An Interview with Vanessa Carlton: Back In Action

Of course, we all know that ever-so popular song that practically everyone just had to learn on the piano. No—not “Chopsticks.” When Vanessa Carlton was around 18 years old, she concocted a beautiful tune, “A Thousand Miles,” with complex piano riffs, sending trickles of high notes down the keyboard like rain on a window after a long, dry summer: crystal clear and refreshing. But that was nearly 15 years ago.

At age 35, Vanessa has made it “downtown” and back, ready to release a new album, Liberman, which had earned her grandfather’s surname. Her 2011 album, Rabbits On The Run, is considered the last chapter of her original sound: light and youthful. This year, she’s bringing a whole new set of ideas to the table, offering a new, more mature outlook on life. While speaking with her, she let me in on her feelings regarding her success, her recording and writing techniques, and what her most well-known song means to her.

Your new album, Liberman, has gotten plenty of great reviews, but many say that this one is totally different from all of your other work—what are your thoughts about that?

            Well, I don’t think there’s anything weird about that. It’s pretty natural and understandable because so much has happened in between. I had to get some things out of my system, but I think in 2011 when Rabbits On The Run came out, that was the beginning of the rest of my career. That was the beginning of a new approach to making new records. I just wanted to make music that made me feel good and really, really learn about engineering and not just looking at myself as a writer and have somebody else dress up the record. But yeah, it’s a really different approach from the 21-year-old. I’m 35 now. So, hopefully things have changed a lot.

What would go through your mind while writing this particular album?

            I think the word “escape” comes to mind. I really wanted it to feel like a dream and feel like you are taken to another place and time. It wasn’t about any authentic vibes—I wanted to capture something really raw and spontaneous. It was really thought through and crafted in a way where you get every sound. I wanted it to feel like this dream and kind of hit all of the pleasure zones. The chord changes are just so beautiful and I really wanted every feeling on it.

Liberman is actually your grandfather’s surname—did you have it in mind through the writing process to name this album after him?

            I really liked the idea of one, singular song name pulling the whole project together and Liberman is my grandfather’s real name before he changed it. But there’s a huge painting of my grandfather’s that my grandmother gave me and it’s the only thing I have of his. The pallets are beautiful, but the choice colors are really out there and I felt that it was a traditional approach to painting and it’s all just really abstract and alternative colors.

            It just felt like the album I was making. The way the painting is hanging in my house in New York, where I wrote some of the album—it’s the painting I was staring at while I was writing because it’s right across from my piano. It just kind of tied it all together organically.

What is your writing process?

            For this record, it was a lot of music first, and then I would check things over. But there were a couple songs that really wrote themselves and came together in about half an hour, which, if you talk to any writer is pretty rare. But I set it all up on GarageBand and then once I get to England and into the studio, I only have so much time over there.

For this tour, will you throw in a couple of older songs, or will you strictly stick to playing the songs from Liberman?

            I think we’re gonna do a lot of the new record and have some favorites from past records kind of sprinkled in there.

How’ve you been prepping for the tour?

            It’s just a lot of rehearsing on my end. Most of the shows will just be me and another musician who’s a guy of all trades; he’s got a violin, a little keyboard, it’s a lot of talent on stage—like a one-man-show, plus me. We’ve worked together a lot and we just played a show in L.A. a couple weeks ago. We won’t really have time to rehearse together but most of the time, I’ll just rehearse and try to remember the words to some of the older songs.

Looking at your past work, the song “A Thousand Miles” was such a huge hit and is still played on the radio. What does the song mean to you?

            I don’t know. That song is really just living a life of its own. For me, it was just a little, ditty song that I wrote when I was 18—or 17 years old—so honestly, it wound up being sort of a triumph to a degree because, you know, people really connected to it and celebrated it… But it is what it is. I wasn’t a weird thing—it was definitely my song. But it wound up being this huge hurtle.

I think sometimes your greatest successes can be your biggest challenges and I had to really work because for a period of time, that song defined me. And that what many people would think when they thought of me, but in order for me to move on with my work, I had to let it go. That will be a one-time thing. It’s like, you have to ask yourself, “If that was a huge success, is that how it’s supposed to be all the time now?”

So, you really need to get back to the drawing board after a situation like that, especially if it’s something that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain. I think it’s a complicated answer, but the song, I look at it as a gift.

That makes total sense. So, what will you do once the tour is over?

            Well, I end the tour around December 15th? Or 20th, oh God (laughs). And then I go out again in January, so I’ll just be home in Nashville with my family for the holidays and enjoy it.


Catch Vanessa Carlton as she performs at City Winery on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 or Philadelphia’s World Café on Dec. 9. For more information on the singer/songwriter, visit Her new album, Liberman, is now available through Dine Alone Records.