How Vanessa Carlton Wrestled Herself From the Major-Label Machine

Vanessa Carlton plays the Soiled Dove Underground on Monday, April 3.EXPAND
Vanessa Carlton plays the Soiled Dove Underground on Monday, April 3.
Eddie Chacon

Vanessa Carlton isn't a household name anymore, but her song "A Thousand Miles" will be familiar to most people who listened to pop radio in the early 2000s. It's catchy. It's earnest. But it's the kind of radio hit that can doom a singer-songerwriter with quick fame and turn an otherwise steady musician into a one-hit wonder or a puppet of the major-label system. Carlton went the major-label route for a while, but it didn't pan out.

Several years ago, she left her label and has since reinvented herself as a decidedly less pop-oriented singer-songwriter, though her songs are still catchy and earnest. Her most recent album, Liberman, has been stripped of Billboard-chart-topping ambitions and polish. Musically and lyrically, that's a good thing.

In advance of her Monday, April 3, concert at the Soiled Dove Underground, Westword spoke with Carlton about parenthood, her songwriting career, and why she left the major labels.

Westword: How is the tour going?

Vanessa Carlton: It's going well. I'm in San Antonio now. I have a couple shows here in Texas before I head home for a break. And then I go back out again to the last leg of tour.

What are you up to as a songwriter right now?

As you get older, your priorities balance out and adjust themselves. In also wanting to be an example for my daughter, I believe that getting to your most authentic part — it's a combination of that being the most valuable and also pushing yourself to explore — those are the two qualities that not only work in your art, but will work in your communication with other people and in your life.

I am not engaged in popularity contests anymore, which has been so wonderful and has given me the freedom to collaborate with artists that I've always wanted to. I think that all affects my writing and the way I approach a project, and the way that I approach an album. And this all started once I left the major label machine in 2010. I only have two albums under my belt that have been done in this way, so in a sense I kind of look at myself as a newer artist.

There is so much baggage that comes with getting older and going through so many experiences. Talk to me about what that process has been like for you, and how you get to that place of authenticity.

That's a great question. I'm reading this book called The Conscious Parent, which is very much about healing the wounds of your past so you do not project them onto your baby. And, of course, it's not just about being a parent. It's about being a person. The wounds of your past will project on yourself. If you're not aware of them, you will project them onto everyone around you, and that's where getting older feels...it will start to feel uncomfortable, because you are not at peace with something that is rooted inside of you from your past.

So I think that really reflecting on the past and really channeling a lot of empathy in past situations that maybe made you angry or made you upset or maybe they were abusive, to try and figure out a different angle on a situation that is beyond just your own role in that story — I think that is so key. Then you can make peace with situations about which you felt you were out of control. If you want to apply it to my specific situation in terms of my work, being in that machine — the major-label machine — in terms of my work, that was something that I really had to make peace with and really, in a way, analyze why and how that happened in order for me to move on.

How old is your daughter?

She's two. She'll be two in two months.

Oh, cool. That's so fun. I'm constantly thinking about this question of how to create, how to produce with a child in your life, and how that changes or shifts things. Can you talk about that?

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Yeah. At first, I thought, I'm never going to write a song again, because she's literally like the song killer. Any idea I have, I go to the piano to record it, and it's like all you hear is crying. You know, I was like, “All right, I guess it's over."

Then, of course, you carve out your time for yourself. You learn how to do that, which is very important. And then beyond that, of course, getting help is key to delegating time with your baby.

My husband and I, we're co-parents, and we're able to do that because we're both musicians and we both have similar schedules. But I think beyond that, I would say that I really look at having her as this compelling force in my life to do better, to create better. If anything, I actually feel more inspired than I ever have.

I didn't feel that way initially. Initially, I was just so tired, and all of my demo ideas just have a baby cooing and screaming over it. Everything changes; everything does, I will say this. Being on tour right now and not being able to take her on this tour is really hard, and at the same time, if I'm going to be away from my family right now, I am going to make it worth it for myself, for my audience, for my family. Meaning I've never been more present during shows. The last thing I'm going to do is be out on the road and have a show and waste any sort of time. It needs to be as effective as I can make it.

And what's that process like for you, in terms of connecting with audiences and the work of tour, and making the most of it?

These shows we've been doing on this tour have been some of our best. The combination of not caring what people think of you anymore — like, zero — and only focusing on the energy you want to project, the set lists, the sounds. You put a lot of thought into your show before you head out to tour and then you let it do its work, and you don't overthink it.

There’s a real storytelling vibe to the set, and I think the stories get better and more connected. I had a lot of practice on the last tour, last year. I do feel that real combination of not caring, trying to fight your insecurities within yourself, and being present.

Good life advice.

It takes constant awareness.

I imagine it's this struggle between wanting to connect with the audience and their desires, their reason for wanting to be there, but also wanting to do your own thing and move in these new directions. Do you ever consider an identity shift in any way — performing as a separate band or anything like that?

Yeah, well, when I say connect, I don't mean molding myself into something I feel somebody else can connect to. That's not how it works. That's how it used to work when I was on a major label. I really compromised a lot. And that's my own fault. I think that now, it's like I'm allergic to that. I think, yes, for instance, when I completed Liberman, I was looking for an independent label to work with on it. We sent that out with no name on it. I didn't want anyone to know I did it. I didn't want anyone to associate my name with it, because of what people may associate me with in the past. I wanted people to judge it based on what they were hearing in the moment. I struggle with that a lot, but it's not overwhelmingly difficult. It's just something that's going to take constant work to keep my ball rolling.

People who come to shows usually get it. They get where I'm at, and they get what's going on. But I've just had to keep the ball rolling across the board. I'm over that hump of: "Oh, wait, was she that girl?" It's going to take work, but I think I'm up for it. Because I'm so not a nostalgic person, I'm so not clinging to my past. I think it's going to be easier than for some people.

Vanessa Carlton, 7 p.m., Monday, April 3, Soiled Dove Underground, 7401 East First Avenue, $25, 303-830-9214.

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