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Vanessa Carlton Talks About Why She Doesn't Identify as a Pop Star 

Wednesday, Jan 13 2016
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Surely you've heard Vanessa Carlton's chart-topping debut single, "A Thousand Miles." With its piano over a string orchestra, "A Thousand Miles" was the song of 2002 (or, as Billboard magazine called it, "the most enduring song of the millennium"). It's been sampled and covered by dozens of artists and played in the backgrounds of so many television shows and movies that it's hard to count. The point is: It's a catchy, infectious song that not only launched Carlton's career, but has stuck around throughout the past 14 years.

And yet it sounds nothing like the music Carlton is making today. Liberman, her fifth (and latest) album, is a folksy, mellow indie-pop project that was preceded by 2011's similarly left-field album, Rabbits on the Run. While on tour for the new project, Carlton took time to chat with SF Weekly about her newfound sound, recent life changes (she moved to Nashville, got married, and had her first child), and why she no longer identifies as a "pop star."

You recently moved to Nashville. How are you liking it?

Oh, I love it. It's where I want to raise my family. And it's also such a vibrant community of artists. We live in a little bungalow, built in 1938, that has a yard. It's definitely old. It actually needs a new roof.

You've been touring since last fall and you'll continue touring until early February. What's that been like?

This tour is unlike any tour I've ever done. It's probably the longest tour I've done in years and years. This is also the first time I've ever toured with a baby. My daughter is 11 months old, and you know, I'm trying to figure out how to make that work because family is my priority. I only decided to tour and really promote this record because I knew it would work to a certain degree where my husband and baby can come out and visit me every week or two weeks. At any given moment on the road, there's like a baby and a dog and my husband in the van with us all. It's certainly a unique situation.

You've been making music since you were a teen. When did you realize that music was what you wanted to do?

My mom's a pianist and a piano teacher and would have group lessons at our house, so I was always around the piano since I was like 2. I just started playing soon after that and never stopped playing. It was something I did for fun. I was very much into doing ballet, too, but music was always just a part of my life.

I started recording demos of songs when I was 16 or 17. Like, my dad would help me out. I think the turning point for me was when I was 16, and I started to really not get along with one of my ballet teachers. I was living in New York, attending the school of American Ballet, and this one teacher, I just couldn't stand to be in her class anymore. I would skip that class and instead, I would write music because there was a piano in our dorm. So I would say that that was definitely a turning point. And then I got a publishing deal when I was 19, and I got signed soon after that to a major label.

What's the story behind the album's name?

Liberman is my grandfather's real name, but he was always Grandpa Li to me. I didn't realize Liberman was his actual name. He changed it when he got back from [World War II] because of anti-semitism. Aside from me wanting to bring to light my family's real name, it was more about a painting [he created]. He was a painter and he loved huge murals, and there was this one painting that my grandmother finally gave to me about 10 years ago. I wrote much of this album in New York before I moved to Nashville, and that's where this painting was hanging. Where it hangs, if you sit at the piano, you basically get lost in this painting. And the thing about his work is he's a very traditional painter in terms of his technique, like he can paint beautiful hands and feet, but his palette is very unusual. Very psychedelic. I realized I was kind of writing this music that felt like this painting. It was such a strong family name that we always hid, so I just thought it really made sense to call the whole body of work Liberman.

How does Liberman differ from your previous records?

It's very different from the music that I made in the beginning of my career when I was marketed as a pop star. I felt pressured to follow along those lines. I thought, "Okay, well, I guess that's who I am." And that was fine when I was like 20 years old. "I'm just the songwriter, so the way that the producer chooses to produce it and create all the sounds, I guess that has nothing to do with me," is what I thought. But, of course, that's not true. I was just a passenger during that time. I'm not regretting it or am angry at anyone about it, but I have to admit that I was definitely not holding the reins there. And I think I was very confused.

I'm guessing you don't consider yourself a pop star anymore.

I'm not a pop star. It's not the type of music I ever really wanted to make, but it's just what ended up happening. When I left the major label system in 2009, that's when I started to shift into exploring the sounds I've always wanted to explore. And as I grew up, I had more confidence to really create an album as a whole body of work and sound, and to create all of that the way that my instincts led me to, without having any sort of commerce or business angle affect my aesthetic, which I had let happen for many years.

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Jessie Schiewe

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