Down the Rabbit Hole and Back Again: An Interview with Vanessa Carlton

Vanessa Carlton
Rabbits on the Run
Razor & Tie

Vanessa Carlton has released one of the year’s best records, and you probably don’t even know it. Best known for her ubiquitous 2002 pop ballad “A Thousand Miles,” with its feather-light piano chords and a melody so infectious it continues to be a staple of movie trailers and commercials (and was most infamously the punchline in the Wayans Brothers’ gross-out hit White Chicks), Carlton has spent the past decade trying to navigate her way through a deteriorating industry that is at once fickle and favors redundancy. Though her debut album Be Not Nobody was a considerable success, her subsequent records, Harmonium (2004) and Heroes and Thieves (2007), which saw Cartlon subversively introducing darker, more challenging themes within the conventional pop song structure, failed to leave a significant commercial impression.

But any music aficionado willing to give her latest effort, Rabbits on the Run, a spin (seriously—it’s been released on old school vinyl) will be inclined to agree that Carlton is definitely campaigning for the title of Comeback Kid. Removing herself as far from the impositions and constraints of the music industry machine as possible, Carlton relocated to rural England, settled into Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio with legendary producer Steve Osborne (U2, Doves, Suede, New Order), drummer Patrick Hallahan (My Morning Jacket), and the Capital Children’s Choir in tow. The result is one of those rare, revelatory moments in which an artist manages to both exceed and defy expectations, crafting something that commands listeners to reconsider the source. Rabbits, recorded on analog tape to catch every whimper, crack, and breath in Carlton’s matured voice, manages to somehow straddle the lines between progressive and timeless, haunting and uplifting, familiar and unsettling.

PopMatters caught up with Carlton on a recent day off from her current touring schedule to discuss how she had to wipe the slate clean in order to birth the kind of record she always suspected was lurking deep inside her.

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This album has taken a lot of people by surprise. Though many want to characterize it as the clichéd “radical departure,” I think the careful listener can hear the progression from your previous works—sure, it sounds as though you’ve skipped over a few imaginary records between Heroes and Thieves and Rabbits, but it feels more like a continuum than a cut-and-run.

Yeah, it’s definitely more of a shift. Not only stylistically, but a true shift in perspective on…everything, including how I protect the origins of my ideas. I was never really very good at that (laughs). I felt like this time I needed to get rid of all of my ideas so I could start to really value them and [learn how to] protect whatever vibe was coming to me. I very much had to stop working after Heroes and Thieves, and had to figure out how I was going to finally be on my own for the first time, without any label attachments. Since I was officially exiting that system, I decided I would really have to think through how I wanted to connect to other people.

Fran Lebowitz said that just because you can write doesn’t mean you should, and if you don’t have anything to say, then you shouldn’t. And there’s this expectation when you’re a musician to keep coming out with records, and I definitely fell into that and, as a result, I made some compromises that I hear very clearly on records. There are origins of ideas kind of nestled underneath things that are definitely related to Rabbits, but I was never able to fully realize them within that system. So this is a completely different kind of record than I’ve ever made, and one that I think will allow me to continue to make records, because after Heroes I honestly wasn’t sure if I would. I had definitely hit a dead end.

The opening track (and first single) “Carousel” is the only song on the record that is immediately reminiscent of your previous work. But as soon as the bridge kicks in, with those choirgirls so bewitchingly chanting “I thought I heard your voice in the thunder / is the owl casting spells that we’re under?” you’ve immediately set a tone unlike anything you’ve produced before.

I’m glad you noticed that. That was part of the reason why that is the first song. When you get to the bridge it becomes a séance, and this whole record feels like a séance to me. Actually, do you know who placed that song there? Stevie Nicks. She and I have been very close since I toured with her a few years ago and she has had a huge impact on my creative life. She loves this record, and she’s great at sequencing, so I asked if she would do it. She really spent time, she really thought it through, and she put it in the order that it is in. So that’s all Stevie.

Wow. That’s a lot of power to give over to someone else.

It’s a huge job and quite difficult for the person who makes the record to do it. Having distance from the songs after you complete them is so important, but you don’t really want the record company to do it, so it’s tricky.

This record is one of those rare, start-to-finish gems that hits all the right notes and never overstays its welcome, and the sequencing has everything to do with that. So, good job, Stevie!

Yes! Thank you, Stevie. (laughs)

I actually keep gifting the record to friends and colleagues and they are always so taken aback when they realize who they are listening to.

That makes me so happy. It’s funny because I keep hearing that reaction: “Wait, that’s Vanessa Carlton?” It’s great to have that acknowledgement that people can hear that I’ve made this shift, but at the same time—and this is not a complaint by any means—when I was sending it out [to labels] I actually asked my manager and publicist, “Should I just send this out without my name on it?” Even though I’m sitting on a body of work with my previous records that I don’t want to undermine, I really wanted Rabbits to have a fresh impression. I’m not ashamed to say that. This album is a totally different animal than what people are used to from me.

The extraordinary success of “A Thousand Miles” surely has a lot to do with public perceptions of your work. It’s very much of a certain time in pop culture, and it seems that the American music scene tends to get stuck in one place for a long time, and then suddenly it moves in a different direction and, of course, it can’t take everyone with it. Is that song’s “mixed blessing” a source of frustration for you?

You know, I find that I can’t hold onto a feeling like that. I think I have gone to places like that in my mind, but I have worked through it. And I feel privileged that I am in a position where I am able to make a record like [Rabbits] with artists I never thought in a million years I would get to work with. It was tough to even ask them. Man, I was scared. And people see me and are like, “Oh, you’re back!” So people really do think I’ve been gone for ten years! (laughs) And that’s fine, because this record saved my life, literally. My health was deteriorating, and making this record brought me back to life. If this is my reentry, a teeny, tiny, “Hey, I am still here,” or if it makes some big impact on pop culture, so be it. I feel like it’s such a triumph that I was even able to create this thing.

How have you adjusted to those changes in the music industry? Seems like you had to really step away from it in order to make this record the way you intended.

I feel like my first record [Be Not Nobody] was one of the last records that hit before [the industry] started to fall apart and shift into what it is now, and what it continues to evolve into. It really changes every month. When it came to crafting this new record, I just didn’t even take any of that into consideration. I did need to get as far away from everything as possible. I was literally holed up in the English countryside in an old stone mill. No connection to any label whatsoever. That was important to me. I had had a lot of tumultuous label situations [in the past] and I made a lot of mistakes, and the labels made a lot of mistakes and that’s just the way it is. It was so important to make this entirely on my own, and then I was able to bring this work to Razor and Tie. So far it has been great. This is the most commitment I have ever experienced before from a record label. It’s an amazing feeling to know how much they support it.

In planning Rabbits, you had some very specific things in mind production-wise, namely the integration of a children’s choir and the drumming of Patrick Hallahan from My Morning Jacket. What did you intend with those two elements conceptually, and how did you achieve that vision?

I just knew from seeing Patrick live multiple times that I needed him if I was going to make this record. He is such a talent, such a sensitive player. He loves and understands dynamics, coming in and exploding your heart and then dying out again. So the careful placement of drums on the record, that’s all Patrick. He came to visit me in New York and we had a few drinks, and then we played together and realized that we actually have a similar style. So it happened really organically. The idea for this record and the vibe to the record was so thought through, the skeleton and the bones were so strong, that we could really let things go where they may. Steve is such a complete wizard in the studio, and he would say things like, “the girls are going to sound like little witches here,” or “now they are little banshee creatures,” or “they should be a droning hum that makes you want to cry and you’re not sure why.” So it was important to all of us to just let things go there in the moment, figure out what was hitting us and what wasn’t. So everything unfolded the way it should.

You also did the seemingly impossible with this record: you added to the cannon of great California songs without sounding derivative. How the heck did you manage that?

Oh man, “Dear California” was a really tricky song to get. We cut it a couple times. It wasn’t easy. And then suddenly it was. It’s definitely wistful and melancholy at the same time. It was hard to get the vocals down perfectly for that one, and Steve wanted the drums to sound “like powder,” so that was what we were after. It was written on the piano originally, just a little hobbit dance ditty, and then we decided to transfer it to guitar and I discovered that it was totally meant for guitar. I love when that happens. That song is an important moment on the album because it’s about both about my migration from San Francisco to New York and a sort of response to The Doors’ “Love Her Madly,” with me channeling the girl in that song because she’s constantly keeping him on his toes because she keeps leaving, and it’s something I can identify with and am definitely guilty of. You know, that modern manipulation alchemy that women participate in sometimes. And there’s double meaning there because California also has that effect on me.

Speaking of place, I can’t help but notice all the geographical-jumping you do on this record: New York, London, Tennessee, Chicago, all being sung about from the English countryside. Peculiar…

Oh, you’re the first one to ask me that! That’s so great. The short answer is that these places all really inspire me, especially Chicago. I always take long walks around that city and it always hits me. I wrote a lot of lyrics for this record when I was there. [“Fairweather Friend”] is about betrayal. The guy says he’s in one city, but he’s actually in another city. It all started with my reading this letter that was not intended for me–and never read a letter that’s not meant for you unless you want to write a really sad song. So instead of writing “you’re in LA, not Miami” or wherever he said he was, I just said “Chicago,” because I really wanted that city to be part of this journey of Rabbits on the Run, because it was part of my journey in making the album

Sorry. I got kind of nosy there, didn’t I?

(laughs) No! It was a really good question.

In my defense, this record plays as though someone attached a microphone to your brain and hit record. Secrets are bound to get out.

It’s funny you say that, because I’m a pretty shy person and really quite private, and it can be difficult, even painful for me to realize that people are recognizing certain things about me when they listen to the music. But I think it wasn’t until I made this record that I realized that this is the way I connect to people—to my friends, to you, to the strangers who become fans. And I worked so hard on these lyrics, and I will continue to try and get better at… connecting. So, yeah, man, there are definitely plenty of secrets in there. Good ears.