Vanessa Carlton

by Dan MacIntosh

It was 2002 when we first heard Vanessa Carlton with her debut single "A Thousand Miles," which thanks to the movie White Chicks is often thought of as a white girls' anthem. Her album Harmonium followed in 2004 and Heroes & Thieves was released in 2007. Now she's back with Rabbits on the Run, which was influenced by two very different books: Richard Adams' Watership Down and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

Along her musical journey, Carlton has always written her own songs and challenged conventional beliefs. On Rabbits, she has a song called "I Don't Want To Be A Bride," where she wonders why little girls are taught to dream of marital bliss. Turning 30, she felt it was time to write an empowering song from a different perspective.

Carlton is that fortunate songwriter who receives songs in her dreams - which almost always disappear before they can be recorded. Her song "Carousel," however, was captured in the middle of the night thanks to Garage Band. We spoke with Vanessa about this fateful dream, how Peter Gabriel's scenic recording studio helped the creative process, and how she feels about what the Wayans brothers did to her song.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): When I saw the title of your album, I thought about John Updike with Rabbit, Run. And then I read that some of the songs were inspired by Watership Down and A Brief History of Time. And thinking about that, I couldn't think of two more different books. So maybe you can explain to me what you found in common in those to inspire some of the songs on this album?

Vanessa Carlton: Yeah. I've had people tell me that. It's so funny. I'm like, well, you have to cover the whole section, right, between those two books? I have all the Updike books - he's probably pulling from the same kind of root, in a sense, with so many mythological and symbolic attachments to the rabbit. So I find that is a symbol in a lot of different artists' work. Philosophically there's a thread through both of them that really was like the golden thread for me through this project, through these stories, through this message. But Watership Down is like mythological to me. And I connect with both emotionally - I have an emotional reaction to A Brief History of Time.

But Watership Down was more like kind of the emotional bible, and I did carry it around like it was a bible. But before that it was Brief History of Time, because the thing with A Brief History of Time and all of the pain, I was struggling a lot personally with a lot of things crumbling and a lot of chaos, and turned to that book, and that kind of got me through it. That was in conjunction with therapy. But that book made me understand things and crystallize things in a way that I was never able to do before.

And so I think that was kind of the preface to Watership Down for me; those two books ended up being kind of the anchor for this entire project.

Songfacts: You did a good job of bringing those together. I commend you.

Vanessa: A lot of people could tie them in many different ways, but this is just the way that I did. Just the way that I personally connected to both.

Songfacts: Your song "A Thousand Miles" was used in the movie White Chicks, of all movies, which kind of surprised me. It doesn't seem like the kind of place where I would expect to hear your music. How do you feel about having your song used in that film?

Vanessa: I thought it was hilarious.

Songfacts: So you got a kick out of it?

Vanessa: Yeah. I mean, those guys are really nice, too. I ran into them backstage or something, and they asked me if they could use it. They're like fans, they're so cute. But the scene that was in was hilarious.

Songfacts: How do you feel about having your song be kind of a white girls' anthem? Are you okay with that?

Vanessa: Yeah. I mean, if you've seen it, that's not the message of it. That is not the way that they plug it in the film. If you see it, it's actually the secret song of that big, black dude in the SUV, it's like his jam. But the irony is that people associate it with a white girl playing the piano. It's like his secret jam, so it's able to push through all of those micro genres and you can't profile who's going to like the song. That's what they were displaying in that scene. And I really liked that a lot.

Songfacts: And who knows, it might have even made you more popular with African-American listeners.

Vanessa: Dude, I mean, I love it. When I think of a music listener or a fan of mine, or followers of mine, I don't even think in those terms. I feel like music is just so human. The more the merrier.

Songfacts: I noticed that you recorded Rabbits on the Run at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, which must have been amazing. Had you been there before? And what were your impressions and your experiences of recording there?

Vanessa: I've never been there before. I didn't know it existed. And it was like, mind-blowing. Because for me, personally, being in nature, being in that special kind of countryside and creating this music, being able to record in a studio that has some of the best vintage gear in the world, like, in the middle of the shire, my ideal situation. So that was absolutely wonderful and inspiring. And it's a bit isolated, so I think it's the most productive I've ever been. Your ideas are really crystallized because of the environment - you're just so focused. And it's stunningly beautiful, the land there is very special, and Peter Gabriel obviously understands how certain artists like to work. He's created something that is totally bewitching. And I hope that place never goes anywhere, because it is truly, truly special.

Songfacts: Did it change any of the songs, do you think, from how you originally considered them, and then when you took them into that studio?

Vanessa: That's an interesting question. I think you're always affected by environments. It was just the ideal environment to do pure... I call it arts and crafts, because it's when you're not judging yourself when you create. When you do arts and crafts, you're just creating. And that's what we were doing in the loft at Real World. And it enables that. Before I started this record with (producer) Steve (Osborne), it was a meticulously planned record. It's like the bones are there. It's meticulously laid out how we put these bones together. And then, because it is so clear in your mind with what you want it to sound like, then you have this freedom that you give yourself to just play with different paints, because it's so clear to you what you're creating.

Songfacts: Was it your best recording experience?

Vanessa: Yeah. It was unlike anything I've ever been a part of before. I ache for it, I wish it wasn't over. Personally, I feel more vibrant because of the experience, so I hope that everyone that worked on it maybe took away something like that, made a friend for life, and for me it's an honor to even be able to have created it and now I'm humbled that people want to hear it.

Songfacts: I have a little girl at home and it seems like every girl I've ever met wants to be a bride and dreams about her wedding. And yet you have a song called "I Don't Want To Be A Bride." Explain that song.

Vanessa: It's funny, because... well, I guess it's not funny. But the little girl wanting to get married, I mean, where do you think that comes from? Does that come from society? No, I don't think pop culture - does pop culture get to a 7-year-old about wanting to be a bride? Maybe. Mostly it comes from the mother.

Songfacts: And did you not get that from your mother?

Vanessa: Not really. I don't think she's thrilled about the song, to be honest. But I have yet to hear a song that represented that point of view and that kind of female philosophy. Which, I believe is very optimistic, it totally is subscribing to a great love. I absolutely believe that, and I also support people that want to get married. That's totally your prerogative and I have met a few couples that have wonderful marriages. This is the way that I feel. And it's not very popular. (laughing) I hear a lot of the male side, from the male point of view, you know, I don't want to settle down. Not ready to settle down. It's different, it's not anti-settling.

Songfacts: Right. It expresses a place in life, right?

Vanessa: Yeah, and this kind of buzz of anxiety that surrounds a lot of women when you hit a certain age - about marriage - I wish that didn't exist. And I understand the whole pregnancy situation with women where if you want to have a child, you only have so much time. But you still can wait to your early 40s, you still could figure something out. I think it's a bit unfair, because I think it shuts down a lot of women in their most exploratory phase of their life. I mean, I just turned 30 and I can't even tell you how much more curious I am - I'm more curious now than I've ever been.

Songfacts: That's good to hear, especially for an artist.

Vanessa: Thank you. I'll work on it. You gotta keep watering that one.

Songfacts: Well, because it's easy to get jaded, right? Especially being the music business, to get jaded about life, right?

Vanessa: Jaded about music would be such a tragedy. But I think I did, actually. I mean, maybe it did happen to me a couple of years back. Yeah. I think it manifested itself with me, actually, physically, I was really sick. But I pulled through that one.

Songfacts: Let's talk about the single. The single's "Carousel." What can you tell me about that song, how did that come about?

Vanessa: The only song I've ever written in a dream that sounded great in the morning.

Songfacts: Really?

Vanessa: Yep.

Songfacts: So did you dream about a carousel?

Vanessa: No. It's simple, I mean, let's go back to what happened. I'll tell you what happened. It was good, it was really simple, because the (singing), "da na na na na," it's like a scale, it's a scale. And it was like I woke up with a feeling more than the words. But I had the scale and I had the rhythm of the chorus, which is like you're resting on the one note. It was like 3:30, I'd woken up, and I went out to the piano and just recorded it quickly on my Garage Band, the piano part - I have no idea how I remembered it. So I just played that and then I went back to bed. And now the words started coming, the vibe of the song lyrically, it was all coming. And I wrote it all down in the dark in my Blackberry.

We spoke with Vanessa on May 17, 2011. Get more at
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Sean Michael from Prosser Wa.just heard Carousel for the first time it's so good! Nice article also.
  • Shawn from MarylandVanessa, if you ever read this, I just want to say that I'm really impressed with you as an artist and your piano playing ability.
    Back in 2002-3, I was driving at night in my car and I heard an interview you did with John Garabeadian(?) on a coast to coast radio program called "Open House Party." You played a little bit of "1,000 miles" right there on the air live. Just the piano part. I was impressed. And, I do have "Be Not Nobody." :)
  • Starly from NiytqtpmA million tnhkas for posting this information.
see more comments

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