A lot has happened to Vanessa Carlton since she released her last album, Rabbits On The Run, in 2011. She married Deer Tick frontman John McCauley, gave birth to a daughter, moved to Nashville from New York City, and started writing new songs for her forthcoming album Liberman. For a singer-songwriter, you can’t have big life changes without feeling the desire to capture those emotions inside of a melody. So with the help of producer Steve Osborne and inspiration from a painting by her grandfather and music by Philip Glass, Carlton has found a new nuance that swirls around her voice and piano playing.
With the album out not until October, Carlton is releasing a four song EP called Blue Pool on July 24 to give fans a little taste of what she has been creating. Featuring “Take It Easy,” “Operator,” “Nothing Where Something Used To Be,” and the title track first single, “This whole album is paired down and minimalist,” Carlton explained recently about the tone she was looking for. “And this song is an example of how you can turn a traditional piano vocal song into something else.”
Having attained success with her first single “A Thousand Miles,” which went Top 10 on the charts and garnered three Grammy nominations for the then-21 year old, Carlton is feeling the maturity and wisdom in her current music. We talked with the now-34 year old singer about Blue Pool, how husband McCauley factored into her current batch of songs and how ballet just might be her greatest inspiration.
What do you think this new music is saying about who you are today?
What a wonderful question. I think it really reflects a tone that I strive for in my own life, in a really general way. I guess sometimes you make music as kind of a release in some cases, like if you think about the punk movement, you enjoy that kind of sound because you feel really intense feelings about the establishment and it’s more of a release. I think in this case with me, the kind of place I’ve reached with my music, cause I think in the past I’ve made music that was trying to please my label, you know, in terms of how to dress it up and things like that. This is a real reflection of my tone in my life, which is really trying to have things be beautiful and create beauty and something that feels soothing but something, arrangement-wise, is very inspired and a reflection of a first instinct.
How long have the songs been formulating for you? Did a particular song set off that creative process to do another record?
The first song for the record was “Unlock The Lock.” I wrote it when I was visiting my parents at this dude ranch in Arizona, which is on a beautiful reservation, so desolate and so beautiful. I had just gotten back from a ride and I was listening to this satellite radio in the room, because there is no TV, no real communication or technology except for the radio, which is a big upgrade at the ranch (laughs). And there was this show that Bob Dylan had, and I didn’t know he had a radio show, but he would choose a theme, I guess, every week, a theme for what his songs were about and this theme was about locks and keys, which I thought that was so cool and so specific and weird and yet makes so much sense as lyrics, people singing about locks and keys. I don’t know, I thought it was interesting (laughs). When I got home, I guess it really stuck with me because when I got back to New York I wrote “Unlock The Lock” and that was the beginning of kind of opening the door to the rest of the album.
You have on the EP two songs listed as “live living room sessions.” What is that?
That was just me playing and singing in my living room in Nashville on the piano. I had moved it from New York to Nashville and it was my manager’s idea to get me to like play the entire album just as piano/vocal. It was tricky cause I just had the baby and I’m a breast-feeding mom, so it’s like I can’t really go to another studio and do it. She’d have to come with me and she’s not a cranky baby by any means but it would be so much easier if I could have someone come to the house and set it up, you know. So whenever she’d get hungry, she would just be brought to me and I’d feed her and then she’d go and I would play another song and it worked out perfect. The deluxe version of the album will have all of the rest of the songs from the album in live from the living room type style.
Since you mentioned the baby, how much influence or input did John have on any of your music?
The majority of the album I did in England and the other three songs I did in Nashville and when he was visiting me, we’d just gotten married but then I had to go back to England to finish, so he came with me and from there he was going to start his tour in Dublin. In between kind of the end of my sessions and his tour we were going to have like a little honeymoon in Dublin, which was kind of hilarious (laughs). There is a song called “Matter Of Time” that I wrote on the piano and he brought his guitar and the sound was killer. When he played it, he did a cool fingerpicking thing and it just sounded great. So he’s the guitarist on the song “Matter Of Time” and he played some really beautiful, sort of flourishy things on “Take It Easy,” the first song on the album.
He also helped me when I got to Nashville. He was a big influence because he introduced me to Adam Landry, who was the producer that I met when I first met John. I thought he was just such a talented guy and I loved his esthetic when it comes to engineering. So John was in the studio with me and Adam and we were finishing the last three songs from the Tennessee session. So he was really a part of both sides of the album and I would say he was huge in helping me get to the finish line because I got pregnant kind of in a really weird time where I had to put everything on pause and then finish the last couple of songs in Nashville. I did “Operator” in Nashville and John wasn’t part of that one but he was very helpful.
“Operator” is such a wonderful song on the EP.
That’s kind of an old song and was like a demo that I found from the Rabbits On The Run sessions, which was the album I wrote in 2011, which I also did with Steve Osborne. I don’t know, sometimes you’ve really got to go through your GarageBand, or actually in this case it wasn’t GarageBand, it was one of my weird playlists of like lost old songs that I don’t listen to anymore cause I’m too scared to (laughs); like old, old demos. And I listened to it and I was like, wait, this is really good. You know, sometimes when you’re in the moment or in the middle of a project, being a writer, you just don’t have any perspective on the draft anymore. Like, “This is shit and I don’t know what to do with this.” Years later when you go back and read it, you go, actually that was pretty good or that would have worked, you know what I mean. I understand why it didn’t work for Rabbits. We were on the end of our journey there and it would have been way too costly and we were too tired to go into another whole production of a song. But for this, I sent it to my manager and he was like, “Do that song. That is so great.” So I did it in Nashville with Adam.
You were a ballet student for a long time. Have you ever noticed that some of your songs have the flow and rhythm of a ballet? Do you think that’s an almost underlying subconscious inspiration?
Totally and that’s a great question. I don’t know if everyone knows that about me, my past, being a dancer, and it absolutely is. I think my greatest feeling of euphoria is when I was dancing to an incredible piece of music, and the choreography was on the same level, the choreography and the music. There is nothing better than, in my opinion, dancing to really beautiful music. Some other source of energy gets tapped. I love “Blue Pool” cause it’s kind of a waltz and something that you can really move to and it was important to me for this record. I want people to be able to feel like they could dance whatever version of dance it is for you. It’s not EDM music (laughs) but you can feel like it’s orchestrated in that way to a certain degree.
What do you have coming up for the rest of this year?
I just finished the artwork for the album and I’m so excited. I’m routing a tour right now from October through December. Hopefully I will see people on the road in the fall and it’s so nice to be back. So much has changed in the ways that they should so I’m looking forward to reconnecting with people out there that like my music or that want to hang out on the road and go to shows.
And your tour dates will be on your Facebook and your website?
Yep, just look up my name and it will pop up, tour dates and everything, although I don’t think tour dates have been announced yet.