In high school, I could usually be found between classes in the choir practice room. On its clunky upright piano, I composed odes to teenage heartbreak and taught myself songs by my ivory-tickling idol, Vanessa Carlton. Her name often elicited blank stares amongst my classmates until–with a weary sigh–I’d say: “She sings that song ‘A Thousand Miles.’” Their faces would illuminate with recognition. Though I performed the pop-culture classic at my senior-year talent show, I really loved Carlton's lesser-known works from albums like Heroes and Thieves and Rabbits on the Run, remaining a faithful follower of her music for the last decade.
When I learned I'd be doing an interview with her, my cat (named “Vanessa!”), was a rather startled witness to some high-volume excitement.
For Carlton, a lot has changed since the release of her debut album, Be Not Nobody, in 2002. She ditched the major record labels, released a handful of independent albums, and stepped into the role of wife and mother. From pixie-light vocals spewing teenage sentiments to wistful, raw lyrics with a depth that miles can't measure, she's come a long way.
Now she's on the road promoting her latest works: two live records–Liberman (Live) and Earlier Things (Live). We caught up with her ahead of her Saturday, April 8 show at the Doug Fir—with violinist Skye Steele—to talk big life changes and Rebecca Solnit as inspiration.
Earlier Things (Live) has a good balance of your early and more recent work. Do you feel it represents the evolution of your music?
I’m the least nostalgic artist. I have no desire to go back in time. However, I perform some older songs, obviously… And to at least just give them the chance to live as they are now, I’m happy to. So much has happened. I like giving this situation the analogy of building a house brick-by-brick. I started over in 2009 when I left the major label system. I was living in a condo before then. And I just left that condo, closed the door behind me, and I wanted to go build by own house, brick-by-brick. That’s what I’m in the middle of doing. It’s just pure art and music, and not feeling boxed in or having to adhere to any sort of rules.
Can you describe Liberman, and what inspired it?
My first album outside of the major label system was called Rabbits On the Run. And it came out relatively under the radar. However, for me that was the beginning of the rest of my life. I did a song with Steve Osborne, the producer–who is a mad genius–called “Hear the Bells.” And, there was this place that we went in the song that I wanted to go back to and go deeper into. And that’s what Liberman is in terms of the sonic palette. And then, in terms of the lyrics, it was a concept record. It’s meant to feel good. The lyrics were inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I was reading at the time. So, it was all these notions of "as lost as we feel at times, and [even if] the pain is so real, everything will be OK." Just that comfort, and streaming certain words together that make people feel good, that’s what I wanted it to do.
How has becoming a wife and mother changed or reshaped your life?
It’s such a powerful, energizing, and humbling experience. I think a lot about ego. Whatever ego I have left has really been beaten down over the years, in a good way. We’re not always aware of how we impose our ego on others. Becoming a wife and a mother, being John’s [John McCauley of Deer Tick] partner–I really wanted to work on those things. I wanted to explore connections, because I’ve never had it so good. I feel so lucky to have this balance in my life, and the family that I have. I worked hard to get to this place. And I guess I like to analyze it–or, ya know–learn something from it. I really try to make it better all the time.
Do you get tired of playing your older songs [i.e. “A Thousand Miles” and “White Houses”]?
Yeah, you do of course get tired, but you’re putting on a show. It’s not just about your experience onstage, and it’s not just about the audience experience. It’s an exchange. There are times when I don’t want to play anything old, but every artist has that. I’m sure Stevie Nicks doesn’t want to sing “Landslide” every single goddamn show, but she does… Sometimes you gotta make it happen… I think for me–particularly with this show–I just feel very comfortable telling the real story. Being vulnerable and being on stage in the moment is key. That’s when people can connect with each other, and that’s what makes for a more powerful show.
8 p.m., Sat, Apr 8, Doug Fir, $25–27