99.9 degrees of separation

“I think too many people write down their own experiences and just think they’re going to be fascinating for everybody.”

Suzanne Vega

What section in the record store would Suzanne Vega shelve herself in?

“Under the regular section,” she says pleasantly from her home in New York City.

“I think sort of just in that general category of people who make music,” she elaborates un-helpfully.

Actually, her answer comes as a relief — I’d been struggling for days to come up with a label for her sound. But Vega’s songs — newly compiled on Retrospective (A&M Records, 2003) — were refusing to behave.

“99.9•F” isn’t quite an industrial track.

“Luka” isn’t quite a folk song.

And I can’t even begin to tell you what to call “Tom’s Diner.”

Besides, Vega thinks it’s a misguided effort, anyway.

“That’s one of the things I can’t stand about American music lately, is how everything is formatted down to the nth degree, where even subdivisions have their subdivisions,” she complains.

“It’s all divided down to the last millimeter, really, and that, to me, just seems ridiculous. It’s like, how on earth is anyone going to connect with anything if everything has to be sorted by these categories?”

She sighs. “That’s my diatribe for the morning,” she concludes.

Yet what she says has truth to it. And considering her songs — so lyrically driven, and despite any cosmetic studio embellishments, often carried by a rhythm guitar — it’s impossible not to compare Vega with the innumerable other folk-edged singer/songwriters.

This breed of guitar owner typically regards an audience as a room full of therapists there to absorb the performer’s tendency toward masturbational autobiography and polemic rants.

But Vega, though a former lit major, is an appealing exception to this rule, veering away from the confessional in favor of the narrative.

“I think too many people write down their own experiences and just think they’re going to be fascinating for everybody, and sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t,” she opines. “It depends on how they’re done.”

So how much of the real Suzanne do we get?

“Enough,” she declares. “Enough so I know what I’m talking about. But never so much that I feel embarrassed or that I feel that it’s so specific that someone else can’t see themselves in it.

“A good song, for me, is a combination of what you know and what you imagine and what you see,” she goes on.

“I think it’s important to have some combination of the three of those … you need to take the audience somewhere, not just hit them over the head with your opinion.”

And that’s the real pleasure of hearing Vega sing. She refrains from imposing her own personality on the listener, and, even when dealing with unpleasant or downright awful topics, she is never uncomfortable to listen to.

It’s that voice: strong, steady and usually confined to a relatively limited number of notes, it suggests a richness far removed from the wails and croons of her peers. Earnest, but never desperate (“Marlene on the Wall”); often sexy, but not sleazy (“Caramel”) — and sometimes so restrained it’s more spoken poetry than song.

It should be noted, however, that Vega isn’t the biggest fan of her own vocals.

“It’s just the way my voice is,” she explains with a hint of frustration. “I honestly am singing with my full amount of range. Sometimes I feel like I’m singing my head off, and then I listen back to the track, and it’s like, oh, I still sound ‘cool’ and whatever everybody says I sound like.”

She admits that she sometimes relies on studio effects to “get the emotion across.” At this, she sighs (again), adding, “So there.

“It’s not my intention at all. If I could, I’d be singing like … anybody who gets out there and yells. But for some reason when I do it, it doesn’t come out that way. Mostly I’m just looking to be as expressive as I can with what I have. My voice is good at certain things and not at others. So I just use it as best I can.”

You have to feel some sympathy for the frustrations of an artist as talented as Vega. But, like Beethoven struggling against his deafness or Django Reinhardt adapting his style to his missing fingers, Vega’s efforts with what she calls “a very limited instrument” have produced some outstandingly beautiful, unusual music — wherever it happens to get shelved.

So there.


Suzanne Vega plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Saturday, May 24. Gary Leonard opens. The show starts at 10 p.m.; tickets cost $20. For more info, call 225-5851.

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