time chance to hear both old favorites and new work.

"I've been working with the acoustic guitar a lot lately, and I have new things I'm working on, but my concerts always depend on the audience," Vega avers. "If they want to hear a lot of old stuff, I go with that."

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Mia Leonin