If you haven't heard much about Vanessa Carlton, you're about to start. A few short weeks ago, she was a lot like your average 21-year-old -- only she had a record deal on a major label. Her debut Be Not Nobody was in the can, and the singer/songwriter/pianist was eagerly awaiting its release. "I'm counting down the days," she said at the time. Now that the record is in stores, the word is out about this hugely talented -- but amazingly grounded -- artist.
Reared in an artsy household in rural Pennsylvania, Vanessa took to music at an early age: 2! After a family trip to Disneyland, the open-eared toddler plunked out the melody to "It's a Small World" on the piano, and things just took off from there. Vanessa's mom, a piano teacher, helped nurture her daughter's gift by familiarizing her with the work of great classical composers like Mozart and Bach. At the same time, Vanessa was allowed the freedom to play around and make up her own little ditties, which laid the groundwork for her writing the original songs on Be Not Nobody.
Soon, though, ballet eclipsed music as the dominant art form in young Vanessa's life. At 14, she moved to New York City and enrolled in a performing-arts high school. But the pressure of the competitive environment got the best of her, and she quit dancing at 17, just before turning pro. In a devastating and confusing time, music was the healing force that helped Vanessa pick herself up and dust herself off. "Music reminded me of who I was and what I was capable of doing," she says. As she reacquainted herself with her old pal the piano, songs -- not just notes and chords, but for the first time words as well -- flowed out of her.
Vanessa began honing her material in New York clubs while supporting herself as a waitress, and soon A&M Records came calling. After holing up in the studio to record the poppy yet reflective Be Not Nobody, she started generating some serious buzz. With a wildly successful performance on TRL, an appearance on Rolling Stone's "The Next Wave, 10 Artists to Watch" list and a clever video for the single "A Thousand Miles" that found Vanessa and her piano gliding down the street past bikers, joggers and horses, she was taking the world by storm.
In a conversation two weeks before the release of Be Not Nobody, Vanessa sounded calm and composed -- but her life was about to change drastically.
How did you pick Be Not Nobody as the title for your debut?
It popped into my head in a dream. I was searching for a title and I went to bed one night and woke up with it. It's definitely a declaration of independence, but it's a very subconscious title. Even though "be not nobody" doesn't really make sense -- it's obviously a double negative -- it makes so much sense to me.
Since you essentially had 21 years to make your first record, was it difficult to choose which of your songs to include?
It was hard because I've grown a lot since some of these songs have been written. There's an innocence to some of them that I don't think I'll ever capture again, just because they're the first songs I ever wrote. But they belong. I looked at the album as a body of work, and whatever fit, fit. What didn't is on the back burner, ready for the next one.
Let's talk about the period around when you stopped dancing and really started writing songs. It must've been a painful time. Do you feel music saved you?
By the end of my last year of school I didn't know why I was dancing anymore and I couldn't even remember why I had started. That's the scariest thing in the world. And for my songs to creep up on me and for me to look at the piano as a warm, fuzzy little creature that wants me back, it's like, "Okay, things are cool again. This is all right -- this is what I'm supposed to be doing." Because when you're studying for years at something and everything falls apart like that, it's like an identity crisis. You're this artist and you fell in love with an art form that betrayed you in the sense that it lost you along the way.
How did things fall apart?
It's like you're ready to go to the Olympic trials and you drop out, just completely bail the night before the competition. It was pure fear, and at the same time not being supported at school and not being understood as an artist there. Plus, just trying to figure out who I am to begin with. Things fall apart in the way that they should, I suppose, and it really helped me so much, that year of being lost. It's hard to be a 17-year-old girl anyway, but it was quite a journey.
Is there a certain song on the record that you wrote in that period?
"Twilight" was a huge song for me because it represents me seeing who I am in a different way. It was me getting a new pair of eyes.
Do you have any favorites from Be Not Nobody?
It depends on my mood. That's why I'm so proud of the album -- there's something for whatever mood you're in. It can appeal to all corners of your head. There's some great, unique stuff on a track called "Prince." I love flutes and orchestras.
I really like "Rinse."
Yeah, "Rinse" is powerful for me. It's one of those songs that you kind of drown in. I love how hard and edgy it is.
Do you have a proven method for writing songs?
No. I don't even know how I write. I just sit at the piano and my hands start the process. [laughs]
Do you practice a lot?
I try to play as much as I can. I don't even consider it practicing, but when there's a piano in the room I have to sit at it. It's hard when I'm on the road because I only play the songs that I've already written. So it's really important that I set aside time where I can just zone out on the keys.
You played piano first, and only later did you start singing. It sounds like you kind of backed into singing your own stuff, like a lot of writers do.
Exactly. I mean, I'm a Leo -- there's no way I was gonna let someone else sing my songs. You're the one who's there, so you sing it. Once you do it you can't imagine it any other way.
Have you been performing a lot?
Lately I have, yeah. It's been a lot of promotional performing, which is not my favorite -- showcases for all the stiff executives and stuff. I really miss performing for the fans. I did a show the other day for 3,000 fans and it reminded me why I'm doing this.
I'm a performer, for sure. I've done a lot of gigging on my own -- the new part is playing with my band. I adore them. I have a group of guys that are just so talented, and I'm so proud of them. They totally get it.
The one song on the album that you didn't write is the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black." It's an interesting choice for a cover tune. Are you a Stones fan?
It depends on the song. I'm not a huge Stones fan. I love that song because it's creepy. I love it when things scare me. The melody is kind of Middle Eastern and really unique. I knew I'd have a perception of it that's all my own. I think that's the only way you get permission to do a cover -- if you really do a different take on a song.
Do you play that song in your show?
Yeah! It's great. I get to come out from behind the piano and do my thing.
Who are your main influences and favorite artists?
I'm mainly influenced by classical composers. When I sit at the piano, where my hands go is always inspired by the stuff I was taught when I was younger and that I still play: a lot of Mozart sonatas, Debussy, some Bach. And then there's my Pink Floyd obsession, which developed when I was four, thanks to my father. I love those soothing melodic vocal lines. I also have a special place in my heart for Bruce Hornsby.
I learned how to write a song from just listening to the radio. It was no artist in particular -- just learning the structure. People hear different things in my music all the time: Laura Nyro, Carole King and stuff. I don't really know those artists -- that's what's so weird. [laughs]
How do you feel right now, as your music is about to be presented to the world for the first time?
I'm jumping out of my skin. I've been working so hard on this. It's so funny -- people think that suddenly your life is completely different and you're a different girl. It's not that way. What changes is that a lot of people suddenly want things from you, whether it's your time, interviews or an autograph. And you know what? It's a privilege for me to be in the position that people care enough and people connect to the music enough that they want to know about me.
But at the same time you just have to remember who you are, and in many ways I'm the same girl I was when I was eight. It's all about maintaining perspective on all of it. You can't let it get out of control. I actually feel really humbled. It's weird -- when you're swimming in the glitter, it doesn't sparkle. You're just in it. I'm just trying to be a better songwriter. I haven't "arrived" anywhere.
Music itself is always humbling.
Yeah! There are so many options and so many places to go. I definitely don't feel like, you know, "Vanessa Carlton is now 'Diva It-Girl' who's made it."
Finally, what pearls of wisdom would you offer a young musician who's sitting in his or her bedroom right now, writing songs?
You have to be so confident in what you have to offer and who you are, and for kids that are starting to write songs -- and any young artist in general -- I would say give yourself as much time, even more time than you'd think, to get your mind together. Spend as much time as you can growing as an artist and just letting things simmer inside before you try to go public with anything. That's one thing that can get kind of messy, and that's when you might want to start compromising. That's the most dangerous thing to artists, I think.
So you were able to let your ideas ripen before presenting anything to the public?
I'm lucky that the album I was working on when I was 18 isn't the album that's being released now. I just wasn't ready. I'm not saying it would have been better or worse, it's just I know who I am more as a human being, and I think that makes your art better, more poignant. There are so many corners of your head that you'll never get into until you're older. You know what your message is a bit more.
Making this album was a journey for me to find myself and figure out who I am, and I'm still doing that.