She was born in Santa Monica, California, but, after her parents divorced she grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York City. At the age of nine she began to write poems; influenced by her computer systems analyst mother and Puerto Rican writer stepfather and the multicultural music they played, she began playing guitar at age 11, and she wrote her first song at 14.
Later she attended the New York High School of Performing Arts (the school seen in the film and musical Fame), where she studied modern dance. Music, however, was her first love. While she was an English literature major at Columbia University's Barnard College, she performed in small venues in Greenwich Village. In 1984 she received a major label record contract.
Suzanne's debut album was released in 1985 and was well received by critics. The songs are straightforward and oppose the 'bigger is better' slogan of the mid-1980s. They are not typical protest songs, but are introspective, in the manner of the singer-songwriters of the 1970s.
Her sophomore effort, Solitude Standing (1987), contained two successful singles: "Tom's Diner" and "Luka", written from the point of view of an abused child - uncommon for a pop hit. The music is more strongly pop-oriented compared with her first album.
Vega's third album, Days of Open Hand (1990) signified a change in style: the music became more experimental and the lyrics expressed greater emotion. The album lacked hit single material and is best considered as a whole.
1992 saw the release of the album 99.9F° ("ninety-nine point nine Fahrenheit degrees"). It consists of an eclectic mixture of folk music, dance beats and industrial music. This gives a sunny quality to the work in contrast to the previous album. The songs are short and the lyric style compressed.
The fifth album, Nine Objects of Desire, was released in 1996. The music varies between a frugal, simple style and the industrial production of 99.9F°. This album contains "Caramel", featured in the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and "Dead Man Walking", a song from the soundtrack of a movie of the same name.
2001 saw the release of a new album, Songs In Red and Grey. The subject matter deals with Vega's divorce from her ex-husband, record producer Mitchell Froom. In 2003, the twenty-one-song greatest hits compilation Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega was released. (The UK version of Retrospective included an eight-song bonus CD).