In a trunk, under the piano in her New York living room, Suzanne Vega keeps almost everything she's ever written.
From childhood school essays [characterized by her "very good penmanship," Mason notes] to her most famous songs.
She sketched out "Tom's Diner" scene by scene, like a movie, after inspiration hit her at a Broadway restaurant (yes, the same one later seen on "Seinfeld").
It was her college hangout.
'Yes, it was open in the middle of the night. Very cheap," she said.
"It is always nice to see you"
Says the man behind the counter
To the woman who has come in
She is shaking her umbrella
And I look the other way
As they are kissing their hellos
I'm pretending not to see them
Instead I pour the milk . . . "
"Tom's Diner" became an international smash.
"All that from sitting here with a cup of coffee?" Mason said.
"That's right. Little did I know the flood gates were going to be unleashed."
Nearly a quarter century after she first cut through the radio, Suzanne Vega's voice is clear as ever:
"You sound almost exactly the same," Mason said.
"Thank you. I guess that's a good thing!"
Vega, who grew up in New York, studied dance at the famed High School for the Performing Arts.
"Were you envisioning being a dancer?" Mason asked.
"I was when I went in - not when I came out," She said. "I decided I did not have the technique to be a really great dancer, and I couldn't bear just being an average, mediocre one."
She wrote her first song at 14. ("And I will not sing it for you right now!" she said.)
She was 27 when she scored her breakthrough hit, "My Name is Luka."
"'Luka' took months of thinking about it, and then I wrote the whole thing in two hours flat," she said. "Once I came out with 'My Name is Luka,' the rest of it sort of wrote itself."
"Luka" was a breakthrough in another sense. The song was about an abused child:
My name is Luka
I live on the second floor
I live upstairs from you
Yes I think you've seen me before.
If you hear something late at night
Some kind of trouble. some kind of fight
Just don't ask me what it was . . . "
"The way I tell the story, which is the way I prefer to tell the story, is that there was a boy named Luka, he lived in my building, he was not an abused child. Back then it was a big hit. Nobody except Howard Stern ever asked me that question directly. So that's the way I prefer to tell the story."
"You can leave it that."
She had a run of hit records in the late 1980s. Then, music tastes took a turn:
"Did you ever sort of look around and go, 'Hey, wait a minute, where did everybody go?'" Mason asked.
"Yeah, sure," she laughed. "Right about 1990, I remember coming out on stage and suddenly I had about a third of the audience that I was used to having. And I remember thinking, 'They must still be in the lobby,' you know? 'Maybe they don't realize the show has started!'" she laughed. "And then slowly I realized, 'No, that was it.'"
Vega learned not to rely on fame:
"Fame is like a next-door neighbor," she said. "You know, sometimes he waves and says 'Hello,' but you don't call him in the middle of the night if you're desperate."
Her life hit a low point in 2002 - the year her brother died, she got divorced, and was dropped by her record label:
"Yep. And then I fired my manager," she laughed. "There was a lot of things going on in that period."
So she focused on raising her daughter Ruby. "That really kind of straightens things out," she said. "You know, if you have a child to look after."
Three years ago, she came back with "Beauty & Crime," an album some critics called her best ever. It included the song "Bound," which she wrote after reconnecting with an old boyfriend, attorney Paul Mills.
Mills showed her a card she'd sent him back in 1982, on which she'd written "I'm bound to you forever."
"Then we broke up!" she admitted.
"Nice!" Mason said.
"Yeah, I wasn't ready for anything at that point."
"Did you remember that you'd written it?"
"I did not remember that I'd written it. But I felt the same way."
Four years ago, finally, they were married.
"Like, it's taken 23 years to say 'yes' to the guy you get married to. I mean it just took all that time.
"That's the way I am," she laughed. "I do things at my own pace."
Sometimes, Suzanne Vega says, the songs come slowly . . . even the love songs.
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