writer / Alyssa Hardy
photographer / Ruby June
stylist / Kim Mesches
makeup / Aya Komatsu
hair / Michael Moreno
location /ACME STUDIOS
When I was 14, I saw Vanessa Carlton in concert. It was 2004, when the popularity of her most famous song, “A Thousand Miles,” had just been overshadowed by her new hit, “White Houses.” I, like plenty of other teenagers in the early 2000s, had latched on to her lyrically driven albums, with many of the lines ending up in my AIM profile. (Yeah, I know.) My older sister had won tickets and decided to take me as a surprise. I was thrilled to be mushed into the crowd of dedicated fans, eagerly waiting to hear a 23-year-old Carlton on the piano. When the moment came for her to play the song that had brought me and everyone else who was squeezed into the small venue to the show, she played the first few recognizable notes and said into her microphone, “I’m going to be playing this for the rest of my life.” Then she continued, the crowd singing every word.
I was surprised. Her completely innocuous end-of-tour statement struck me as a moment of realness in a time where everyone else playing on the radio was so manufactured that any step out of line seemed odd. To most people, that song was a musical dream come true, and in many ways it was. “A Thousand Miles” was a hit that was not only super popular on the radio at the time, but also drew a crowd of loyal, heartbroken young female fans, and a level of success that afforded Carlton access to parts of an industry she may never have had. On the other hand, though, it also held the potential to put her in a place where she would forever be the girl behind the piano, singing about making her way downtown.
Fast-forward eleven years later to today, where Vanessa Carlton has a certain levity about her as she walks onto our photo-shoot set dressed like a 70s rock star, with long, dark wavy hair and a shiny brown Dachshund in tow. Before we even begin our official interview, she gushes to the team about her new life in Nashville with husband John Macauley, lead singer of the band Deer Tick, and her adorable 6-month-old baby girl. Being a new mom and wife isn’t the only novelty in her life right now, though—she is gearing up for the release of Liberman, her new album that has a completely different sound than the one that made her famous in the early 00s.
Some early reviews I’ve read about her new work have said to “forget the Vanessa Carlton you once knew,” and in some respects, they’re right After all, a lot of things can happen over the course of fifteen years. However, if you look at her past self as its own separate artist, you miss the evolution of a musician who, despite her early success, may have only just figured out what kind of music she actually wants to be making. According to her, “I’ve kind of just been doing my own thing. I’ve really slowly been figuring myself out, and going back to the origins of why I like to make music. I think maybe people said the same thing about the record I did in 2011, but this has definitely gone further down the rabbit hole. I don’t know, it’s been a long time. I’m old! I
released my first record in 2001. I mean, if you were to take this snap-shot and that snap-shot, it probably seems like two different people, but at the same time not at all. People change, and people evolve. My fans have been with me through all of my different projects and, organically, this record makes a lot of sense.“
And it does. While there are certainly artists who have taken the same sound and made it work for decades, there are others whose music speaks to a moment in time, evolving as they do. One of the songs off the new album, “House of Seven Swords,” indicates a trippier, more mature version of the singer-songwriter that so many are familiar with. The lyrics are built around a metaphor, the same way she’s written in the past, but what makes this song unique is how much more complex the sound is. “For this album, I learned so much about crafting arrangements and sonically [achieving a] certain aesthetic from Steve Osbourne,” Carlton reveals. “He has been my great teacher the last five years. I think we really wanted to have a concept that I wanted to hear in an album format, so that when the record comes on you feel like it’s a break from your life, where you go to a different space. Sonically speaking, I wanted it to feel really dreamy. It was really intense. The songs were like puzzles. ‘House of Seven Swords’ took a long time to figure out, but once we cracked it, it was total euphoria.”
Drawing parallels to her early years is a no-brainer. In all fairness though, the shadow of her former self, as well as the possibility of a relaunched spotlight while juggling a new family, would be enough for most people to retire early. “I think that [level of fame] took me by surprise in the beginning of my career,” the singer muses. “Speaking honestly, it
absolutely was a cool thing that I was able to figure out what to do with it, but it brings up a lot of questions. Why am I a part of pop-culture right now? Is this the type of career I’m supposed to have? Is everything I do now relative to this success? How am I perceived? I think it’s a lot of energy coming at you, and then there’s just a drop. My reaction to it was that I wanted to be left alone but at the same time, I didn’t want to feel like I was failing. It was a mess of emotion. I think it took me a couple
albums after that to get back on track. Now it’s about going back to what I want to do. It all stems from an authentic place that as an artist, I care about, and then whatever happens after that is it what it is. Sometimes things feel exploited, but when that feeling creeps in you just have to remember that ultimately you are in control of your head space. Don’t take it so seriously.”
After all, this is precisely why she is at the perfect moment to release her latest record. The last track on Liberman is called “Ascension,” and it is a two-minute-and-thirty-seven seconds-long dreamy piano sequence that is calm, meditative and mature. Most tellingly, the song’s title speaks so clearly to this current moment in Vanessa Carlton’s career, where her music is rising above her past, but never leaving it behind.