Vega emerged as a leading figure of the folk-music revival of the early 1980s when, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sang what has been labeled contemporary folk or neo-folk songs of her own creation in Greenwich Village clubs. Since the release of her self-titled, critically acclaimed 1985 debut album, she has given sold-out concerts in many of the worlds best-known halls. In performances devoid of outward drama that nevertheless convey deep emotion, Vega sings in a distinctive, clear vibrato-less voice that has been described as a cool, dry, sandpaper-brushed near-whisper and as plaintive but disarmingly powerful.
Vega was born in Santa Monica, CA, but grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York City. She was influenced by her mother, a computer systems analyst and her stepfather, the Puerto Rican writer Egardo Vega Yunque. There was a heady mix of multicultural music playing at home: Motown, bossa nova, jazz and folk. At age 11 she picked up a guitar and as a teenager she started to write songs.
Flash forward to Vega’s 1987 album Solitude Standing, and we see her hit true star status. The album reached #2 in the UK and #11 in the States, was nominated for three Grammys, including Record of the Year and went platinum. Luka is a song that has entered the cultural vernacular; certainly the only hit song ever written from the perspective of an abused boy.
The opening song on Solitude Standing was a strange little a cappella piece, Tom’s Diner, about a mundane restaurant near Columbia University. Without Vega’s permission, it was remixed by U.K. electronic dance duo DNA and bootlegged as Oh Susanne. Suddenly her voice on this obscure tune was showing up all over club land. Vega permitted an official release of the remix of Tom’s Diner under its original title which reached #5 on the Billboard pop chart and went gold. In 1991 ,a compilation, Tom’s Album, brought together the remix and other unsolicited versions of the song.
Meanwhile, Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German computer programmer, was busy developing the technology that would come to be known as the MP3. He found that Vega’s voice was the perfect template with which to test the purity of the audio compression that he was aiming to perfect. Thus, Vega earned the nickname “The Mother of the MP3.”
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