As the Suzanne Vega song says, "You've got to find the way to say what you say/and get it down on the page/or the stage. It's the cage for that tiger rage/that you can't contain." Vega, who's been expressing herself through music for more than three decades, will bring her distinctive brand of insightful, folk-inflected songs to Palo Alto on Sunday, May 22.
Casual pop fans may know her best for the observational song "Tom's Diner" (especially its infectious "dat dat dada, dat dat dada" motif), the 1987 hit "Luka," or perhaps "Left of Center," from the soundtrack of the film "Pretty in Pink." But Vega's extensive discography (consisting of eight studio albums, the four acoustic albums in her "Close-Up" series, plus several best-of and live collections) offers listeners a trove of evocative storytelling, intelligent lyrics, and Vega's trademark understated vocal delivery.
Her Palo Alto show, a solo performance, is a chance for West Coast fans to catch the New York-based musician before she sets off on a summer tour of Europe. A Silicon Valley appearance seems appropriate for someone dubbed the "Mother of the MP3" for her inadvertent role in its creation (the inventor of the music-compression algorithm apparently used "Tom's Diner" as his test file).
She said her setlist will include songs best suited to her sparse, vocals-and-acoustic-guitar setup, and those that are particularly beloved by fans.
"It'll be kind of a grab bag of sounds that people have gravitated toward," she said. "There are always a couple of songs from each album."
From her self-titled debut, released in 1985, to her most recent album, 2014's "Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles," Vega offers a mix of wry observations, personal reflections and literary references in her lyrics.
"It starts with an image, or a feeling, and then I think, 'how can I put this into words?" she said, of her writing process. Her songs are a blend of "things I feel, things I know to be true, and things that I imagine," she said. "It's never enough just to put down what you know, just the facts; you have to give listeners more, and that involves a certain amount of fantasy."
"Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles" ended up, as the title suggests, being influenced by the imagery and practice of reading tarot cards.
"As I've gotten older, I've been thinking about spirituality of different kinds. With tarot, you can do a reading and figure out where you are in your life," Vega said. All the songs on that record involve "some kind of interaction between the spirit world and the material world," she added.
The song "I Never Wear White" exemplifies the way in which Vega melds reality with poetic license.
"I wear a lot of black, and a lot of people have asked me about that over the years, so I thought, 'I'll just put it out there: I never wear white and here's why,'" she said of the track, which contains such lines as, "White is for virgins/children in summer/brides in the park ... Black is for secrets/outlaws and dancers/for the poet of the dark." It's part direct honesty, part playful exaggeration.
"It's more or less how I actually feel, but I've had young girls coming up to me asking, 'Is it true that you've never worn white?'" she said, laughing. "I mean, I've been married twice."
Last year, she invited fans to submit clips of themselves singing along and compiled them into a music video for the track.
Though best known as a solo artist, Vega has collaborated with many musicians, including Philip Glass and Joe Jackson. She's currently working with Duncan Sheik on a stage show based on the life of one of her favorite authors, Carson McCullers. The pair debuted the project several years earlier but have now dramatically revised the piece. A soundtrack from the play, "Lover, Beloved: Songs from An Evening with Carson McCullers," is due out this autumn.
Vega's relationship with the music industry has shifted over the years. After being dropped from her last record label, she formed her own, Amanuensis Productions, in 2008.
"For a while I really did miss the old business. It was fun having a team, a budget, great producers, that was all terrific," she said. "The downside was the anxiety that one day you'd be dropped, which happened. Twice." After seven years on her own, she's starting to turn a profit.
"As long as I make wise decisions and don't spend more than I have, this is going to work out," she said.
After forming her label, Vega needed a new way to market her music and reach more listeners.
"I thought, 'I'll develop my Facebook page and Twitter feed and re-record my back catalog,'" she explained. The result was her "Close-Up" series, with songs organized by theme (the four volumes include "Love Songs," "People & Places," "States of Being," and "Songs of Family").
"I thought fans would really like it and it would be fun for them to hear the songs without the production of the '80s and '90s. And a lot of people missed out on what I did (later), so I thought if I released it by theme they could catch up."
A special edition was put out as a six-disc box set, including photographs from her "This is Where I Am" collection, which she posts on Facebook.
"I had the naive impression that each Facebook fan would buy a CD and that didn't happen, but it all worked out pretty well," she said.
She often shares glimpses into her daily life (including snapshots of her three pets, and occasionally her husband and daughter) on social media.
"I'm kind of a visual person. I just really enjoy it," she said. "I have my introverted days, but most of the time, I love it."
What: Suzanne Vega in concert
Where: Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: Sunday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $80 for concert only/$180 for concert and reception
Info: Ticket link.