On the cover of Suzanne Vega's pop-folk album "Nine Objects of Desire" in 1996, the singer-songwriter looks perfect - flawless skin, neatly trimmed bangs, and hair tied back.
But on her first CD in five years, "Songs in Red and Gray" (A&M), Vega lets her hair down. Her voice and guitar take center stage on the fresh-sounding disc, which returns to the acoustic style of her first album, more than a decade ago. She calls it her most personal project to date.
"It's definitely me singing from my own perspective," says Vega in a phone interview from New York. Many of the lyrics deal with her divorce from producer Mitchell Froom in 1998. Songs like "Widows Walk," "Penitent," and "Soap and Water" focus on themes of hope, disappointment, and loss.
Vega, who became famous for the songs "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" in 1987, feels closest to the orchestral-sounding "Penitent," which took a year to write.
"It's just really summed up my state of mind for the last couple of years," she says. "It's trying to figure out what was happening to me, how I helped to cause it, [and] what I could do about it...."
"I also like the playful moments like 'Solitaire' or 'Last Year's Trouble.' "
The first single off the album, "Widow's Walk," explains Vega's feelings after her divorce: "Consider me a widow, boys, and I will tell you why/ It's not the man, but it's the marriage that was drowned."
Vega named the CD "Red and Gray" for the contrasts in the songs: Red is warm and heartfelt; gray represents cool and intellectual. It's also the title of one of the tracks.
"It was a difficult album to name, and I had always liked the title of that song," she explains. "It's sort of unexpected; it's more artistic. It's almost the way you think about a painting, really, and not a song."
During her recording hiatus, Vega released a book of her lyrics, "The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writing of Suzanne Vega." She also toured Europe and met Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, because of Vega's work for Amnesty International on behalf of children's rights. "I was very honored [to meet the queen]," she says. " I took it very seriously, and I enjoyed getting all dressed up and shaking her hand.... It was very good of her to visit the office."
Vega is also busy raising her 7-year-old daughter, Ruby, who joins her on tour during school breaks. "I do like it when she's on tour with me, but she doesn't care for it," Vega says. "She's been traveling with me since she was 6 months old.
"Anytime she has to go away with me, she tells me quite plainly that she'd rather stay home to be with her friends."
Though she has performed "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" for more than a decade, Vega says she never minds singing these hits that rocketed her to stardom.
"It's always pretty good to play those songs," she says. "People really respond to them. You can really see it in their faces and see it in their eyes."
Since Sept. 11, Vega has considered writing songs about social issues. "The songwriters' group that I'm part of has been writing about the attacks, and a lot of the songs are really good. They kind of show a way of writing that I haven't really tried before."
Now on tour in the United States and busy promoting her album, Vega says she's content with her life in New York.
"It's actually good to be working right now. With all the stuff that's going on in the world, it's good to know that I can still work and contribute what I can."