BY T.E. LYONS AND MAT HERRON
The more you get to know Suzanne Vega, the more the idiosyncrasies pile
up … as does the respect.
For the casually curious who first need to know about hits before wanting more, this veteran singer-songwriter has delivered a couple — but even those aren’t so straightforward. One’s a first-person portrait of a beaten child (“Luka”). The other is an a capella slice of life from a frustrated diner patron, which got attention years later via a remix by British act DNA. “Tom’s Diner” has since gone through umpteen remixes by various hands, while the original one-voice version earned fame among digital music pioneers when it was the test track for research that led to the development of the MP3.
For anyone who’s heard at least some of the breadth of her music, Vega’s a cool and slightly mysterious observer of femmes fatale, carnies, outsider artists and fatherless teenagers. She’s always been sonically adventurous but has a great ear for knowing when less is more.
Vega is in town for the Saturday night Listener Appreciation concert at the Brown Theatre.
“I’m working on bringing out the new songs,” she said by phone, referring to her upcoming Beauty and Crime album. With tracks like “New York is a Woman” and “Ludlow Street,” one thematic thread stands out. She counters that “calling this ‘my New York’ album would be making too much of a grand statement. But my last album came out two weeks after 9/11 — and as I toured afterwards, people were asking me how things were in New York.”
Thinking about how the city’s trauma and recovery were so prominent in so many minds led her to adjust her songwriting. As Vega puts it, the fallout of 9/11 “jolted me out of the personal writing.” She was glad for it, too: Reviews of her previous album confirmed her opinion that Songs in Red and Gray verged on the confessional, and “it’s one thing to be emotional and direct — but confessional is on the other side of the line.”
Too personal — how’s that? On any rewarding stroll through the Vega catalog — “Small Blue Thing,” “Cracking,” “In Liverpool,” “World Before Columbus” — one finds intimacy of all shades and textures, from painful delicacy to striking accusation. It’s true that there’s been a gradual, considered shift in point of view (“Twenty years ago, I was self-conscious and wanted to give”). But the newest songs speak with the same commanding depth of her relationship, addressing her daughter and her second husband … and, in a fascinating single that can be streamed on suzannevega.com, a study of the breakup of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. So Vega is clearly walking a fine line — testing her mettle for what she’s able to share with listeners. When figuring out what to play on tour, she looks at prickly or despondent material among the songs of the early years, and notes that “some I’ve lost interest in. But if they’re too personal to see an audience, I won’t record them.”
The new tracks are, as is often the case with Vega, near the bleeding edge of high-quality sound. (It’s not surprising that she was once married to a world-class producer Mitchell Froom.)
Beauty and Crime was produced by Jimmy Hogarth, who brought to the project the latest method for mixing analog and digital studio work. “That intrigued me,” she said, and she is grateful for how the “warmth and sound” of analog is maintained within the “quickness and cut-and-paste capability” of contemporary digital recording. Graced with the usual fascinating lyrics and aided by session work from guitarist Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth) and vocal arrangements by KT Tunstall, Vega’s first album in six years is anything but a musty and nostalgia-lined revisit from a folkie. This is a solid reawakening that’s worth checking out both onstage and on disc. —T.E. Lyons
Angelique Kidjo traveled back to her home country of Benin to record the percussion parts for her album, Djin Djin, but showing up with recording gear in the middle of her village created something of a spectacle.
While the engineers were setting up microphones, a man walked up to her wondering what all the fuss was about.
“‘If you wanna listen to the music,’” the man said, “‘all you have to do is play it again.’ Recording is not part of our culture,” Kidjo says. “He did not understand what I was saying. If you feel like you wanna play, you play (live). We express it right there. It stays in our memory; we don’t need a recording to remember it.”
Hand in hand with the impenetrable rhythms is Kidjo’s unwavering penchant for dance. In an interview with Global Rhythm magazine, Djin Djin producer Tony Visconti said, “When she sings in the studio, Angelique has to move, and she has to see people playing. She starts dancing, and gets all pumped up.”
“I’ve never seen any traditional (African) music without dancing,” Kidjo told LEO. “Your body follows the rhythm. I can’t just hear the rhythm without dancing. It’s impossible.”
“I feel like music can do anything,” she adds. “Music is my passion and my breath. The way I breathe, the way I contribute to a better world is to bring music to people, to empower people.”
Kidjo performs at the first of two Listener Appreciation concerts, Friday beginning at 7 p.m. at the Brown Theatre. —Mat Herron
Alex Brown Church, a.k.a. Sea Wolf, doesn’t have any particular philosophies when it comes to recording albums.
“My only philosophy is I don’t want to be too perfectionist about anything. I’m not a fan of having more stuff than you really need in a song. There’s nothing more to add, and a lot of bands continue to add stuff. I just try keep it so that every part has a purpose, and make sure that the feeling is there rather than a perfect performance,” he said in an interview.
OK, so maybe he does have a philosophy.
Church visits the Brown Theatre Friday night for the Late Night Party & Music Showcase at 11 p.m., promoting a new EP, Get To The River Before It Runs Too Low, which was released last week on Dangerbird Records and produced by longtime collaborator Phil Ek (Band of Horses, The Shins). “He and I see eye to eye aesthetically,” Church said.
“It’s always nice to be working with somebody who you respect; you just completely trust their opinion.”
Church has another 10 songs in the can waiting to be completed, so stay tuned for a full-length record. —M.H.
For 23-year-old Pokey LaFarge, playing music is as much about preservation as it is about entertainment.
The Normal, Ill., native has been out and about performing songs from his new CD Marmalade, recorded at Collapsible Studios in Asheville, N.C., and you can catch him Saturday at 6 p.m., busking in front of the Brown Theatre for all to see.
“I’ve always had this thing for history, and seen old pictures, reading about the Civil War, seeing people with banjos and creepy looking faces,” said LaFarge, who started playing mandolin and fiddle before taking up guitar.
Like so many, his musical education started in high school with Dylan, but LaFarge dug even further, researching the roots of bluegrass and back onto mountain music (“no solos, just straight, driving fiddle music”).
Playing live, he said, “certainly a little bit of the history of the music will come in. It’s about preserving the music as much as it is progressing with it.”
In short, he tries to “put the best performance forward, singing my ass off, not worrying about how I look, not worried about the fashion show. I want it to be an intimate atmosphere. It’s just me.”
LaFarge sees lots of asphalt in his future. “I’m gonna do this ’til the day I die. I just want to make a living off it; and playing solo, I have the advantage doing so. This is what I was put on earth to do. I wanna make a good living for me and my gal.”
If you miss the busking session, you can catch Pokey on May 27 at Bearno’s Highlands, where he’ll play from 6-9 p.m. —M.H.
On his new album, Martin Sexton sounds incredibly relaxed. But the listening experience isn’t soporific — it lends an energy that’s easygoing but contemplative. Part of the reason for this vibe is that Seeds was partially recorded at his camp in the Adirondacks, where he called in from.
“Jumping in the lake when you can’t get the right sound — it’s a great way to make a record,” he said.
The final set is eclectic and soulful folk-pop. Sexton has built a loyal audience that knows the rewards of following his versatile voice on the scenic route of “Goin’ to the Country” or that takes its sweet time to propose “Marry Me.” While listeners discovering Sexton should leave expectations at the door, it is a surprise to hear a cover of “Will It Go Round in Circles” driven by fuzz-bass.
The singer was in the midst of recording sessions when he heard about Billy Preston’s passing, “So we (lit) candles, rolled tape, and what’s on the record is the first take. I ran my voice through a Leslie speaker, so the backing vocals sound a little like an organ. I like making my voice sound different ways. Just like I enjoy using minnow buckets and cookie tins for percussion.”
Sexton performs at Friday’s Listener Appreciation concert at the Brown, and before that (5:30 p.m.), he will do an in-store at ear X-tacy (1534 Bardstown Road, 452-1799). —T.E.L.
Contact the writers at