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Sixty Seconds with Suzanne Vega

The singer-songwriter, 59, on being the mother of the MP3, being covered by Danger Mouse and the old faves on her tour

What can people expect from your August tour?

It’s the 30th anniversary of Solitude Standing and the 25th anniversary of 99.9F so we’re doing both albums back to back in their entirety. It gives the audience the chance to hear the whole album. When I released Solitude Standing there were some songs I never played so if you’re a fan of the whole album you may not have heard some of the weirder songs live before.

Is it a shame people don’t listen to albums the way they should do any more?

Yes. An album is an art form in and of itself. Whenever I release a collection of songs I think of them as an album even though I know hardly anyone consumes them in that way. It’s a narrative. We used to spend a lot of time sequencing them and figuring out the spaces in between the songs — it was fun to plan that into the experience for the listener.

Mash-up: Danger Mouse

What other big changes have you seen in the industry since you started?

Streaming — no one even buys singles from iTunes any more. I hope that’s addressed. Artists still need to get paid and they don’t get very much via streaming. I just did some lobbying in Washington for a bill called the Music Monetisation Act so I’m hoping that will get passed and it will make the playing field more even for artists.

Have you made any friends with any senators?

We’ve had some friendly chats. I wouldn’t say we are friends. We did a show for them the night before we had meetings. I got the whole audience to sing Tom’s Diner, both Republicans and Democrats, which I think is a triumph.

What role did Tom’s Diner play in creating the MP3?

Karlheinz Brandenburg used my voice in refining the MP3. He worked in a sound laboratory and heard the a cappella version of Tom’s Diner and figured if he ran my voice through the MP3 it would show any problems with it immediately. And it turned out there were several problems with that version of the MP3. He kept running Tom’s Diner through it for months until it came out faithfully, which is why a journalist called me the mother of the MP3.

Is that a proud achievement?

It depends what year we’re in. There was a time when I was proud to be the mother of the MP3 and other times when I’ve thought the MP3 has destroyed the music industry as we know it. We’ll see what happens. But for better or worse, there it is.

What are your favourite cover versions of your songs?

Britney Spears’ version of Tom’s Diner was great. I was most surprised by that one. In 1991 I made a compilation of covers of Tom’s Diner and called it Tom’s Album. Danger Mouse did a mash-up of it with 50 Cent’s In Da Club, which was interesting. Drake did a version. It’s been everywhere.

What lessons has your career in the music industry taught you so far?

That you can survive in it if you really put your mind to it. So many people advised me against it when I was a young woman. They said I was way too introverted to be a success. So I’ve enjoyed proving people wrong and I still love being part of it.

Bisexual heroine: Carson McCullers

How’s your play about the American writer Carson McCullers coming along?

I read her biography as a young woman and became fascinated with her. The challenge is how to get this woman’s life on stage in 90 minutes and make her as modern as she was — she was way ahead of her time.

In what way?

She was bisexual and she believed deeply in civil rights so she created the character of an angry black man quite convincingly in her book The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. She was disabled — she was paralysed on her left side from the age of 30. She was very different to the other writers working in 1940.

What have been your worst gigs?

There was a festival in Ireland when it rained like crazy through our set — there were six people in the audience in a field with capacity for 2,000. I headlined Glastonbury in 1989 wearing a bulletproof vest because I’d received a death threat. I did a show in Italy and anarchists took over the stage and started making speeches. We argued with them for two hours. Finally I managed to start playing but it was 1.30am. It was insane.

How often do you read your tarot cards?

I do love the tarot — astrology and tarot are part of life but you don’t want to depend on them. You also need to have a basic grasp of law and a budget to get around in the world. I do it when I need to. It shows what’s going on in the moment. Sometimes it’s been spot on.

Suzanne Vega’s mini UK tour starts in Guildford on August 18.