You know the ethereal, haunting vocals of Vanessa Carlton—she’s the pianist, classically trained dancer and singer-songwriter behind tracks “White Houses,” “Pretty Baby,” “A Thousand Miles,” and “Ordinary Day,” to name just a few. On her latest record Love is an Art, Carlton collaborates with producer David Fridmann and Nashville-based singer-songwriter Tristen Gaspadarek. In her interview with Berklee Groove, Carlton speaks candidly with us about the creation of her new album, issues in today’s society, her growth as a musician, and the relationships we have with ourselves.
Vanessa, tell me about the process of creating Love is an Art. How did it begin? What made you choose to write about the human connection?
The record began brewing about 2 years ago. The album had been done since last March, but I had been performing in a show in New York City for 10 weeks, so it took some time—so yeah, I’d say it was about 2 years proceeding last March. I wanted to create a project that would get me completely out of my comfort zone, you know? I wanted to explore a different zone when finding my producer, too. I wanted to work with Dave Fridmann because I was looking for someone who had the sort of aesthetic he has. So, I was certainly attracted to an expansive sound and innovation, in terms of the record’s pallet. I wanted to see how I would respond to an artistic change. I also really wanted to co-write and philosophize with another person. I live next to Tristen, coincidentally. I’ve toured with her, so I asked if she wanted to write with me because I wanted my co-writer to be personal to me. Above all, I wanted to feel pushed.
As for the record’s concept, it has all of these stories about human behavior. It analyzes the way the brain works, how we break our patterns, how we connect with one another, and how we react to society. It’s about the balance and looking at the evolving nature of love, expectations, and compassion—for others, and for ourselves. It’s also about breaking the power hold of the “old guard.” You hear that in “Die, Dinosaur.” This record, when it comes down to it, is all about behavior. It’s about people struggling with staying the same —something I struggle with, something I think everybody does—and how we don’t always give ourselves permission to change.
I think that connects beautifully with the album cover—a hand grabbing a tiger by its tail. It really captures the message about going after something bigger and more powerful than yourself, but you’re not afraid so you grab it anyway. How do you feel that message translates to being a creative person, and how do you push yourself to get out of your comfort zone?
It’s really just about control and riding the wave of creativity at the same time. As a writer, as a musician, if you’re any sort of artist—you are trying to shape and reshape and stick to a concept as your project grows. It’s also your spirit and a bunch of people's spirits coming together to ride that wave. The way I see it, it’s a parallel to love. You have this idea in mind, you know? Of how you want to speak, how you want to receive—but you can never really control it. So, sometimes you just have to ever-so-delicately grab it, and just hold on for the ride.
You wrote the track “Die, Dinosaur” after the shootings in Parkland, Florida. You’ve written other songs with moving subject matters, such as “Annie” and “Twilight.” Can you walk me through your process of writing tracks that tackle such emotional stories?
Honestly, it comes from me watching the news and getting so heated. I watched the Bret Kavanaugh hearings. In those moments when you are watching these terrible things unfold, you’re living inside your body, but you get so angry that it almost feels like it’s happening to you. The Parkland shooting was profound because of the students. They are brilliant, in their resilience, in their messages, asking why we are allowed access to these brutal weapons – they called out the NRA and our political system.
Our whole system is rooted in these rich, horrible white guys and it makes me so angry. They’re the “old guard,” you know? They’re the “dinosaurs.” The GOP—or whatever the fuck you want to call them—have no interest in those kids or anybody else. They care nothing about what is good for people. Their time needs to be over.
I really enjoy Ronan Farrow’s work at The New York Times, and how he is bringing down these great white whales of society. Look at Harvey Weinstein! He’s “the old guard” of Hollywood and we’ve been able to take him down. “Die, Dinosaur” represents taking down these “old guards.” It’s really about ending the abuse and power-wielding that these men have been able to get away with.
We were looking forward to seeing you at The Sinclair this weekend, but things are uncertain now due to COVID-19. I see this really affecting the music community. You’ve just released Love is an Art. How are you coping as an artist?
It just feels so weird. It’s like releasing music into a vacuum. It’s a call and response. Normally with musical projects, you’re on the road and you connect with everybody. You hear from your fans, you talk with them. It’s all so visceral.
Now, it’s pretty much just releasing your work into the void. I like giving intimate little shows to the world in my living room, but I truly felt sad. I put so much work into every little thing when I make a record. In addition, I was able to collaborate with wonderful artists on it, so I felt sad, then guilty. I did understand, though, that Love is an Art had to be released, you know? I felt strongly that it should be out.
These tough times are what music is for. It connects people, and music makes my brain feel so good. Music matters. I’ve spoken to people who have told me that this album has helped them. One girl told me that her grandfather died and she listened to the record all night to help her cope with her loss. Those things touch me and make me feel like I’ve done what I needed to do. We release music to connect with our fellow humans. As long as it’s helping, it makes me feel good.
What advice would you give aspiring musicians who are struggling during this time?
I think all musicians may be struggling. This situation is extraordinarily alarming—I mean, some of us were thinking it was the end of days, you know? We were wondering, “Will we have jobs? Will we have to move back in with our parents?” I’m lucky to say that I don’t have many concerns personally, but I know others who had to ask those questions. Those who are working in restaurants and other essential jobs, my heart just breaks for them.
I found myself asking a different question—are we light or are we dark? I came to the conclusion that we are light. At the end of the day, we love and care about each other, and that won’t change. In these unprecedented times, it’s about helping one another.
To speak on aspiring musicians, though, I think that if you’re writing or trying to work, you’ve been having a bit of a tug-of-war with yourself. If you’re quarantined, you think, “Well, I have a roof over my head and all this time, so I should be creative.” Remember, this is a crisis. You’re working despite what’s happening. Give yourself credit and understand that if you’re struggling, that’s okay. Don’t push yourself if you are having a tough time and don’t discredit your situation.
The album’s opener, I Can’t Stay the Same, analyzes the relationship we have with ourselves. How do you feel you have matured from your earlier records, like Be Not Nobody and Harmonium? What’s changed, and how do you feel these changes have affected you and your music?
When you’re marketed and sold heavily as a female in the music industry as this slightly sexy girl—we’re all marketed by men early on—you need to look and sound a certain way. Sometimes, I would just think, “Fuck it!” You get to a point when you’re so frustrated that you’re tempted to release your stuff under another name or you’re not gonna release music at all. It’s funny, there’s the algorithm on Spotify that’s like, “The Vanessa Carlton station.” It’s my nightmare! But, I wanted budgets approved to pursue my creativity, so I went with it until one day I said, “You know what? Fuck this system! I’m not a piano pop star.”
I look back on all the decisions I had made before, and I realize I did not have to follow anything that was said to me. I was just afraid to let go. It took years to get out of the mindset that I had to sound this way and present that way. I grew up with a lot of my fans and in front of the world.
I felt liberated during and after my fourth album, Rabbits On The Run. Since Rabbits, my records have become more expansive, and there’s a sense of freedom to them. The audacity to try that idea of letting go, it’s scary. It feels like you’re stepping off a cliff when you’re really just walking through an open door.
How do you #getinthegroove?
It’s such a multitude of things, I think. You don’t want to create too much of an inner tourniquet, because then there’s too much pressure, which is difficult for me. I think it’s simple. I need a good night’s sleep, not be hungover the next day, and wake up in the morning refreshed. My best stuff comes to me in the morning, but there have been times where it’s been late at night. I think it’s also about letting your art be terrible and amazing, then you can go back to refine it. I think it’s rather a flow than a groove for me—it’s being kind to yourself and your work. It’s not judging the things that naturally pour out of you.