WHEN Suzanne Vega was asked whether she would perform a benefit concert in the UK this summer, the New York singer songwriter had no hesitation - because it was for a cause she had long supported.
Which is why on July 12 she will perform her only UK concert at Birmingham’s Town Hall to raise cash for a charity called Casa Alianza which helps street children in Central America.
“I have known of the charity for many years and when they came up with the idea of a benefit concert I thought it was a great idea,” she says. “Every time I come to the UK I try to do something to raise money or awareness of Casa Alianza and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I am really glad that we are doing this. I like the English audiences and I hope they come along and support us.
“Casa Alianza really gets involved. They pay for things like legal representation for children who live on the streets and they are reaching children who other organisations can’t.”
But Suzanne, who first came to fame in the 1980s with the release of her self-titled album and hit singles like Marlene on the Wall, knows only too well that as a well known name she could be asked to support good causes left, right and centre.
“As a public figure I feel I have to prioritise the organisations I get involved with so I tend to work with organisations which really work for human rights and children’s rights,” she says. “In the group of organisations I work with I would put Casa Alianza, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Witness and I have recently become aware of an organisation called SOS Children’s Villages. When I was playing in Granada in May I visited one of the SOS Children’s Villages projects in Granada.”
Suzanne was born in Santa Monica in California but grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York. She grew up in a home playing a wealth of multicultural music and at the age of 11 she first played the guitar. It did not take her long to realise her talent for song writing. And she realised the importance of powerful lyrics.
One of her first hits was Luka - a song about child abuse.
“I became a public figure largely because of the song Luka and that song is a song about child abuse,” she recalls. “It is a song which has a lot of resonance. I still get letters from people saying that song is their story and they cannot believe I have been able to put their story into words. It is not as if I became a public figure through doing fashion or writing love songs - it was for saying something about an important issue.
“The song Luka was inspired by a little boy who lived in my block. He was not abused but he always looked very sensitive. I liked his name and I saw him in the lobby one day and I thought that if I ever wrote a song about an abused child that child would be called Luka.
“When the song first came out I don’t think people actually realised that was what it was about. It was only when my manager put it forward as a song about child abuse that people realised that it was a song about a social issue. And there are things to say about child abuse. It is part of life but people don’t write about it. Songs are very effective at getting a message across.
“And I have written songs which include street children. The song Zephyr & I has a kid in it who was living on the streets in the 1970s.”
Suzanne’s first album swept her into the international arena. With sales of more than one million, it established her as a force to be reckoned with. Suzanne Vega was followed by Solitude Standing in 1987 which went to number two in the UK and number 11 in the US charts.
And she became known for her understated but quirky lyrics on songs like Left of Centre and Tom’s Diner. Further albums included Days of Open Hands which featured a string arrangement by composer Philip Glass and Nine Objects of Desire.
Two years ago she released Beauty & Crime, a deeply personal reflection of New York City following the events of 9/11 and the loss of her brother Tom.
And she has continued to tour. This summer sees her touring Europe and parts of Asia. With a stop-off in Birmingham.
“The concert in Birmingham is the only one in the UK,” she says. “I know I have played Birmingham before but I cannot remember anything about it. You never do. Whenever I tour England I never actually get a chance to see it. All you see is the tour bus as it gets you from one place to another.
“But I did get to meet the Queen one time when I came to England. She came to say hello at Casa Alianza and was asking all about it. I was in Scotland at the time but I couldn’t pass up that opportunity so came down to meet her. She was great, very down-to-earth. She shook my hand and she said she understood I helped Fred (Shortland, who runs Casa Alianza UK) - I don’t think she really knew who I was!”
And the concert will be special for Suzanne for another reason.
“I will be 50 years old the day before that so will be having my birthday in England. I imagine I will just go out with friends.”
Married twice and mother to daughter Ruby, Suzanne is kept busy at home as well as on tour but she is currently taking on a mammoth task.
“I have been re-recording my catalogue so I can own the masters of my material,” she says. “It is taking a lot of time as I have about 60 songs to do and am up to about the 35th song. So I am re-recording songs like Luka, Tom’s Diner, Gypsy. I am changing the arrangements on some of them, making them sound less produced. In some cases it is just me and a guitar or singing with just one other person playing.
“Artists are always finding new ways to adapt to how the music industry is changing so it would not surprise me if other artists did it. It allows you to take control of your own music. And it allows you to make your music more intimate and not over-produced. I certainly hope other artists do look into it - I would love to see someone like Leonard Cohen re-recording his material.”
She is also busy keeping up a blog on her website and linking up with people on the social networking site Facebook.
“It allows you to keep in touch with your fan base,” she says. “The idea that you could meet these people who you have been talking to for so long is really amazing. So, for instance, I can be playing a concert in Turkey and I can know that someone I have been talking to on Facebook is there and I have the chance to actually meet that person who I have been talking to for so long. And if you don’t want to keep talking to that person - there is always the delete button.
“I make sure I keep my friends under 5,000 because then people can add me. If you have more than 5,000 then they can’t so I tend to be at about 4,995. I have about 80 people a day to add and then you have to lose some - but that could be people deleting you!”
Suzanne Vega plays the Casa Alianza 10th Anniversary Benefit Concert at Birmingham Town Hall on 12 July. Tickets cost £27.50 on 0121 780 3333 and www.thsh.co.uk
For more information see www.casa-alianza.org.uk