Vanessa Carlton is 35 now. She’s a mother, married to Deer Tick frontman John McCauley. And with that, at least partially, comes her surprising geographical leap. Not quite 1,000 miles, as would befit the title of her biggest hit song to date, but close — her new home in Nashville is 885 miles away from New York City.
“I love it. We’ve been there a couple of years now,” Carlton says. “It’s a great place to raise a family. I’ve been living in New York City since I was 13 years old, so it was definitely time for a change of pace for me.”
Born in Pennsylvania, the pop turned indie-rock star has adjusted nicely to life as a Southerner. “It’s a different type of feeling of community,” she says. “It’s nice to have a yard. It’s the first time I’ve ever owned a car, to be honest. And I didn’t want to raise our kids in the city. There’s a nice vibe, particularly in Tennessee. I like Nashville a lot. It’s a really progressive city.”
Her latest record, Liberman, was released in October of this year; on it, Carlton has reinvented her sound. Her instrument of choice has always been the piano, but on Liberman, Carlton surrounds herself with electronic elements. It’s ethereal; lead single “Operator” isn’t something that’ll see much time in Top 40 rotation, but it marks Carlton’s evolution with the passage of time. Her contemporaries never quite got that — Michelle Branch fizzled and Nelly Furtado did the same; the much poppier sounds of Britney Spears became self-parody, and Christina Aguilera became a game show host.
Carlton reimagined her boundaries and gracefully aged with her audience.
“It took a lot of work to figure out the sonic palette, but once we did it was smooth sailing,” she said. “There was a song [on her 2011 studio album Rabbits on the Run] called ‘Hear the Bells,’ and I really wanted to go more down that path with [Stephen] Osborne as the producer and explore that world. That’s how we arrived at the sound of Liberman. A lot of the work in the studio was just him and I working and fiddling around and finding sounds and putting collages together and using my voice a lot as an instrument.”
“A Thousand Miles,” from Carlton’s 2002 debut Be Not Nobody, was one of radio’s biggest hits at the turn of the millennium, and equally as radio friendly was her backing of Counting Crows on their hit cover of “Big Yellow Taxi.” But as Carlton has aged, so has her songwriting and musicianship matured.
“Some songs are a lyrical idea — I’m just starting with an idea in my head. But when it comes to an instrument, yeah, I’m starting with the piano,” Carlton said. “That’s really the only thing I know how to play. There’s a skeleton to each one that can be reduced down to piano and vocal, but a lot of it was me experimenting with reverbs and stuff on my GarageBand. I would create demos, too, to try and create a crude model for what I wanted to do.”
A large portion of Carlton’s last two records were recorded at Real World Studios, just outside of London. She spent quite a bit of time there before My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan introduced her to McCauley and family became her priority.
“At that time in my life, when I was working on Rabbits on the Run and Liberman, I wanted to find magic in some remote place,” she says. “I wanted a simplistic kind of living, like a monk type of thing. It’s a beautiful countryside outside of London in a town called Box. It’s like everything is very calm and very focused and isolated, but in a good way.”
But that’s changed now, and as she looks toward the next project, Nashville — the Music City that she now calls home — will suffice.
“My family is my absolute priority,” she said. “So I make all decisions now based on what’s going to work for us as a unit. It’s very important for me to keep working and to keep exploring creative ideas — things that make me happy, but things that make my family happy as well. So it’s just a matter of balance [and] figuring that out. It’s not always easy, but we’re making it work.”
Recording has become a family affair, as McCauley backed Carlton on several tracks for Liberman.
“When he was visiting me in England the first couple of times, it was really cool because I was able to transfer a song from piano to guitar — a song called ‘Matter of Time’ — and that was special because that was one of those where you do a couple of takes of a song and it works so well that you just pick a take. It’s very easy to lay that down,” Carlton says. “He was doing his fingerpicking thing and it was really wonderful. He did some electric guitar stuff on ‘Take it Easy’ and some other songs. When I had to finish the record in Nashville, because I didn’t finish it all in England, I worked with John and Adam Landry and we were all a team in the studio arranging these songs. It was a fun collaboration. John knew what I was trying to do with this record. We were all on the same page and it’s great to work with someone that you really respect.”
Vanessa Carlton will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Wednesday, December 16. Joshua Hyslop will open. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit workplay.com or vanessacarlton.com/tour.