The Evolution of Vanessa Carlton

Three Vanessa Carltons sit next to each other at a bar. The first, in a tank top and statement earrings, checks her old-school flip phone; the second, in a tailored suit, could be unwinding after a business meeting; the third, in a classic white T-shirt, kicks back with a pint of beer. This is Carlton’s “Future Pain” music video, filmed at Mickey’s Tavern in Nashville, and she can clone herself if she wants to.

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s a “story of metamorphosis,” Carlton says over the phone, explaining the visuals for her lead single off Love is an Art. Her recently released sixth album, the long overdue follow-up to 2015’s Liberman, challenges the boundaries of her comfort zone while highlighting her personal and professional growth over the years. This self-reflection includes being “forgiving of [her] younger self,” she says, asking the rhetorical question: “How many different people have we been in our 20s?”

Anyone who listened to the radio during the early 2000s heard Carlton’s younger self loud and clear. At age 16, she wrote “A Thousand Miles,” her chart-topping debut that earned three nominations, including Song and Record of the Year, at the 2002 Grammys. Its inescapable piano notes haunted pop culture for better or for worse — who can forget Terry Crews’ singalong in White Chicks? — and jump-started her music career. 

“Let’s say you have an essay that you wrote when you were in fourth grade and for whatever reason, everybody knows about it … [You have] written a lot of other things, [but] you’re still known for this thing that you wrote when you were a baby,” Carlton, now 39, says. “That, for me, is like my first record, the first batch of songs I ever wrote.”

Be Not Nobody may be a page from her past, but thanks to the global success of “A Thousand Miles,” Carlton could move on from major record labels and try new sounds as she got older. Just like the critically-acclaimed Liberman and 2011’s Rabbits on the Run, Love is an Art is imperfectly human and impossibly honest. This is no surprise to fans who’ve stuck with her since day one, witnessing her transformation from promising pop princess to a multifaceted singer-songwriter who’s created music on her own terms for the past decade.

And for those who haven’t listened to Carlton in a minute, “I Can’t Stay the Same” — the appropriately named track that opens Love is an Art — welcomes them into her modern world. The steady drumbeat slowly and carefully swells into a hopeful new beginning, letting listeners know this album is a fresh start. “I thought that was a great cheeky first choice as the entrance to the record, for any of the people that haven’t heard anything that I’ve done in the past 900 years, and I’m still like a 19-year-old girl traveling on [a] piano,” she jokes.

Two books in particular inspired Carlton as she was writing – Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, which she admits is dated but appreciates for its exploration of love, and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, a deep dive into psychedelics. “[Pollan] talks a lot about actually LSD and how it helps open your mind in certain ways,” she explains, “and think about certain things in a way that you’ve never thought about before. Obviously when you’re on LSD, you’re feeling that, but in the aftermath of that, it can open doors in your brain, and I’ve had that experience where it has done that for me — just being able to look at yourself, the relationship with yourself, and be like, ‘I need to be able to change if I need to change.’”

Some things, however, always remain the same; it wouldn’t be a Vanessa Carlton LP without her trusty piano grounded in classical roots. (She grew up listening to classical composers, and her mom is a piano teacher.) Now she has full freedom to break convention by dropping a false ending in “Future Pain” or experimenting with the length of bridges or moving around choruses to wherever she damn well pleases. 

While Liberman was a “feel-good” source of comfort — “my medicine album,” Carlton called it — Love is an Art is meant to “be uncomfortable at moments,” fueled by untraditional arrangements. Collaborating with producer Dave Fridmann pulled her into a different zone, she says, and co-writing songs with fellow Nashville-based artist Tristen was a “mindblowing” way to watch and learn from somebody else’s creative process.

“I wanted to tighten up my lyric writing more than it’s ever been before,” Carlton says about her collaboration with Tristen. “It’s a study in opposites. So if we have really this dramatic, intense, falling-off-the-cliff type feeling music at times, with the most searing and clear lyric, what does that feel like? Those are opposites.”

Lyrics certainly take the charge in tracks like “I Know You Don’t Mean It,” which features too-true statements — “a lifetime of planning can be canceled in a moment” — over cascading melodies that could be multiple songs in one. The chorus’ “I release you and call this love” is especially meaningful for Carlton, because it’s a concept she only recently began to understand. “It can be a sign of respect to change or to leave a relationship,” she says. “Human beings are so intense, and we also hate change.”

This notion bleeds into the destructive patterns “Future Pain” focuses on. Its standout line, “bad boys become sad boys,” is so catchy it “has to be on a T-shirt,” Carlton jokes, despite the cautionary message behind her lyrics. 

Love is an Art has these dark undertones throughout, but there are moments of light, too. 

The album’s second single, “The Only Way to Love,” leaves Carlton with a beaming smile on her face by the end of its music video. In the clip, she steps onstage and into the spotlight, putting her years of dance experience on display. (She trained at the School of American Ballet.)  “I want to run but I won’t get very far / ‘cause I can’t fight the force of my young beating heart,” she sings over instrumentals that sound like the kind of rapid heartbeat that fills your chest anytime you see your crush. It truly is, as she puts it, a song “for all the romantics out there.”

“I wish I [had] that courage to say how you feel to someone right to their face,” she says. “I’ve gotten better at it now; my husband [Deer Tick’s John McCauley] is amazing at it. He doesn’t speak that often; like, he doesn’t talk nearly as much as I do, but when he talks, you listen, because he says what he means. And my best friend is like that too. She’s such a romantic, and I’m like, ‘How could you constantly put all that out there? That is terrifying! That is a terrible decision!’ For me, that does not come naturally. It’s this message … to honor all those romantics out there who know that the only way to love is to just put it all on the table.”

“Miner’s Canary,” the album’s finale, stands in sharp contrast to that optimism. It was the most challenging song for Carlton to write this time around, and she put it off for years. The title itself — based on the history of coal miners sending canaries into caves to check for toxic gases so humans aren’t harmed — represents a “very dysfunctional” and “abusive” relationship she had in the past, though she doesn’t view herself as a victim.

It’s about “being this older man’s canary for so many years,” she reveals, “and really almost dying in that situation, like your light just dims and dims and dims.” That emotional chaos and uncertainty comes through in the song’s arpeggio and distorted, frenetic conclusion — the most poignant example of that uncomfortableness she wanted listeners to sit with on this LP. Love is an Art doesn’t have the reassuring touch of Liberman or the welcoming nostalgia of Be Not Nobody or 2004’s Harmonium

“When you start writing for an audience, no one’s interested,” Carlton says. “People only are interested in your own intention, and people want to connect with other human beings, and we connect with each other when we’re being honest about our feelings … [Artists] evolve, and they start feeling pressure to write for an audience, and I vehemently feel that’s the wrong thing to do. It’s like the death of art.”

The mainstream pop music industry may have opened doors for Carlton as a teenager — as it did for the likes of Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Michelle Branch, and many more during the early 2000s — but now she’s about as far away as you can get from that cycle. Today’s top artists often garner countless headlines for completely reinviting themselves and building new eras for each new album; Carlton hasn’t felt that pressure, and her evolution is quieter but no less powerful. 

“I don’t really know that world, that’s like a different machine,” she says. “I think the beauty of whatever I’ve been able to construct for myself is I don’t have to follow any rules … I discovered very early on that I am a terrible pop star. I will always say the wrong thing, I will never do what they want me to [do].”

Neil Young is one of her favorite musical influences — “my fucking hero” were her exact words — specifically because of his 1982 Trans, which famously angered his record label so much, they sued him for releasing music that was “uncharacteristic” of his previous work. Like Carlton says, people hate change, yet it’s the one thing that’s constant.

“I would love to be a model to my daughter [Sidney], modeling the behavior of self-analysis and being like, ‘OK, I think mama made a mistake there. I don’t know why I said that,’ or ‘I don’t know why I did that,’ whatever it is. It gives her permission to be like, ‘Oh, I think I made a mistake too,’” Carlton says, adding, “I just want to give her permission to change and grow.”

Leave a Reply

A Song for Today: “Memorial Day” by David Plenn

Paper jackets

Bringin’ it Backwards: Interview with Paper Jackets