A quick chat with the acclaimed singer-songwriter about her most adventurous LP
Thanks to the crossover success of her dance remake of “Tom’s Diner,” Suzanne Vega was already venturing into new sonic territories by the time she began crafting her 1992 LP 99.9F°, originally released 30 years ago this past September 8th.
Working alongside Mitchell Froom, himself fresh off his distinctive work on Elvis Costello’s oddball fan fave Mighty Like A Rose and the watershed Los Lobos album Kiko, Vega would immerse her New York City-born modern folk style in the producer’s experimental board work. And maybe because it was released in the same month as new titles from Pop Will Eat Itself, KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails or something, but critics at the time were quick to label 99.9F° as the Suzanne Vega Industrial Album.
“Many of the songs display a new interest in space and sound, using both in an almost sculptural fashion, creating a compelling amalgam that industrializes folk music,” wrote Steven Mirkin for Trouser Press, no doubt citing the feel of such choice cuts as “Blood Makes Noise,” “As A Child” and the album’s title track. “Clanging percussion, eerie effects and ghostly synthesizers jostle for position with more conventional guitars and drums.”
But there’s so much more to 99.9F°, which also features some of the singer-songwriter’s most spare folk songs as well, like “Blood Sings” and the album’s quiet closer “Song of Sand.” One of the true highlights, meanwhile, is “When Heroes Go Down,” a song that exhibits the full power of the fantastic studio band assembled for these tunes, particularly the powerhouse rhythm section of Elvis Costello & The Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas and session drummer supreme Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Stevie Nicks).
“I recall going up to Woodstock and meeting up with Suzanne and Mitchell Froom to work on the album – the three of us were in the same rented house so we worked together in the studio, went out to eat together and watched movies on TV – Cat On A Hot Tin Roof being one that I recall,” remembers Thomas. “As far as ‘direction’ goes, I was pretty much left to my own devices. There are a couple of musical naughties in amongst – for example ‘Blood Makes Noise’ has got a riff with very similar phrasing to ‘I Don’t Want to Go To Chelsea.’ ‘Rock in this Pocket’ has a subtle ‘Pump It Up’ riff in it and ‘When Heroes Go Down’ sounds a little like ‘Lip Service.’ My two favourite tracks are the title track ‘99.9F°,’ which has a kind of ‘Working In A Coalmine’ feel. I like ‘As Girls Go’ — though its mainly a riff, I like the way it’s played and of course Richard Thompson’s killer solo at the end. ‘In Liverpool’ was a great song to play on, too. If there were any bass suggestion they usually came from Mitchell, who had an overview of the album – more so this was the case with the follow up album Nine Objects of Desire. As I say it was a pleasure to work on Suzanne’s records: I love her songs, her singing and she’s great to be around as a person.”
Ms. Vega was gracious enough to answer some of our burning questions about 99 9F° over Facebook Messenger.
VIDEO: Suzanne Vega “99.9F°”
What inspired the direction of 99.9F°?
Mitchell Froom, mostly. And my own instincts. Everything had to fit the songs. The songs came first.
How did you meet up with Mitchell Froom?
I interviewed three producers: Scott Litt, Paul Fox, and Mitchell Froom. His ideas made the most sense to me for the songs I had already. Scott Litt wanted to make a rap album; Paul Fox liked the demos as they were; Mitchell had specific suggestions for bringing more edge to the sound, which I was always after.
He also worked with a coterie of musicians that sounded good to me including Jerry Marotta and of course Bruce Thomas of the Attractions.
VIDEO: Suzanne Vega “Blood Makes Noise”
I’d love to hear about working with Bruce Thomas. Were you a big Elvis Costello and te Attractions fan?
Yes! They are so great. Pete Thomas also toured with me for a while [during the Nine Objects of Desire era]. I am still in touch with Bruce Thomas – a thoughtful, intense guy with wonderful melodic ideas. Pete Thomas was always cheerful and game for anything.
What were your thoughts on the alternative rock boom of 1991-92? How much did the cultural shift in music during this time inform the album’s direction?
I was aware of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and what became the “alternative” scene. Before that it was called “underground” as in The Velvet Underground.
I was already comfortable with being “alternative” – it was being a “pop star” that felt weird. (I don’t regret any of it – it was all kind of great.) I didn’t discover Trent Reznor and NIN until after “Blood Makes Noise” came out. That bass line and the anvil sound was Mitchell’s idea. I loved it. It fit the lyrics and mood of the song so well.
It was the first thing we worked on together and it came together on the second day. The whole 99.9F° album came together in two weeks. I had never worked so quickly with anyone before or since. We had a white hot chemistry.
What did you make of all the industrial comparisons in the music papers back then?
I thought it was interesting but since I wasn’t aiming to make an an industrial album I didn’t really dwell on it. I was happy with what we had done and that was what mattered to me.