It’s been more than 15 years since Vanessa Carlton’s iconic single “A Thousand Miles” hit airwaves, making the former ballerina-turned-singer a household name. The consequential release of her debut album "Be Not Nobody" thrust Carlton into the spotlight, and since then, four of her five studio albums have hit the Billboard Top 200.
Previously described as a poignant pianist and crafty lyricist, Carlton struggled with the initial success of being a pop star, according to the singer-songwriter. Six years ago, in an effort to redefine herself as an artist, she left the major record label system and signed with an independent label in New York. In the years following, she released her 2011 album "Rabbits On the Run," moved to Nashville, got married to Deer Tick front man John McCauley (the wedding was officiated by Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks), and gave birth to her daughter.
She’s consequently released her fifth studio record, "Liberman," and most recently put out "Liberman Live," which was recorded live in Nashville. To accompany it, Carlton simultaneously released "Earlier Things Live," a compilation of her biggest hits sung live including “White Houses,” from her sophomore effort, "Harmonium" and a duet with her husband dubbed “In Our Time.” Less than a week ago, Carlton set out on a new tour to promote her newly released live efforts and will arrive in Richmond on March 12 at the Tin Pan, a West-End music and event venue. In anticipation of her stop in Richmond, Carlton talked about her success, songwriting and recovery exclusively with The Collegian.
Lindsay Schneider: I know your album is named after your grandfather, but were there any other inspirations for the album and how does that translate into the tour you have coming up?
Vanessa Carlton: The entire album was written while I was looking at this painting, almost a mural size, that my grandfather made. He was a painter, his last name was Liberman, and so I named it that to kind of honor that because the colors of the painting were really out there and it was kind of dreamy, and so it was like writing this music to the painting. But in terms of the tour, Liberman Live came out in October and ... we’re doing a combination of earlier songs and Liberman on this tour.
LS: Why did you decide to release the live albums? What’s so special about it and why did you decide to do these two live when you’ve never done that before?
VC: Well I think once I left the major label system in 2011, which is when Rabbits on the Run came out, I started getting my footing, working on my craft as a vocalist, [and] as a writer. I had to really take myself out of that machine to really get more, I don’t know, [to] kind of like distill my process if you will. I think, it was at a point where I made a record that I thought would sound good live and the tour, it was really based on the strength of the Liberman. I think my manager really loved that tour and he was like, ‘We should turn this show.’ And we reordered the Nashville show and it turned into the album.
LS: So you talked about distilling your process. What is your process like and how did you kind of craft that differently in this case? You had that time after you left the label system, but what is that process like for you?
VC: It’s so much purer now and authentic as opposed to ‘oh I have a panel of mostly male executives that I have to win the approval [of]' and it ruined everything for me. I really believe that, and it’s my fault and I don’t blame anybody but I was in that. I don’t do well in that situation and also you know I’m not a very good pop star. I fell into that because of those first couple of songs that I wrote but it’s just not the trajectory for me. …I didn’t get to be an independent artist and follow my curiosity and explore without any fear of someone coming down on me being like ‘that’s not going to work for us.’ You know?
LS: You mentioned being in front of male executives, do you feel a responsibility as a female artist to stand up to them when you have a lot of female fans? Do you kind of feel a responsibility to all those women you have following you?
VC: Well I think that there [are] a lot of female artists out there who are doing amazing things. I love the new Angel Olsen record. I think she’s a badass. I really appreciate artists like that and I think that artists like that being successful live and selling records, it’s a great time. I think a lot of women have a lot of really strong role models right now as musicians. And yeah I think we’re the antithesis to the packaged pop artist but you know there’s a place for that too. Like everybody loves the Selena Gomez song, like you need that on your playlist too.
We have a mixture of things and I think when it comes to the live show though I think I’m able to really connect with men and women in terms of like I tell the story that led to the song and I really want the performances to be not too classic singer/songwriter-y. I like the palette of things to be really dreamy. And we do lots of recordings; I can create vocal collages on stage, which I’m going to do a lot more of on this tour. So you sing, then you record it and sing over and over it and you can build like a huge track, live in front of the audience. So I like to create like an escape, as you will.
LS: You’ve been in the business for a while, you’ve had many albums, and you’ve been on the Billboard Top 200, so why did you decide to choose such intimate venues for your tour? Does that play into the fact that you released the live albums for the tour? Why the intimate venues and do you like them more than the stadiums?
VC: You don’t play a stadium unless you’re huge. I think you have to have huge radio airplay as well, unless you're like heritage artists or like artists that have been around for 20 years or 30 years. So I’m playing the venues that I do well in and that work for the show. I don’t think I’d ever want to play in bigger than a large theater. This is my last tour with this setup where I just play with my partner, where we can create all these sounds on stage and it’s just a duo set up. It makes it — it’s a super cool minimalist way to tour. But I think the next tour, which won’t be for a couple years actually, will be full band.
LS: You have Liberman, which is newer, and Earlier Things so how does it feel to be singing songs from ten years ago with sort of the newer stuff that’s happening in your life? How does that evolution and complexity of those songs play together?
VC: Well I do redo the arrangements on the other songs so they fit in better. And this set I am playing older songs and the last tour, the bulk of it was Liberman and I just played Liberman all night but this tour’s different. We’re making it all fit.
LS: Do you feel a pressure to play the older songs for your fans? A lot of them do want to hear a lot of the older stuff so do you feel a pressure to sing those songs for them? How do you balance what you want to play versus what you think people want to hear?
VC: Yeah I find that since Rabbits on the Run came out, which came out totally under the radar, people found it [anyway] and they came to the shows and they love those songs and they buy the vinyl. That record was made completely analog. So it was like the way you hear it is vinyl and they want come to the show and hear the songs and get to buy the vinyl.
People know that record front to back and they know Liberman front to back and they want to hear that and I’ll play the older songs, I mean, it’s mainly those two big radio songs, “A Thousand Miles” and “White Houses” that a lot of people know and I play those. Beyond that what I do is, for the people that are just there and are curious to see what I sound like live, the goal is to kind of welcome them to my world and they get to really see what’s going on. But usually it’s very different actually than the perception of me from one song. I think I’ve been able to actually garner new fans who are like real-deal fans from people who are just curious to hear one song, which is cool. I play a lot of familiar songs at the front of the set so that the people who are there with their friends who don’t really know anything about me except for that song and are maybe the ‘get drunk and watch YouTube thing and sing along to it’ [type people] they can have that early on and if they want to stay they can stay and if not they can go. Because it’s a pretty quiet set, you can’t go and get totally shit-faced, it’s like that’s not this show yet. Maybe the next tour but not this tour.
LS: Okay so I have to ask because you mentioned it, what does “A Thousand Miles” mean for you now and what did it mean to you when you wrote it and how has that changed, that meaning, over the years?
VC: Well, I don’t know, in the beginning I didn’t think much about it, it was just a song I wrote and then it became a big song and it become a big challenge to recover from that and it became a big hurdle to find yourself and you know, not just define yourself to other people. I had to figure out what I was about. What type of artist am I here? Am I going to do that again or can I just kind of forget that that ever happened? And I think the key is just to kind of pretend it didn’t happen and move on with your life.
LS: When you’re writing your songs, and I’m thinking a little bit about “White Houses” here, but are you writing them solely for yourself or are you writing them for other people in mind? People seem to identify with those lyrics so how much of it is sort of a self-healing process versus how much of it do you have other people in mind?
VC: That song is somebody else’s story. I mean it’s like everybody’s story. It is in a way personal to me but I lived in an apartment when I was 17 with my friends and we’ve all gone through that right of passage so it is a little bit of me but I wasn’t living in [a white house], it was really, in a way, about these dark and complex situations that happen sometimes in this very clean white house. That was kind of the idea of it. I think we’ve all gone through that.
LS: What is your favorite song off of the live album?
VC: I love the duet “In Our Time” that I sing with my husband. He wrote that song and it’s a classic country song. It’s actually the story of a kind of unraveling older marriage. It’s really about — well not to say that his parents marriage is unraveling but the song is really about his parents, so he plays his dad and I play his mom. ...It sounds kind of weird but I love being able to sing with him. He’s probably one of my favorite artists, he’s probably [in] one of my favorite bands. His band is called Deer Tick, so I like that a lot.
LS: Do you have a favorite lyric that you’ve ever written?
VC: I would say “The Marching Line,” a lot of those lyrics. Oh God, what is the lyric in the chorus now? You're really getting specific here aren’t you? Well the chorus is a marching line, it’s not even being about some amazing lyric but the idea behind it, it’s this idea that this fantasy that — it’s like in Stranger Things — that suddenly you’re in an upside-down world and if you go to a certain place on the Hudson, at a certain time of night, this ship comes and takes you to another world. This was a really, really sad time for me and I was really seeking a lot of answers and it was really, actually, a time of growth, of course, as all dark times are. You can get through it. So I don’t know, I think that whole song really resonates.
LS: What’s something you wish people knew about you? Something you’d wish I’d ask? What’s the untold story or moment?
VC: I don’t know, I think sometimes it bothers me, that cliché [of me] — it doesn’t really truly bother me — but if someone has the perception of me that I’m this cliché goodie two shoes, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Through the years I’ve always been the thorn in every executive and manager’s side and in hindsight even though it’s caused a lot of problems I’m kind of proud of that because I just did not fit into a system. I had to create my own working environment and I eventually grew up and I chilled out and became a bit more confident and I found this incredible manager and amazing label, and I’m not just throwing those words around. I really found my people, so I would say the perception of me as this, “She’s like, has small little problems, she’s a dancer, piano girl, who always pleased her parents,” that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ve gone through every iteration of struggle and challenge and had to break down my whole life in order to create something that was right for me.
Contact managing editor Lindsay Schneider at email@example.com