Vanessa Carlton got the songwriting bug at age 8: “I had just seen Amadeus,” she says. “I think I wanted to be the madman writing notes out under the wax-dripping candelabra.” We asked the former ballet dancer about her new album Rabbits On The Run, her evolution as an artist, and what it’s like to read your own reviews.
You recorded Rabbits in Peter Gabriel’s studio. How did it compare to other studios you’ve been in?
Real World was an all encompassing sort of experience, similar to a retreat. It’s an old mill, built in the 1700s, I think. The studios are mostly stone and wood, and the gear that Steve Osborne had in his room was killer. It’s a mystical and intense and lovely place. There are wood burning fireplaces and stone pathways and a lady that cooks you eggs in the morning… I mean I had no idea a place like this could exist. At the end of the day it’s just you and the what you are creating. Silence.
You’ve been making music for years, and you’ve probably read a lot of reviews about yourself. How do they affect you?
A couple weeks before Rabbits came out Kerri my publicist got a review she wanted to share with me… we had just started working together so she didn’t know my rule about NO REVIEWS. I got it on my Blackberry while on line at Whole Foods and I thought my head was gonna explode. It was good but i can’t handle the extreme emotions i feel about ‘em. To be honest I have looked at the reviews on this record and they’ve been the best I’ve ever gotten in my career. Perhaps my rule is bendable under certain circumstances!
Tell us about the inspiration for the song “I Don’t Want To Be a Bride.”
That song is about giving yourself permission to custom carve out what love means to you. I’ve heard a couple women singing songs about wanting to get married, but what about the other side of the spectrum? This song was very difficult to write because I had to admit to myself what I really want. I just turned 31 and i feel like I’m stepping into the most exploratory and solid stage of my life. Usually around this time women get crushed with pressure to lock something down. Again I hope this song gives women permission to breath a little.
How and when did you start writing songs?
I wrote my first instrumental piece when i was 8… I wrote it out into sheet music and everything. I had just seen Amadeus; I think I wanted to be the madman writing notes out under the wax-dripping candelabra. That first song was about a rain storm and a waterfall, but there were no words. I started writing songs with lyrics when i was 16. I was at the School of American Ballet by then.
What was your early stuff like? Was it good?
No. I mean, I think some of the melodies weren’t bad. I think you could tell that I have some sort of ear for a hook but lyrically it was… ugh, I don’t even wanna go there. Just regurgitating what I heard on the radio… not at all close to something that’d be deemed poetry or the truth. Honestly most of the lyrics i wrote before 23/24-ish make me cringe. I’m like d’oh! Why?! It’s just not honest.
Who are some of the artists that inspired you to start writing?
Rilke, Stevie Nicks, English teachers over the years, John Steinbeck and my mother.
What comes easier for you — melody, or lyrics?
Melody. They carve themselves out very quickly in my brain. I take way more time with the lyrics nowadays. I don’t want to waste words or settle for filler. Just cause it sounds like a lyric doesn’t mean it should be. When I hear Tom Petty, Tom Waits or Johnny Cash or Stevie Nicks I know exactly what they mean. There philosophies are so strong, the vibe, what the message is. Clarity. Also, I try not to allow myself to generalize. I believe the heart of a story lies in the details…the searing details… and no cliches. I’ve definately written enough lyrics about walking on water… oh, and that song about the sky? 17 feels like another lifetime!
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
The lyrics in “Get Good” came in one fell swoop. “Are the echoes coming back to you….is wisdom seeing patterns on a loom….like a blanket around you.” There’s a line in the chorus that goes “Don’t you worry you’ll soon be on the mend. That’s no trick, that flicker of radiance.” Which is a response to Black Rook in Rainy Weather by Sylvia Plath. “Get Good” was inspired by an essay my cousin wrote and is specifically for a friend who was contemplating a divorce.
Any interesting real life stories behind the songs on the album?
I was having some serious health problems when I started writing this record. I had handed myself over to western doctors and it was a mistake. The song “Hear the Bells” is the story of a person navigating their recovery, and making many stops along the way… angry winter walks through the city, meditating in a church cemetery, floating on the sea with lots of wine in you in Costa Rica, finding a Chinese witchdoctor… until you realize the remedy was pretty much there all along. Though I still float on seas and I boil my Chinese herbs every morning.
What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters?
Nourish your curiosity and never write for the radio.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Who’s To Say.” It’s a song about defending your choices and who you are in the face of judgement. Everyone seems to like A thousand miles. It came on the radio the other day and i didn’t recognize myself. My voice has changed so much.