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Vanessa Carlton

Living the Fairytale

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 8, 2008.

It’s never easy when you capture the world’s attention fully in your first shot – because no matter how well you do, people will give you a hard time when you try to follow it up. 

Vanessa Carlton knows this.  Her first single “A Thousand Miles” in 2002 became a monster hit – saturating the airwaves and still getting played regularly to this day.  With its distinctive piano melody the song took up residence in the American pop cultural lexicon. 

She has since had a few other big hits – such as the follow-up “Ordinary Day,” a duet cover of Joni Mitchell’s classic “Big Yellow Taxi” with rock group Counting Crows and the lovely (but inexplicably controversial) “White Houses.” 

Now with “Hands on Me” – her second release from her terrific recent album Heroes and Thieves – Carlton has delivered her best single yet, a song that with a little label and radio TLC could and should be a smash. 

Carlton called us from the road while touring with troubadour Joshua Radin to discuss her life, her career, her favorite movies and her surprising attraction to vampires.

I read that you first got interested in music at Disneyland.  Is that true?  How did you first get into music?


My mother is a pianist and a piano teacher, so her theory is that she played throughout her pregnancy, so that’s why I became a musician.  She’s a little out there with her theories, though they are very charming.  There were pianos all over my house.  There was really no way to avoid playing piano.  The Disneyland story is really that I was very much haunted by the melody of “It’s a Small World.” I don’t know if you know that song, but it’s kind of like “Children of the Dead” or “Children of the Night.”  It’s like this creepy zombie children’s song.  The ride scared the bejesus out of me.  I just thought it was the spookiest, most horrific thing ever, but at the same time, anything that really scares me in my life, I kind of obsess about.  So when I got back from Disneyland - I don’t remember this, but I’m maybe almost three years old and the story goes I just picked out the melody on a piano, so my mom instantly probably thought I was a genius or something.  (laughs)  Then she totally honed in on teaching me.  So I started playing around three – I’m sure just banging and finger picking, but that was the beginning.


Your mother is a pianist and teacher.  Do you think artistic temperament can be passed down in families?


That’s a good interesting question, because I do have some friends and they are artists and their parents are very conservative.  In a sense for the artist, growing up in a household that’s very non-artistic, it can almost feel oppressive if the parents aren’t able to understand or support that kind of lifestyle.  Sometimes it’s looked down upon – especially when you’re not making any money.  It’s tricky.  But at the same time, I also know parents that are very bohemian and artistic and alternative and supportive and the kids rebel and they become very involved in the sciences instead.  So I don’t know.  There’s no real rhyme or reason to it.  I do know that no matter what, I’d like to think that I would have found music… I would have done something in the arts, no matter what.  I was really on track to be a ballet dancer.  That’s really what my great passion was for many, many years.  Music was kind of something I did as a hobby in the background to just comfort myself outside of the world of ballet.  But, the minute you asked me that, I thought of Mary Shelley, who obviously wrote Frankenstein.  I was just reading that book a couple of weeks ago and her father was a philosopher and scientist.  She ended up incorporating the science into her art.  So there must be some passing down of the genes or the DNA is obviously going to be passed down.  But, there’s got to be some conditioning that goes on for all offspring.


When you were in your teens you started recording an album called Rinse, which was never released – although several of the songs showed up later on Be Not Anybody.  Was it disappointing when the disk was never released, and looking back do you feel it was best for your long-term music career?


Well, it was the same record.  All the same songs, it’s just the other arrangements were more alternative.  I mean, I haven’t even listened to that album in so long.  It was a stepping stone to getting to Interscope, I suppose, in a way.  You know, I have no regrets, because I feel like whatever path that I have chosen has led to this particular intersection that I’m in at in my life.  I feel pretty healthy and more self-aware than I’ve ever been.  I’m the most excited about my work and still very present and inspired.  I’m so relieved that I’m not the jaded, robotic chick.


In your recent single, “Nolita Fairytale,” you discuss putting aside the glitz and glamour and being more true to yourself and the simple pleasures.  Does that reflect where you are in your life and career?


Yeah, and I aspire to.  I have to remind myself of that every day.  I’m certain with glitz and glamour, that really has nothing to do with my life.  It’s very compartmentalized.  The last chapter in Heroes and Thieves is called “More Than This.”  That’s really what I struggle with, this idea that if you were able to declare in the moment that you are in that you need no more than what you have, you can instantly be blissfully content.  There are so many wonderful, magical things that go on in my life that sometimes if you’re not present, they just kind of float on by.  Then you’re not really living, in a sense.  It takes work to maintain that mentality.


When you released the single of “A Thousand Miles” a couple of years later – it suddenly exploded.  How surreal was it when these songs you made started skyrocketing and you were all over the radio and MTV and everything?  Were you able to enjoy it with everything happening so quickly?


You know, I wasn’t.  I wasn’t able to enjoy that.  It was a huge learning curve for me, being thrown out there.  My label at the time, they really had a team of people at the label that really I think believed in me – or believed in the record as a whole.  They kind of went with a song… I think they did believe in the record, but it was such a runaway song that it ended up being bigger than everything.  I felt very overwhelmed by that.  Suddenly I’m sitting on the Grammys stage and I’m like: What am I doing here?  It was too fast and I also felt very uncomfortable with the way that… I guess it was being marketed, in a sense.  I realized it was so out of my power.  It definitely was a feeling of helplessness in conjunction with this kind of hypertension.  It was a lot to deal with.  I was able to weather the storm, I think, pretty well.  I’m grateful that it was a blowing open of the door for me in many ways.  Then, at the same time now, I’m kind of having to remind the pop culture in a sense that I’m a three-dimensional woman (laughs) not just a series of notes.


The second album Harmonium did not do as well, possibly in part because MTV deemed the single “White Houses” too sexual, which seems kind of ridiculous to me. 


Yeah, meanwhile they have people peeing on each other in hot tubs and drunk out of their gourds.  And they have to censor the word “blood.”   It was poetry.  It was artfully done.  That was very disappointing.  It was just disappointing in the sense of what MTV was trying to sell the youth.  I think in the end it’s really come back and hit them in the face, because now they are scrambling.  You have to reflect pop culture in an accurate way and in an artful way.  You can’t just be a frat party.  I mean, I’m a little bit on my soapbox right now.  That must have been the Red Bull.  (laughs) 


You left A&M and ended up at The Inc, which seemed an odd label for you because they were previously known for hip-hop.  Why did it feel like a right fit for you and why did you want to work with [label head] Irv Gotti?


Well, kind of like I was saying before, my first two records, there were a few people at my label that were really lovely and understood me, but I was very much lost at that label.  I was on a label with No Doubt and U2 and Eminem.  It was like, what am I doing there?  So, when I met Irv, I just felt this warmth and this subscription to my aesthetic that I never felt before.  I didn’t care that it was The Inc or any of that.  It doesn’t matter.  I just needed that kind of support.  I was so lucky to get it then and I’m so proud that I was able to get to the finish line on Heroes and Thieves and release it.  There was really no question about working with him.


You sing with Stevie Nicks on “The One.”  How did that come about and what was it like working with such a rock legend?


She’s magical.  Wherever Stevie is she sprinkles her pixie dust over everything.  It’s really true.  There’s a reason that she has the aura that she has.  It’s very reflective of who she really is.  She is this totally enchanted woman.  I feel like stars aligned in such a lucky way for me that I got to cross paths with her.  Not only did she really take me under her wing, but we’ve become really close friends.  I honestly don’t know if I would have gotten to the end of Heroes and Thieves without her friendship and presence in my life.  I believe we’ll be friends forever.  There’s a really deep connection there.  She’s taken me on the road with her.  I’ve been touring with her on and off for a few years.  She played a huge part in Heroes and Thieves.  She really propped me up so that I could get to the end of it.  She knows all of the pitfalls.  All of the ups and downs that I deal with, she’s dealt with.  It’s hard to get through the ups and downs with grace.  


It seems like on the songs I heard for the new CD, when the songs turn to love like “Hands on Me,” “More Than This,” “Home” and “Come Undone” the relationships seem to working, even with their problems.  As a singer/songwriter, are you somewhat romantic?  Do you find happy relationships more interesting than troubled ones?


Oh, no.  I mean I’m extremely dreary.  Perhaps I’m writing some positive stuff to try and prop myself up.  I don’t know.  I was just writing lyrics and the title of the song was like “Poets Lie.”  So I feel like in some ways you’re writing something that you aspire to.  But a lot of those songs are pretty tragic.  The one is about the notion of soul mates missing each other – which is pretty horrible.  And very true.  Then, “Come Undone” is about yearning and not having a desire or a feeling of comfort.  You never feel anchored in the relationship that you’re in.  That’s a pretty uncomfortable feeling. 


“Spring Street” told a very interesting story of family love.  How autobiographical is it to your own experience of moving away to New York?  I know I read in your bio you’re from Pennsylvania.  I didn’t recognize the name of your hometown.  I’m in Philadelphia.


Oh, cool.  My brother is going to school in Philly.  I’m from Milford.  “Spring Street” is like… Stevie calls it “premonition song.”  I’m doing this article in The New Yorker, about Henry James.  He was very obsessed with death and would write about his own death.  Then the way it happened, he predicted his own death and the way it happened.  So, “Spring Street” is a combination of being autobiographical about my mother in a sense and not understanding the complexity of her feelings towards me when I left home when I was fourteen.  It’s kind of about the life cycle in a sense – then kind of envisioning me moving out and somehow leaving the chaos of urban life and understanding now.  Who must grown closer to my mother because of this phantom child I have in this song.  But obviously it’s not true.  (laughs)  Yet.  I don’t know what’s in store for me.


Heroes and Thieves is almost a year old now.  Have you started working on the follow-up or are you more concerned with touring and getting the current CD out there?


I’m first going to do this tour and then first thing off, because yesterday I really started writing a lot of lyrics.  I wasn’t sure what my next project was going to beI mean I know I’m going to do another record at some point, but probably not until January.  What I’d like to do this fall is… actually, I’m going to the Arctic for two weeks and then I would like to find a film project and start the ball rolling on scoring films, which is something that I have been talking about for a while.  I just can’t wait to start to be a hired film scorer.  Writing instrumental pieces of music is really what comes easiest to me.  I’m classically trained.  I feel like I would be able to use my roots and my training in an almost more appropriate way.  Cramming instrumental pieces and melodies into the pop format is very different from doing an eight-minute piece. 


I’ve noticed over the years that you have done a lot of guest work with other artists covering classic songs – like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Wishin’ & Hopin’,” “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,”  “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” “Time Is On My Side”… even “Greensleeves.”  As a songwriter is it fun to do someone else’s song, or do you find that more difficult to connect to?


I think it’s interesting, if it’s the right song and you kind of reinterpret it.  It allows the listener – and even the writer that originally wrote it – to hear it in a new way.  That’s pretty interesting.  It’s like silkscreen or something.  You already have the art and then you do a silkscreen.  It’s changing the palate.  They are hit or misses.  It’s hit or miss for most people. 


I wrote a book about Tori Amos.  I was just curious, as a pianist and songwriter was she an influence?  Do you have any feelings about her work?  I know early on you were compared to her a lot.


Yeah, I think her palates of color are fantastic.  That comes from her early classical training.  She doesn’t do just chunks of chords.  I think that’s probably one of our similarities.  But, I don’t think so.  Other than that we’re two women who play the piano.  I have a ton of respect for her.  I’ve seen her live.  She’s wonderful. 


I was reading you also ran the New York marathon.  What was that experience like?  What’s a bigger high, finishing a marathon or having a really good crowd?


Well, certainly it’s less painful to have a great crowd.  I was dying when I got done. 


Well, they say you get that endorphin rush…


It’s different.  The marathon was more of a personal test, to see if I would cower in the face of something that’s really painful and difficult.  Obviously, I had no idea if I could really do it or not.  I wanted to see how tough I was, I suppose.  With crowds it’s much more… connecting on more of a soulful level with people and human emotions.  When you really hit the crowd and you’re all connected in the room it’s just so human and so comforting.  You’re all still in the same boat. 


Do you ever use the stage or your celebrity to promote causes you believe in – whether sociological, charitable or political?


I do in a sense.  With politics, that’s a little trickier.  I do this song on my second record, Harmonium, called “Whos To Say?” which is very much an attack on people who are intolerant – usually with homosexuality.  “Whos To Say?” I hoped would become an anthem for people in relationships where your relationship is attacked by strangers, which is so absurd to me.  People can do what they like.  The pain that I’ve seen, especially having grown up in the ballet world, most of the guys are gay and to see the struggle of my friends, their families and their schools… it’s just ridiculous to me.


What would people be surprised to know about you?


I’m a bit enamored with vampires.  I don’t know, I think there are a million things.  Even some of my closer friends are sometimes confused by the things that come out of my mouth.  (laughs)  I don’t know, I guess the vampires and the darker side.  Literature and life is almost more intriguing to me.


What is your favorite movie or favorite book?


One of my favorite movies is Labyrinth.  I was haunted by David Bowie for a good six years and could not get the tape out my brain.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it was scary.  (laughs)  Then, Jaws, for the soundtrack – which is frickin’ brilliant.  A film called Being There, have you ever seen that movie?


Sure, with Peter Sellers.


Unbelievable.  One of my favorite books of all time is The Grapes of Wrath.  My publishing company is named after Rose – her name was Rose of Sharon, a character in the book.  A new character I just fell in love with – have you ever read the book The House of Mirth?


No, I haven’t.  I’ve heard of it.


Lily Bart.  Right now I’m totally in Lily’s world and so, so haunted by that book.  That’s a fantastic, fantastic book. 


I saw that Jane Magazine named you one of the eleven people you’d most want to see naked.  Is that the oddest honor you’ve received?  In some strange way, were you flattered?


Oh, people tell me that all the time.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  (laughs)  I hear that on a daily basis.  (sarcastically)  I don’t think Jane exists anymore.  I mean, that’s nice.  I mean, who doesn’t want to look good naked?  Isn’t that a general desire?


Well, that's true.  I’ve certainly never gotten that kind of honor…  In the end, how would you like people to see your music?

Well, I’m not there yet, but I’d like to hopefully continue in my little spot in pop culture and have this classical and melodic sensibility that I have.  I hope it grows and becomes richer and more complex and then is able to get even more instantly close to hitting people in the way that music should.  I don’t know, though, because I’m so early on in my career.  Stevie is a fantastic mentor for me.  Stevie has carved out her own path.  I just hope I keep progressing artistically and as a person in a way that comforts the people that are listening and raises questions and gets to the heart of the matter. 

Are there any misconceptions you'd like to clear up?

(ironically)  Oh, I’m deeply understood on a level beyond most singer songwriters.  Just kidding.  I’m totally kidding.  I think, if anything, people always associate me with a pretty melody.  And you know what?  If that’s the case, that’s fine.  It’s better than being associated with an ugly one.

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Watch the video for Vanessa Carlton's single, "Hands On Me."


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Photo Credits:
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 8, 2008.


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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 8, 2008.