Vanessa Carlton: Finding Harmony
We first were aware of pianist/songbird Vanessa Carlton when she impressed us with her multi-platinum debut "Be Not Nobody". Her top single "A Thousand Miles" and follow-up "Ordinary Day" convinced a lot of fans that being a "rocker chick with a band" wasn't the only way to climb the pop charts. Then, for a while, she seemed to disappear. Now, after considering the direction she wants to take, the artist is back atcha with "Harmonium", an album recorded in L.A. and San Francisco over the last year. There must have been some harmonic music vibe happening because when Vanessa was in the L.A. studio, she hooked up with Stephan Jenkins and was surrounded by greats like Stevie Nicks, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West etc.
Lindsey Buckingham played acoustic guitar on the first single from the album, the catchy "White Houses". Vanessa was impressed with the harmonious and spontaneous spirit that seemed to validate her new work. Recently, we chatted with the artist while she was in Chicago touring.
TeenMusic: How did you hook up with Stephan Jenkins as a producer and co-writer?
Vanessa: I was on tour with him and he came into my dressing room one day and said ' I have to produce you'. He's seen me sing live and there's an energy to my live show that I think he's inspired by and wanted to capture. We met then and a while later I hired him to produce the record.
TeenMusic: Have you found harmony in your life? What was the catalyst that brought you there?
Vanessa: I don't know about harmony. I tend to be someone where there's constant worry. It's definitely as peaceful as it can be for me. I think what makes it that way is an amazing team of people around me, whether it be family, friends, crew, or management. Just feeling taken care of [is great]. There's so much to achieve but there's a feeling of potential to do it, that's what makes me feel the best.
TeenMusic: "White Houses" tells a story a lot of us can relate to. Did you actually live in a house with five strange roomies?
Vanessa: Not actually a house but a dorm for four years. That song is inspired by many different things. If it really was all real it wouldn't be as interesting. The elements of it that are real I can obviously relate to.
TeenMusic: You did a lot of dancing growing up. Was it really fun to use your dancing in your video? Do you plan on incorporating it more in the future?
Vanessa: Yes and yes. I love the dancing and I loved the shoot. I felt like a nine-year-old dancing in my kitchen again. I felt the freedom that I used to always feel when I danced that was sort of squeezed out of me in the ballet school I was studying at. I do hope to do more with it whether it be theatre, Broadway or film. I would love to include it in my life more.
TeenMusic: Did any record execs ever ask you to get up from behind the piano?
Vanessa: When I was first trying to get a record contract no one thought I could be a success because I was trying to get a deal in the middle of pop diva fever. I come in on my piano and this kind of organic thing and they thought 'oh this isn't going to work' and they immediately want to change you into whatever's going on in that moment. I rejected those notions and would move on to the next label if they didn't get who I was.
TeenMusic: Tell us about the great musicians you happened to be surrounded by when recording this album.
Vanessa: I was recording in the Record Plant in L.A. and there's great musicians in and out of there every day. I had Fleetwood Mac down the hall and we got Lindsay to come play acoustic guitar and The Neptunes were working on Good Charlotte and they came in and sang and Kanye was there. It was just a big family of people, there was nothing calculated about the collaborations, nothing corporate.
TeenMusic: Sounds great, really pure. Have you been touring all this time?
Vanessa: I was touring the last album up until 2003 and late 2003 I got into the studio to record "Harmonium" and it took a year, I took the summer off but there wasn't much down time.
TeenMusic: What do you do to kick back when you're relaxing on tour?
Vanessa: When I have days off I really try to get out in the city that I'm in and absorb what's going on around me rather than staying cooped up in a hotel room. It was better this time than last time. Last time I didn't even move.
TeenMusic: One song sounds like you have a huge choir recording on it. Which song and how did that work?
Vanessa: It's "She Floats" and the choir is actually Stephan and I singing over and over and over. There's 40 voices but they're all ours.
TeenMusic: Wow! What songs on "Harmonium" are the closest to your heart?
Vanessa: "Half a Week Before the Winter" and "Who's to Say". I love them for different reasons. There's a couple that I like because the production was right on and then other ones because of the songs themselves. Every song is on there for a reason and I really wanted a ten song record - One's a secret track so it doesn't count.
TeenMusic: Is there a little bit of a Goth influence in the 'winter' song?
Vanessa: Yeah there is. It is definitely a dark song. It's kind of a metaphor for Darwin's theory, survival of the fittest, and how things should [matter]. In this case it's the Unicorn, and they don't. Those beautiful animals again could be a symbol for so many things, they die and they shouldn't and I think it's also part my take on the music industry and how so many beautiful things that you do get eaten by the Vampires.
TeenMusic: What would be your idea of what to do on an ideal date?
Vanessa: I think the most important thing about a date is not what you do but how it feels. If it feels uptight and if he's trying too hard or it's forced then it doesn't matter what you're doing. But if there's a bottled up excitement and you're developing a rapport and you know how to talk to each other, then you can do anything. People are always like 'Oh you should go bowling or you should do this or that' I don't think it really matters. A great date can be sitting on a stoop talking for 4 hours.
TeenMusic: Totally agree. What's the best advice you've been given and who gave it to you?
Vanessa: I think that my mother has given me good advice in terms of sticking to my instincts as a musician and always encouraging me to be myself and she's contributed to the backbone that I have. I'm forever grateful to have a female role model like that. She's very confident in herself and has passed that on to me.
TeenMusic: If you had to burn a CD to take on a road trip, what would you put on it?
Vanessa: Bob Marley, The Doves, PJ Harvey, a little Third Eye Blind, U2, Fleetwood Mac.
TeenMusic: Who do you think is the average Vanessa Carlton fan?
Vanessa: I don't know. It's very different all the time. I've met four-year-olds and 45 year olds, women and men, a lot of mothers and daughters that both love the records and that's great. In the White Chicks film they made fun of me and I thought it was so cute and hilarious and according to them [my fans are] only upper class Long Island girls and I beg to differ because I've seen it with my own eyes.
TeenMusic: What's the oddest object that you've written lyrics on?
Vanessa: Some random piece of paper that I find in my car that's part of an envelope and it's sticky on one side but you write around the sticky.
TeenMusic: Cute. Who are you dying to sing a duet with?
Vanessa: I got to sing with Carol King recently but I think Stevie Nicks because I didn't get a chance to on the record. If I had Stevie Nicks on my album I would want a prime song. So I hope to do that for the next record.
TeenMusic: What's the strangest fan encounter you've had so far?
Vanessa: Some of them are a little nutty. A family snuck onto the bus one time. I'm pretty lucky because there's a handful of weirdos but then the majority of the fans are just music lovers and they're not freaky at all.
TeenMusic: Do you have a message for your fans?
Vanessa: Yes, first of all I love them and I'd say how grateful I am for their support because they allow me to do what I do. I also can't wait for them to hear 'Harmonium' and I think they're going to love it hopefully as much as I loved making it for them.
TeenMusic: What would your ideal comfy outfit be?
Vanessa: Hey, I'm wearing it right now! I'm wearing my red sweat pants, a white t-shirt and a cashmere poncho.
Lynn Barker is a Hollywood-based entertainment journalist and produced screenwriter.