Suzanne Vega explores N.Y.’s ‘Beauty & Crime’

In her 23 years of covering her native New York, folk singer Suzanne Vega thought she’d witnessed every dramatic scenario the city had to offer. She was wrong.

Only a few months ago, this composer of the gritty “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” found herself face to face with the cold, unforgiving side of Manhattan.

“I was in a local store with my housekeeper when she gasped ‘Look behind you’,” says Vega, 48. “And I turned around and saw this unbelievable sight of a man who had just had his throat cut, and it looked like Halloween. His face was a ghastly white and his neck was the most garish red. The police and paramedics arrived within seconds, but they had to wrestle him to the ground because he was still trying to go after the guy with the knife. And all of this was in broad daylight, right in front of the public school I used to attend in sixth grade.”

Vega never learned what incited the violence. But she remains as steeled to her environment as ever. She uses the bus and subway, she says. “And I walk. I just love to walk around.”

So for her first album in six years, “Beauty & Crime” on Blue Note (whose tour brings her to the Fillmore in San Francisco on Monday and Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga Tuesday), Vega studied her hometown with detachment and composed 11 new odes to it, including “Ludlow Street,” “Frank & Ava” and the catty “New York is a Woman.”

Mixing mechanized beats with breezy acoustic guitar, the CD is a striking return to cool form for Vega. But recording it was no cakewalk.

In late 2001, Vega’s future was bleak. Newly divorced from producer Mitchell Froom, she and her daughter Ruby were preparing for the release of a new album and the baby-sitting its tour would entail. She broke her arm on Sept. 9.

“Two days later,” she says, “9/11 happened, which was enough to make anybody depressed. Then my baby-sitter quit that same day, saying she was depressed. And the month after my record came out, I was told that my contract was up with A&M, and then my brother Tim passed away in ’02 — things that I think would make anybody feel at least overwhelmed.”

Only the daily ritual of sending Ruby off to school brought the artist out of her funk. “I suppose there are people who get depressed and stay in bed and don’t take care of their children,” she deadpans. “But I’m not one of them.”

Then she asked herself a question: What would she be doing if she did have a label deal? “And I thought ‘Well, I’d hire an engineer and set up a schedule.’ So I did that — my engineer Britt Myers came to my house for three hours a day, three days a week, and the two of us whipped everything into shape.”

By the time Blue Note came calling last year, “Beauty & Crime” was virtually finished.

IF  YOU GO

Suzanne Vega

Where: The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Tickets: $32.50

Contact: (415) 346-6000; www.ticketmaster.com

Note: She also appears at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Montalvo Arts Center, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Call (408) 961-5858.

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