New and Improved

A Chat with Vanessa Carlton

by Nikki Tranter


On her website, Vanessa Carlton proclaims: “I used to feel rooted to the piano, now I’m going to dance on top of it.” This boisterous new attitude is all over her new album, Harmonium, the follow-up to 2001’s mega-successful Be Not Nobody, which featured the ferociously catchy number one single, “A Thousand Miles”. Everything about this one screams lessons learned: the writing is clearer, the melodies have matured, and the vocal dominates as Carlton energetically and confidently relates her story-songs.

Carlton told PopMatters that Harmonium, which features collaborations with Stevie Nicks, Pharrell Williams and Lindsey Buckingham, is markedly different from Be Not Nobody in terms of both writing and production. Music has become more than simply a vehicle for emotional release for the singer, who has spent much of her time between releases honing her varied musical skills. “I value lyrics more than I did with the first album,” she says. “I was definitely more about the music a few years ago. Now I want the lyric to resonate as much as the chord underneath it.”

Carlton knows what she wants with her new songs. “She Floats” and “Afterglow” are two examples of her streamlined style, both with meditative lyrics matching their melodies in such a way that without such matching, neither would feel entirely complete. This kind of attention to detail is something Carlton brings to her work for the first time on Harmonium. “I’ve gone from being a pianist/vocalist to being obsessed with what the bass is going to sound like underneath me, or how the kick drum is microphoned. I realize that the way a song is recorded is just as important as the song itself.”

Carlton, who lists Carole King, Cat Stevens, and Mike Skinner of the Streets among her favourite songwriters, wrote much of her first album while still a teenager, and though those songs showcased a gifted young songwriter, the album’s overall feel was distinctly adolescent. Carlton is aware of this and is thrilled that, though a little darker than the Vanessa Carlton they know and love, Harmonium will show off to her fans a personal evolution alongside her professional one.

The darker moments on Harmonium appear in a selection of moody and reflective songs about sex, suicide, insomnia, and death. Carlton says the songs demonstrate her altered perspective on the world, but that they’re not entirely new issues of exploration for her. “These darker themes have always been part of my writing,” she says. “The first song I ever wrote was called “Little Mary”, about a girl who was about to jump off a building. I’ve always been fascinated by death.”

Carlton says that while she’s aware of the potential for controversy with the album, shocking her fans was far from her intent. “I think the album is bittersweet,” she says. “Rather than just bitter.”

Harmonium was co-written and recorded with Carlton’s boyfriend, Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, who she has credited with opening her up to the power of music as a reflection of the musician; something she says has made her a better songwriter. First single, “White Houses”, is a particularly vivid portrait of a young woman acknowledging her frailty as she finds her feet in a grown-up environment. It’s primarily about friendship and adult independence, but tackles, as well, issues of sex, jealousy, and pain. “I never thought for one minute that this song would be controversial,” she says. “I still don’t understand it. I think people perceive me to be a certain way and if I don’t fit that…”

Carlton has never been particularly concerned with fitting in. The Pennsylvania-born singer spent her teenage years at the School of American Ballet training to become a professional ballerina. Several clashes with higher-ups at the school saw her ostracized and labelled a “bad girl”. Carlton says the pressure that co-existed with her enjoyment of ballet eventually forced her out. Her years writing and performing songs at clubs in and around New York prepared her for a switch to music and, so far, she hasn’t looked back.

“Being aware of your flaws is very powerful,” she says. “I try to look outside myself as much as possible.” Carlton says as her career progresses she’ll continue to fight for her freedom as an artist and stay true to her instincts as a writer and performer. Right now, though, she’s looking forward to fans discovering the new and improved Vanessa. “I can’t wait for the fans to hear Harmonium. I hope it’s the next step in solidifying a spot for me in music. It reflects exactly where I am musically at the moment. I hope people love it as much as I do.”

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