JamRoom Diaries: Don’t Call Vanessa Carlton Your “Honey”
If labels are your thing, you can take your pick for Vanessa Carlton: singer, dancer, instrumentalist, mother, wife, daughter, performer, icon, animal lover, etc. She’s also a role model, although her modesty would probably make her cringe when reading this. But it’s true; by just in doing her thing, ie. touring her fifth studio album Liberman as well as Earlier Things Live, she’s actively fighting the concept that you can’t have it all, a topic that often comes up for women after they’ve had children. She’s still very much working, and seems to have no plan of slowing down anytime soon.
Milk.xyz shot the touring artist in the legendary JamRoom, where we spoke to her about life on the road, what it’s like coming back to New York, and a few labels you shouldn’t call her.
I know you used to live here before you moved to Nashville. When did you move to New York and when did you leave?
I moved here when I was 13. I was a ballet dancer, so I went to The School of American Ballet. I lived in the dorm. I quit when I was 17. I also went to high school here. I went to college for a little, and then I started playing gigs in the city when I was 17.
You went to college in NY too?
Yes, to Columbia. But I dropped out of that too [laughs]. I ended up moving from Hell’s Kitchen to downtown, into Chinatown. But I moved out. Actually, I’m a landlord now. I rent out my apartment. So I lived in NY for 20 years, but I’m originally from Pennsylvania.
Did you find New York to be conducive to being an artist? I feel like it’s a little two-sided because there’s so much culture happening here but it’s expensive as hell.
See, that’s our generational gap right there talking, because I completely agree with you now, but not then. In 1993, 1994, it was different. You could afford to live here and figure out what kind of artist you wanted to be. And now you can’t really do that…if you want to get a great internship, who is going to pay your rent? Or you have to do the commute. But I will say people find a way; it’s just different now. I don’t know. I don’t live here anymore, so only you would know now.
What’s it like coming back to New York now? Is the vibe totally different?
Well, this is my favorite city in the world. I’m a mom now, too. I have a two-year-old. I look at New York differently now. I look at it as like…she can get lost on any corner, on any sidewalk, at any moment, you know? She loves New York too, so we come and visit, but I experience it completely different being a mom. I also feel like whatever that hustle you’re in when you’re trying to create stability in your life living in New York, I don’t have that anymore. I have that stable home life. I’m just out of that game, you know? So it feels good. I can just enjoy things. You can just enjoy.
Does your daughter come with you while you’re on tour?
She was on tour with me last year when Liberman first came out. She was nine months old then. And I tour in a sprinter van; it’s not like, luxurious. I’m not in a private jet and/or a tour bus even, but it worked because she slept so much, and then she could deal with the four hour drives, but now? No way. So my husband John [McCauley], who is in a band called Deer Tick, they just finished their record…they don’t tour till fall. So the way we do it is we just never tour at the same time and whoever is on tour leaves the baby with the other.
Did your music or writing change at all when you became a parent?
I just started writing actually, because with Liberman, the majority of the album was written before I had the baby. Some of it was recorded when I was pregnant and I didn’t write one song song till about last summer. So I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. But honestly, to be a mother and an artist at the same time, I feel like there has been no setback. Women or people in general feel like, “Oh well, I can’t do it anymore, I have to be a mom.” I want to be an example for my daughter, and if anything, I feel a greater curiosity to explore within my work. So that’s interesting. I didn’t know that would happen. And frankly, to be away from her, it better be worth the time it takes. So every show is better because I’m like, I’m not going to waste this night. I’m away from my baby; it better be good. Even with press stuff and everything, I’m like, well let me think this through and see if it’s really worth the time. And like, of course, I’m very lucky that this is my work and I have these opportunities, but it really makes you value your time more.
I think I’m at the point where I see the value of connection and the reveal and the story.
Are you more drawn to performing live and live albums opposed to the studio and cutting process?
I left the major label system in 2008. I was one of those artists that did not do well in those systems, and the first record that sounded like me, in my opinion, was Rabbits on the Run, this record I funded that came out in 2011. So this is technically my second record outside of the system even though I’m 36 now. Late, late bloomer.
But Liberman was your fifth, technically?
Yes, yes exactly. So when I’m out of that machine, I’m a different artist, because I get to explore the way that I want to. I’m not surprised that my first live album didn’t happen until now. I think I’m finally ready for people to hear who don’t go to the shows have no idea what I sound like. They think I sound like that girl from 2002. It’s like, they have no idea. It’s a good representation of where I am now. I don’t sound like Minnie Mouse squeezed through 50 million autotunes or something. And to be honest, it was my manager’s idea to do it because he really liked the tour last year.
Do you have more freedom now that you’re not signed to a major label?
I’m on a great independent label now called Dine Alone Records. But when you’re in the machine of being sold as a piano pop girl…there are artist who I think would do well in it and there are artist that wouldn’t, and I just was not…it just wasn’t my thing.
Do you feel an added layer of vulnerability with your live record?
I think I’m at the point where I see the value of connection and the reveal and the story. People want to know your strengths and your weakness. I have no ego left because of what my experiences have been. I want the show to be great, but I’m not so in my own head like, oh my god, is this going to work? Is this how I want to come across? It’s more about the connection and I don’t want to overthink it anymore.
How do you gauge success on a specific project?
My favorite this is working in the studio. I got to work with Steve Osborne–you should look him up–he’s an incredible producer who came up in Trident studios in London, and he’s produced for huge bands like U2, B-52’s, etc. I tracked him down and I was sending him my little crappy garage band demos, and this was after my third major label record, and I didn’t want him to know who I was. I didn’t want anyone to have any preconceived notion about what I’m going to sound like or what I’m suppose to sound like. I’m just going to send him this. And he was into it. I learned so much from that man. We got to do two albums together and just rewrite my story with me, and I feel so lucky to work with him. I will say the way that I got my new record deal too, my manager and I submitted Liberman with no name on it and sent it to some labels, and they didn’t know it was me. It was really important to me.
Everyone has their own form of prejudice that they’ve experienced in their lives, unless you’re some white guy in the middle of the country, then you think you own the world, but if you’re not…everyone has to deal with it. Try and be elegant.
We’re just getting out of Women’s History Month. Do you have any advice on how women should be supporting one another?
I think it’s important to always focus on what kind of presence you want to have in the world, even in the smallest context, even like in a room. It’s like when you feel attacked, insecure, and you’re most defensive. Women can not be themselves. Like, I was in an Uber driving here and the driver called me “honey” so many times…I don’t even think I called him sir, because I was so annoyed and overtired at that point. I was like, “You know what? I’m just not ‘honey.’” And I didn’t even tell him my real name because I just didn’t even want to engage anymore. And it’s funny, because I was traveling with my dog and he was like, scared of the dog, but I’m his ‘honey,’ you know? Things like that. You know, they don’t get me down, and I think it’s partially how I was raised. My mother is a beast. She’s a Jewish woman from Queens…like, you try to mess with that woman and…like, she is in charge. Everyone has their own process with it; many women who have been assaulted, it takes so much recovery. It takes so much to get balanced in your brain again, and some never do. I think it’s so important to have conversations with your friends with your fellow women, like real conversations, not “Oh, what’s she wearing? What makeup are you using?” You know, not the topical stuff, to connect. Everyone has their own form of prejudice that they’ve experienced in their lives, unless you’re some white guy in the middle of the country, then you think you own the world, but if you’re not…everyone has to deal with it. Try and be elegant.
Words to live by.