Vanessa Carlton was a fading memory in the minds of ’90s kids everywhere, her name merely standing as an indication of the seminal classic, “A Thousand Miles.” From 2002 to 2005, Carlton’s sugary piano ballads filled the radio airwaves. These Billboard-topping hits, like “A Thousand Miles,” “White Houses,” and “Ordinary Day,” were a heavy load to bear for one so young. The fast fame swallowed her name and image with what she was most known for. In the media vacuum that this early success created, Vanessa should have lost control of her image. By now, she should have fallen off into some island of once-famous musicians.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Carlton recounted these early successes in a positive light: “It’s not all being measured up against some pop culture moment I had with a song I wrote when I was 16. Everyone has allowed me to grow.”
But with natural talent, hard work and a heavy concentration on individualistic musical stylings, Carlton disproved the stigma of the one-hit wonder pop star. Time away from the limelight paired with hours in international studios with renowned producers have helped her regain control on the reigns of her popularity.
Her 2011 album, Rabbits on the Run, was the beginning of these decisive changes. Rabbits on the Run, if nothing else, communicated with her audience and former fans that artistic changes were imminent. And in her 2015 effort, Liberman, Carlton swallows whatever former images the media has cast. Her reformed artistry is minimalist, elegant and a quieter kind. With Liberman, she’s not some pop star with three Top 40 hits that may or may not have dated John Mayer. Carlton has regained control over what she always was: a fantastic pianist with an ethereal voice who possesses an lyrical penchant for the lovelorn.
Named after Carlton’s grandfather, one of whose paintings of nudes hangs in the eyeline from the piano, Liberman was creatively nurtured by various forms of inspiration. Pulling from the “trippy colors of my grandfather’s painting” to the production styles of producers like Steve Osbourne to the mental space she was in at the time, Carlton was able to construct her most peaceful, minimalist, folk-inspired album.
“There’s something about being minimal and presenting just the essentials. I think that I had, in the past, come from a flamboyance,” Carlton said. “And I love dynamics in music and I think that we were still able to achieve that with Liberman, but I wanted the album to reflect where I was at. It had to be more peaceful.”
While still a little melancholy in the lyrics, Carlton uses her angelic voice and piano to create something that soothes. She describes the album as a “background sound album,” one that can delicately fill up the dead air of any backroom, bus, small gathering or late-night drink. And in this projected goal, Carlton undoubtedly succeeded. She produced half of Liberman with Steve Osbourne, a multi-platinum selling British music producer. Carlton, who loved his production stylings with the Doves, worked with Osbourne previously on Rabbits on the Run.
In describing her work with Osbourne, Carlton recounted the “incredible learning curve” that Osbourne initially presented.
“He is so incredibly talented,” Carlton said. “And I decided that I wanted to go further down this musical path with him. I wanted to go more into his sonic world.”
Specifically, Carlton praised Osbourne for helping her to harness her voice to assume a role as one of the most strongly featured instruments of the album. In this Osbourne-inspired endeavor, Carlton once again succeeded; songs like “Take It Easy” and “House of Seven Swords” reveal the intense prettiness of her refined vocal range.
In her live performance at The Blind Pig this past Saturday night, the effortless beauty of Vanessa’s talents were revealed. The minimalist stylings of the music, a sound so streamlined it was almost tangible, matched the nominal objects that decorated the stage: It was nothing but a piano, Carlton’s violinist and scattered lit candles. Silence spread through the crowd when Vanessa interjected some light commentary into her relatively short, hourlong set. The fans kept their beguiled eyes on Carlton for the entirety of the set, while whispered, light hummings of lyric repetition was a constant underlying sound in the packed Blind Pig.
Acoustic versions of “A Thousand Miles” and “White Houses” were undeniably enchanting for the crowd of college kids who had grown up with these radio hits. Carlton jokingly offered up some context for each of the songs as the peeled eyes and whispered voices fell back into love with this early 2000s sensation.
Carlton could be considered lucky: Very few early popstar one-hit wonders tend to resurface successfully or without great difficulty. Surely, Carlton experienced this stereotypical plight in some form, but she seems to have arisen as a stronger artist because of it. After years of allowing the media to nurture some false image of her, Carlton has built herself up, once again, with the same building blocks that had always remained: talent, depth, beauty and a determined vision for one’s craft. What was once stolen has now been won back, to be nurtured and expand upon once again, with far fewer Dr. Scholl’s jokes this time around.