Vanessa Carlton on being exploited as a 22-year-old pop star: 'I didn't have any control'

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With her emotive voice and piano prowess, Vanessa Carlton became an alt-pop princess almost over night. She was 22 years old, and the first single off of her first album, "A Thousand Miles," was played everywhere in 2002 and nominated for three Grammys. And it made Vanessa Carlton a household name.


But it also trapped her. Vanessa Carlton had to leave the pop game to find herself.

Since then, she's gotten married, had a baby, and produced two albums more haunting and beautiful than any of her early work. Last week, I talked to Carlton about how she's evolved as an artist and her fifth studio album Liberman.

Your new album Liberman sounds really different than your early work. Do you feel like you have more control over your sound now than you did when you were a younger artist?

You know, I honestly think it’s very much about becoming a more confident artist. When I started, I didn't really know what was happening. I was thrown into this machine of an operation at a very early age. There was so much marketing. There were so many people that were part of the project of making the album. I became part of this whole earthy pop star marketing thing. I was very much a passenger on that bus.

As much as I ‘d like to think I helped make decisions, at the end of the day I really didn’t have any control over what was being done.

It took me years to fall out of that. I probably should never have been there in the first place, but I don’t have any regrets about doing it. Many people don’t ever have a hit song, and I'm really grateful to have had one.  But I had to start over for sure. It’s a combination of getting older and honing back into your antennas again. Asking yourself: What do I want to make now that I can make anything I want?


And then, at that point, you’re 28 years old, and if you’re gonna make another record, you should get to really do what you want. I did that on this album.

Do you think that part of the way you were treated had to do with you being a young woman?


It totally did. My first boss was so involved in what I wore, and my weight, and this and that. It was ridiculous. At a certain point, I understand. But there were many many situations where I felt very exploited and I don’t think if I were a man that would have happened. I’ve certainly gone through my own versions of harassment in this industry.


But what women haven’t? You have to be super on point as a woman in that side of the industry. Especially for women in pop music. It’s really hard for them, I think. You become more this weird vehicle for people. I’m out of that now on the indie side, and maybe I’m just oblivious but over here I feel totally equal.

I’m going into my career on my own terms. I’m not asking for people to think I’m sexy and beautiful. I'm just trying to make work I believe in.


How did you decide what you wanted Liberman to sound like?

The precursor for this record was an album called Rabbits on the Run, and that was my first collaboration with Steve Osborne. For sure Liberman would not have happened without that collaboration with Osborne because we had made this song called "Hear the Bells," and  I was like, “Okay, I wanna go deeper down into that world of sound.”


We made a mood board. We wanted it to have feelings of euphoria, to be haunting. And we really wanted things to be pared down as well.

I couldn’t afford to fly people out; to have studio musicians come out and help me record this album. There’s no way I could have made that work, and it wasn’t just the money. It was such an intense process sound wise to figure it out that I don’t think we could have had a bunch of extra people involved in [the album's] creation.


The majority of this record was just him and me in the studio turning things inside out and reversing things. It can drive a person mad. But once you can commit to a palate, things get easier.

I know this album was finished before you had a baby, but do you feel like becoming a parent has changed the way you view your work?


It has. The baby came after the majority of the record was done. I didn't know much about babies before I had one. But I feel like you can’t help but just exist in the moment because you have to be present for your baby. And a baby makes you present. They’re so pure. I can’t think too far in my past. I can’t anticipate the future. It just makes me more solid in the moment that I’m in. That’s the best headspace that you can be in to create art and be on the stage. You’re not thinking about something that happened an hour ago. You're right there in the moment.

[My daughter] loves music. When I'm on stage, I immediately go back into a really tranquil space where I imagine her just sitting on the stage with me. A place that’s just present and I’m wanting to give her something that she loves.


I feel really good. I feel like this is where I should be. It’s one of my most favorite tours I’ve ever done.

Vanessa Carlton's newest album Liberman was released in October 2015. You can listen to it here, and purchase it here.  You can buy tickets to the Liberman tour here.


Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.