Vanessa Carlton was caught in the wrong moment. While that iconic opening piano line in “A Thousand Miles” will silence any 20- or 30-something today, urging them to thrust their hands in the air, grab an invisible mic, and belt out some overdramatic enunciation of Carlton’s hit, it acted as an excuse to overlook her other work, deeming the Grammy-nominated hit her crowning jewel. But Carlton, now 35 years old, has a careful discography of impressive work, from 2004’s Harmonium up to this year’s dream pop gem Liberman.
Carlton answers the phone for our interview and immediately apologizes for speaking in a hushed voice. She’s in a car outside a Midwest hotel waiting to check in and, in the back of the car, her baby is fast asleep. It’s hard to fathom that her daughter is the calm after the storm. In the last few years, Carlton’s had to set music on the side while her life suddenly hit new peaks and valleys. In 2010, she came out as bisexual. She moved from New York City to Nashville. She had a painful miscarriage. She married John McCauley of Deer Tick (with Stevie Nicks officiating the wedding). She gave birth to her firstborn child. Nearly a decade later, the girl tangled in a knot of adulthood and sexual exploits in “White Houses” finally began building her picket-fenced life.
Unsurprisingly, her new album handles that growth with poise. With a few seconds of quivering strings and a muted bass drum, Liberman’s first few seconds set itself up as an all-encompassing dive into a world as possessed by poison as it is by glitter. It’s not Carlton’s darkest work, but there’s a haunting tint at its core, turning ballads into sing-alongs that soundtrack dreams.
That doesn’t mean piano is hidden here; it’s far too big a part of her life to cut out. Carlton started playing piano at age three when her mother—who works as a piano teacher—handed her pop culture medleys. “Both of our music was based in classical,” Carlton explains. “I learned a lot of Mozart and Bach, but then she and I would work on the theme song from Cheers. We loved that. She taught me Neil Young and stuff, too.” That mix of classical and modern shaped her songwriting. If anything, she has acts like Neil Young and Elton John to thank for their exemplary lyricism, craft, and aging persistence.
Despite older pop directing her piano chords, she turned to newer acts for motivation to play around. “I had listened to so much stuff,” she laughs. “It’s funny because all of my reference songs and the artists I was listening to like M83, well, none of what I wrote wound up sounding like them at all. To be honest, all it ever needed to do was satisfy our own vibe. The minute we felt like we lost whatever the magic is, that feeling of euphoria that I love so much and chase with those tones, we stop. We need to indulge our senses.”
You can hear that breath of life in the melodies of “Willows” and “Blue Pool”. Yet despite their immediate indulgent warmth, the sound remains clean. “I’m really proud of how we all showed restraint,” she says. “The editing of the album took a minimalist route, leaving only the most essential parts of each song. That can be tough. It was cluttered in every way, so reshaping it into its final form was a real triumph.”
Even with her new material out in the world and her lengthy tour already underway, the enormous shadow of “A Thousand Miles” still looms over her. “It’s weird,” Carlton says. “It’s like an old picture of yourself that you see all the time. You’re like, ‘I don’t look like that anymore, guys, but okay. That’s fine.’ And I get it. It’s extraordinary to have something like that happen, so I’m grateful. The nice thing about this record is that people are allowing me to move past that and are accepting my move forward, which I did and still do regardless.” She pauses to find the right words, ones that express her gratitude as well as her evolution as a musician. “People aren’t always aware of where you’re at in the moment,” she concludes. It seems now, some 13 years later, they’re finally taking note.
VANESSA CARLTON + JOSHUA HYSLOP. MON 12.7. BRIGHTON MUSIC HALL, 158 BRIGHTON AVE., ALLSTON. 7PM/ALL AGES/$15. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM.