When Suzanne Vega performed in Washington for the first time in June, it was also the first time she'd ever played in public with a band. The much-heralded singer-songwriter, the most promising figure in the new folk revival emanating from New York City, has since added a drummer, and after a few months on the road feels more comfortable with the on-stage company.
But nervousness is still a frequent companion. Despite her self-titled debut album's garnering rave reviews, Vega, who'll perform at Lisner Auditorium Monday, didn't listen to it until more than a month after its release.
"I was nervous making it and I was nervous after it was out," she says. "In fact, I was surprised at how good the reviews were because I heard a lot of flaws. Now if I go somewhere, people expect a combination of Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I feel like I'm supposed to come on like gangbusters, but I just come out and do what I've always done.
"It works well for me," she admits.
"Folk singer" may not seem a particularly current concept in music, but Vega, 25, says, "it's still a term I'm comfortable with. I have my roots in folk music. I've been doing this a long time, but I never worried about being typecast. I just wrote the kind of music I wanted to write and went out and played it wherever I could play it."
The best wherever was New York's Folk City, which became a haven for the new breed of folk writers and performers -- Vega, the Washington Squares, Christine Lavin, Frank Christian, David Massingill. "The same core of singer-songwriters has been there for a long time," Vega says.
Vega admits that the songs on her debut album were a little somber, but says that the album reflects only one side of her. "Live, I'm a little more sprightly. In my daily life, I'm probably a happier person than someone might think from looking at the lyrics."
The dichotomy, she says, is a result of her New York roots: "You develop both the insecurity and the confidence from living in a place like that. You're always feeling threatened, but you also learn to hold your ground.
"I was a dance student," Vega says of her days at Manhattan's High School for the Performing Arts. "I studied for nine years and had every intention of becoming a dancer. Somehow I started writing songs when I was a freshman there and started dividing my time between dancing and singing and writing songs. When I was 17, I decided to give music a shot instead of dance."
While much of her generation grew up listening to rock 'n' roll, Vega had been entranced with the work of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and the music of Astrud Gilberto. And writing was a family tradition, after all.
Her father, a fiction writer, is "a definite influence," Vega says. "I used to help him proofread his short stories and novels. Our styles are really different. I like things to be short, concise. I like to use simple words and get to the point, whereas he's much more expansive. I used to come to him and sing songs when I'd first written them. His main piece of advice, which I've always used, is not to use cliche's and to be as honest as I can."
Her mother was a computer programming analyst, Vega says, "though I never could figure out exactly what it was she did. She has a flair for organization, for keeping things in order, and certainly when I write a song, I feel that in some ways I design it. So maybe some things come down from her, but nothing I'm conscious of."
Two other central influences in Vega's work are the Brazilian concept of simple, intriguing melodies above compelling rhythms, and eastern chants, a reflection of her family's decade-long involvement with Buddhism.
Vega's songs are highly crafted -- spare, precise, sometimes circular in structure, defined by a riveting emotional intensity, idiosyncratic phrases and carefully observed detail.
"I see them as songs, but I like them to read well," she says. "It's hard for me to work on the lyrics separately from the music. I think you add something when you sing them out loud."
Vega defines herself as more of a wordscaper of songs. "Some of them just come falling out; those are the best kind. I always know when a song is going to go well, if the first line comes out and the rest of the words line themselves up."