By Olivia Anderson| [email protected]
Vanessa Carlton took the music scene by storm in the early 2000s, as a young pianist armed with a catalog of original music. The singer-songwriter gained notoriety early on for one particular song, her debut single “A Thousand Miles” that entered cultural zeitgeist, became a smash hit and immediately launched her into superstardom.
Following the meteoric success of the song, which appeared on her album “Be Not Nobody” that would go on to sell more than 1.38 million copies and earn several Grammy nominations, Carlton has had some time to pause and catch her breath, but she hasn’t slowed down musically. To date, she’s released six studio albums, the most recent being “Love Is An Art” which dropped in March 2020.
She is finally set to embark on a nationwide tour, but Carlton is the first to admit that several mishaps along the way have frustrated her efforts to tour the new album, such as the fact that it was released amid the COVID-19 pandemic. More recently, she broke her piano pedal foot several weeks ago. This won’t affect the show since the clean break is what’s known as a dancer’s fracture – “I don’t need any surgery. It’s gonna heal, it’s fine, I can do it. The show must go on,” Carlton said – but she will have to play the pedal with her toes.
The tour, called “Future Pain” after the sixth track on the album, kicked off yesterday. The Times caught up with Carlton ahead of her show at the Birchmere tonight, where she discussed the creative process, relationship to her older music and what fans can expect from an artist hitting the road on her first headlining tour in more than five years.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Olivia Anderson: Welcome to Alexandria! Have you performed in the city before?
Vanessa Carlton: I’ve performed at the Birchmere a number of times. I really like that spot. So yeah, I’ve been through, I’m not sure how many times, but I’ve definitely been through.
OA: Your album “Love Is An Art” came out on March 27, 2020, right as COVID-19 threw the world into chaos. How was it putting out a record amid a global pandemic?
VC: That record came out in the worst time possible, so I never had the opportunity to tour the record. That window of opportunity to do the full band and all that passed, which is fine. Really, what I did was I spent that year as a substitute teacher at my daughter’s school. Life is quite a roller coaster, quite the journey, totally unpredictable, and knowing that, it still never ceases to surprise me. I just never know where I’m going to end up.
OA: How will the new album fit into your upcoming tour?
VC: I still want to play some of these songs from that record for sure. What I’m trying to do is put together an anthology type set list. I’m not someone who likes to live in the past by stretch, however I know that I have sort of an eclectic mix of fans. I’ll have fans that have followed me on my path for this entire time, and then I have fans that will [say], ‘Oh Vanessa Carlton is playing a show? What? Wait, that girl? Oh I know that song!’” So I try to cover all my bases. If I’m going to play ‘baby Vanessa stuff,’ I call it – because I was literally writing some of these songs when I was a teenager – I like to play them from a new angle and present a new interesting arrangement to a song that somebody knows. [It’s] sort of similar to, for example, the Nirvana Unplugged record. These intimate shows allow me and the musician I’m going to be working with, she’s a cellist, to present really cool versions of these songs, so I’m looking forward to it.
OA: One of those songs is “A Thousand Miles.” I’m wondering what your relationship is with that song now, more than 20 years after it first came out? I imagine there’s an element of wanting to honor that song, but move forward artistically as well.
VC: Yeah, exactly. Basically, what you just said is how I look at it too. Honestly, the way I approach it, in particular for shows, is that I like to open with that song. It can sometimes be the elephant in the room, and she’s a cool elephant. I’m gonna open up with her and it sort of makes everyone feel settled and ready to hear all of this other stuff going on. I love that moment.
OA: You made “Love is An Art” with producer Dave Fridmann, who is well known for his work with MGMT and the Flaming Lips. What was it like join ing forces?
VC: Working with Dave is like working with a wizard. I was really excited to expand and explore. I love collaborating with artists and trying new things.
OA: From a songwriting perspective, how did the writing of this record come together? Did you have a streamlined creative process or was it more random in terms of how you dreamt up lyrics, melodies and concepts?
VC: The messaging in terms of the lyrics usually, for me, ends up being a theme. If a certain set of songs are written in a certain period of time, it sort of reveals where I’m at. And then I love to collaborate with producers and other artists. I’ve always really loved the work of Dave Fridmann and I love the idea of being able to bring those particular songs I was writing for “Love Is An Art” [and] to go into his studio and world and see where we end up together. I really did have [the album] be quite dynamic – really high highs, really low lows. It’s pretty intense; if it was a color I would call the album red. For instance, “Liberman” [an album Carlton released in 2015] was a brain bath, if you will, because it kind of washes over you easily. And that’s just not where I was at when I was writing “Love Is An Art.” It’ll be interesting to see my next record, because some albums are questions and some albums are answers. And “Love Is An Art” to me is a question mark album. So the next album is gonna be the answer to that. I know it.
OA: You have lots of exciting things coming up. What can fans expect from the “Future Pain” tour?
VC: I’m doing a dual setup with a cellist. So it’s piano [and] cello, but it’s not going to be a traditional, straightforward version of that. For instance, [the cellist] Isabel has these pedals that she connects through to her instrument that allow her to manipulate the sound of the cello, to create octaves, to create loops. I have a loop as well on my voice, so we’re able to create this psychedelic vibe surrounding these songs, and within these songs we use that technology to create really cool arrangements and moments. So I’m hoping that what we cook up creates a really cool vibe for people and [that they] experience these songs from different angles.