Vanessa Carlton | Binding Dreams and Casting Spells

prof vanessa-carlton“Arranging these songs, finding the sounds, and going with our gut on the structures was an incredible experience for me.”




Vcarlton 300Every now and then the music industry develops a schism. In the ’90s, that schism manifested in a number of ways. One that struck a nerve was the rift between music with artistic integrity and music that could top MTV’s TRL chart.The compulsion to drive the youth dollar brought assembly-line pop acts and industrial-strength rap-rock into the mainstream. One of the great tragedies was that this happened during the prime of the most talented crop of singer-songwriters since possibly the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Thanks to the preeminence of alternative rock, there was a measure of gender equality, Lilith Fair being the culmination of a concurrent movement. Then came the Spice Girls, and with them the end of an era, or so it seemed. After a few years of “boy bands,” Britney, Christina, and the like, along with hyper-aggressive nu-metal, Creed, and Nickelback, there was a “market correction.” Along the way, a crop of new singer-songwriters broke through the malaise and looked poised to establish a new normal for pop music after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In 2002, Vanessa Carlton managed to strike gold on her first single, “A Thousand Miles.” Her dazzling piano playing and buoyantly youthful voice paired with the strings and video became signature iconography for the time, a time before iPod commercials turned unknowns into pop stars. The song would be the highest-charting single of any singer-songwriter on the U.S. Billboard charts for the year, higher than who many could consider her contemporaries, Michele Branch and Avril Lavigne. In reality, Carlton probably had more in common with artists aspiring for critical acclaim, more so than those angling to dominate the charts. She stretched on her follow-up to display the expanse of her talent and ambitions as an artist, while maintaining a level of commercial viability. As fate would have it, the ear of the masses was being pulled in new, less-sophisticated directions. Over the next few years, the music industry went through a radical reorganization, as artists who had once been on the periphery of commercial success and notoriety found their ways into the public consciousnes

In a full-circle moment, in 2007, Feist, Regina Spektor, and Sara Bareilles scored breakthrough hits. It was as if the marketplace operated on a 10-year cycle. On cue, Carton’s third album, Heroes and Thieves, reintroduced her to the world by literally destroying her iconic image. Why was this significant? Because Carlton, the chart-topping pop artist, was an artifact of the record industry of the past. Artists who could be considered her contemporaries prior to her fame were now establishing themselves, having earned a measure of credibility that comes from a slower rise to fame. Carlton belonged among them. Her efforts to establish that artistic credibility have culminated in her new album, Liberman. It’s everything her fans could have hoped for, and worthy of the attention of those who have never been willing to give her a chance because they pigeonholed her as a turn of the century pop artist. Carlton, was, and is much more than that. Liberman is a conversation piece, and the artist is about as engaging a conversationalist as they come.

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How have things been over the last year, personally and professionally, in the lead up to the release of Blue Pool, and now Liberman?

I have awesome management. They really helped me get to the finish line on the artwork for the album and the videos and all that stuff. I have a nine-month-old, so I’m figuring that out, too. She’s really cute. A lot is happening at once.

How long was the writing process for this album? It’s very cohesive and fluid in tone and feel.

I started writing “Unlock the Lock” in Tucson, Arizona, at a ranch in 2012. That was the beginning of the batch. There was a defined idea that I was reaching toward on all of the songs. I wanted them to all belong together. Production is a huge part of that, too, though.

In contrast to your previous albums, what were your inspirations when writing Liberman, musical and otherwise?

Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Native American Mythology. Peyote and my grandfather’s painting. I’d say these are the most overarching things I could list.

You’ve always had a strong aesthetic sense in your presentation visually. What have been and are some of your muses? Has there been a progression in one direction or another aesthetically?

Have I? I think the Heroes and Thieves cover had way too many things going on at the same time; the same issue was going on in the music. That was rushed and unfocused. I learned a lot from that. I say I didn’t start really doing artwork that is good until Rabbits on the Run. That’s when I hooked up with Jo Ratcliffe. She’s a friend and I just sort of built up the courage to ask her to do her thing. She did Liberman, too. We work great together and she’s sort of from another dimension. Crazy talent.

How has relocating to the Midwest impacted your creativity, and pyour erspective on life as a professional musician?

I think moving to Tennessee has been one of the greatest things I’ve ever done! I’ve lived in New York City since I was 13; I was just ready to go for it. My husband John has had a big impact on my perspective on art. He was living in Nashville when I met him. There’s something very old school about him and there is no artifice there, and yet he’s playing Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and stuff. He’s a professional musician and does things his way, and it’s nice to be around that vibe. I’ve met some great musicians through him. I’ve made friends on my own, too, which is sort of a miracle.

Do you find that being in an “industry town” like Nashville pushes people to actualize as artists amidsthe music city machine at work? Have you found like-minded artists there?

OK, so I know that machine exists, and I know there are publishing houses and crazy-rich country songwriters, everywhere but I have yet to really see it firsthand. We have lots of musician friends come over and we hang at the fire drinking whiskey. Plenty of like-minded people doing interesting work outside of that machine. I would say Nashville is a very vibrant place right now. It’s not corporate if you don’t want it to be. You just have to hang at the right fire.

You’ve had a backing band and collaborated with other performers and writers in the past. Now that you’re back on the road, are you playing solo or with a band? Are you looking forward to potentially collaborating with other musicians, be they tour mates or otherwise?

Yes! I want to play with Amanda Shires Isbell. She’s good. And I love the Watson twins. I have this fantasy that they’ll sing harmonies with me at my Nashville show in December. 

Your voice and musicianship are as vital as ever. On Liberman, this creates an interesting contrast, given the production values. The songs have a sense of being archival from decades foregone. Even though higher-register voices aren’t the hallmark of any particular time period or stage in life, neither is agile and articulate instrumentation; we’re en-cultured to view those qualities as artifacts of youth. Some musicians intentionally attempt to undermine those qualities in their own artistry. Do you ever have that creative impulse, to rough up your voice or playing for affect?  The appeal of  a Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful, or Stevie Nicks is a powerful thing to behold.

Interesting question. I think all three of those artists were born with that textured raspy-ness. I personally prefer a voice like that, but I wasn’t born with one. In 2008, I tried to take up smoking and simultaneously drink myself into oblivion but it didn’t have the desired effect on my voice. It did wonders for my health, though!

You mention in the album preview that is meant to inspire a dreamlike quality, which it does. It creates a definite sense of time and space, otherworldly at times. Where does the material take you? What sort of dreams has it evoked through its genesis, completion, and performance?

I would say that Steve Osborne’s touch is true magic. His sense of sound is really meditative and sort of creeps inside your brain. I was lucky to get to do this album with him. Arranging these songs, finding the sounds, and going with our gut on the structures was an incredible experience for me. The genesis of the album was special, because we had to preserve our bubble the whole time. We worked at that; we really did that. And the result is an album that is not a response to any sort of corrupt pressure. 

What do you most look forward to in bringing this album, and your previous works, to audiences again?

I dream of being better understood by people that don’t really know me. But doesn’t everyone? I’m lucky to have my hardncore audience. They get where I’ve been and where I’m trying to go now. They let me just be. The ride continues on. | Willie Edward Smith

Vanessa Carlton plays St. Louis’s Duck Room at Blueberry Hill on Saturday, November 7.

Photos by Eddie Chacon

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