Music » Music Feature

Singer-Songwriter Vanessa Carlton Explores New Musical Territory on Latest Album

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  • Eddie Chacon
When singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton entered the pop/rock world in 2002, superficial female pop singers dominated the airwaves. That year, Forbes magazine called singer Britney Spears the world's most powerful celebrity.

In that context, Carlton’s single “A Thousand Miles” came across as something more substantial. With its lilting vocals and spirited string arrangement, the tune had more in common with alt-rock acts such as Tori Amos or the Cranberries. And it became a huge hit, effectively launching Carlton’s career.

Subsequent albums haven’t been as commercially successful, but Carlton remains a pop star of some stature, even if Forbes hasn’t bestowed any ridiculous titles upon her.

[jump] With her new studio album, Liberman, Carlton takes a sharp left turn and embraces a sound that’s even further removed from whatever you might hear on the radio. The sparse album, Carlton’s fifth full-length, represents a change of pace from the poppy material she’s written and recorded in the past. Earlier this year, she offered a sneak peak of the new album with the EP Blue Pool, which included moody tracks “Take It Easy” and “Blue Pool,” both of which ended up on Liberman.

When asked about her influences, Carlton says she didn’t spend her youth listening to singer-songwriters. Rather, she says she mostly listened to classical music.

“I was listening to the cassette tapes in my mom’s car — Aaron Copland and stuff like that,” she says via phone from her Nashville home. “When I was really little, I liked ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and stuff like that. The rock ’n’ roll stuff that I heard came from my father. That was more ’70s rock like Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead.”

Initially, she studied ballet and had hopes of pursuing it a profession.

“Ballet was my main goal,” she says. “My mom urged me to continue music on the side. The ballet world is really hard. When I quit when I was 17, it was all I had. It was a real comfort to turn to music. It snowballed from there. I liked the idea of being able to make an album.”

Given that she struggled with depression, music provided an outlet that served as therapy.

“When you become a teenager and in your twenties, things become really hard,” she says. “Life is so hard and it feels painful. Absolutely, music was a comfort.”

She recently moved from New York to Nashville to marry husband John McCauley, who plays in the indie rock group Deer Tick. The couple has a baby girl. She says the songs don’t entirely relate to marriage and childbirth.

“Well, my timeline is weird,” she says. “I made the majority of the record and the context was set before I even got married. I had met John when I was writing the record. I was about to go to England and start recording. All this happened later. I had to sit on it for a year. I did finish some songs when I was pregnant. [The album] is not a reflection of all of this change but it is a reflection of the state I was in. I was attracted to this development in my life. I was very chilled out. I was more observational. I wasn’t trying to force my hand on things.”

She says the types of books she read at the time pushed her in a more contemplative direction.

“I was reading a lot of books but in particular, Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth,” she says. “I love to hear him speak too. I was gravitating toward books like that and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which is also great. I guess it was just the next chapter for me as a woman and an artist in my early thirties. I’m living in New York and I had just met John. I was really solitary and peaceful. I was really content with my life. I was curious to move forward. That was the state I was in. I can’t say that’s a normal state for me. That was one of the first times I ever felt that way. I was 32 or 33.”

The album title comes from her grandfather’s name, Liberman. She owns only one of his paintings that her grandmother sent to her in 2005, but it inspired the album’s melancholy tone.

“My piano was angled when I was writing this record I was staring at it the whole time,” she says. “When my mom had told me this story about how her last name wasn’t her real last name. I thought it was Lee. My middle name is Lee. But that’s not really their last name. She told me the story of it. [Liberman] is a more authentic name for my family and I was inspired by the colors in his paintings. His paintings are really wild. He’s a classically trained oil painter. He makes these crazy choices with these colors. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition. That sums up the record.”

With its echoing vocals and trip-hop-inspired synthesizers, “House of Seven Swords,” one of the album's highlights, finds Carlton evocatively singing in upper-register.

“I wrote that for my brother,” she says of the tune. “It was a couple of weeks before graduation. He wanted to move to the city. It was a really scary time. I never graduated from college. I stopped and started. My mom keeps reminding me of that to this day. It was a letter to him that things can be the way you want them to be. You build it yourself. You custom make your life. House of Seven Swords is this tarot card in my desk. I liked the artwork. I looked it up. It all fit in with the song. The card is many different things. One of the meanings is that each of us are many sides of a sword. You have to decide what side you want to be.”

Then, with the song “Operator,” a song that features pounding percussion, she goes in a different direction and virtually growls. The album pushes her sound in a direction that she says suggests her true interests.

“I think this sound, which is its own thing, started when I met [producer] Steve Osborne,” she says. “I was starting to really study music that made me feel different in a good way. I wanted to shed myself of that expectation to deliver pop songs. It took me years to reconcile my early success and allow myself to get back on a pure track in terms of inspiration. My journey was to find Steve Osborne. He’s a producer who’s worked with New Order and Doves. It was mainly this Doves album. I wanted to find the man behind the sound. That was the beginning of this. I recorded [2011’s] Rabbits on the Run with him, and I wasn’t done learning from him.”

This music has a simmering intensity to it, a quality that might be difficult to pull off in a live setting. When we spoke to Carlton, the tour hadn’t started yet and she was unsure as to how she’s incorporate her older material into the set.

“[The new material] sounds really different from the old stuff, and you want it to feel pretty uniform,” she says. “It should be a show that grows. It should feel like it comes from the same world. It all comes from me. The album is deceiving. It sounds like it would be easy to do live. There is so much in production. There are so many effects and things to achieve this meditation feeling. I’m going to tour with this guy who’s a madman who plays violin and makes all these different sounds. We can record on stage. You can create tracks while you’re up there. [In rehearsals], we’ve done a good job of bringing the Liberman songs to life. I have a little more time to get things together. I won’t know until I start the tour, but I’m excited about it.”

Vanessa Carlton, Joshua Hyslop, 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $25 ADV, $28 DOS,

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