Vanessa Carlton Paints a Sonic Landscape with ‘Liberman’

Thirteen years after the release of her single “A Thousand Miles,” Vanessa Carlton can finally say she’s figured out her musical style. However, in a phone interview with the Wheel, Carlton, who arguably may never escape the legacy of her breakout hit, didn’t seem fazed at the prospect of people not recognizing the songs on her latest album, Liberman.

Released on Oct. 23, Liberman is named after Carlton’s late grandfather, who created an oil painting that served as part of the visual inspiration for the album. The album features songs with a wistful, otherworldly sound, with Carlton’s vocals balancing delicately on top of her airy, raw instrumentals. And while the songs are certainly beautiful, haunting and fluid, they sound almost nothing like the pop sounds of Carlton’s earlier music, such as her debut album Be Not Nobody (2002).

With Carlton feeling like she’s finally following her “natural inclinations” when it comes to music, she seems more sure of her sound than ever. Liberman is a reflection of her own musical taste and is clearly evidence of her musical evolution and maturity. For Carlton, the time it took for her to reach a place where she could create Liberman seems to be worth the wait.

Carlton will be performing in Atlanta at Terminal West on Dec. 15. The Wheel spoke with her  about everything from specifics on the visual inspiration behind Liberman and the power of music to heal to handling social media and technology during the holidays.

Julia Munslow: With your new album release, many people are saying that you sound like a completely different artist. What kind of growth have you seen in yourself as an artist?

Vanessa Carlton: I think I’ve been working toward a record like this for many years, probably since 2010. It’s a continuation of a collaboration with Steve Osborne, an incredible producer [and] artist who lives in England [who] I was able to find. I sought him out for the record. I wanted to figure out how to be the type of sonic landscape in a record, more so than just a song, an instrumental (like one instrument being played and a voice singing). I wanted to create this mood and this dimension of sound and I had never been able to do it until I found Steve.

I will say that [the record] is a reflection of what my musical taste is, what my style is. It took me a minute to figure things out. I was very much in the pop lane and thinking that was what I was supposed to try and do for a while, but when you get older you get more mature in who you are, and I think that reflects in your art.

JM: You recorded part of the album in England, and part of the album in Nashville. What did each place, each studio and each producer contribute to the album?

VC: I think that a lot of the tones and the feeling of the record was kind of watery and just kind of slipped into the room, [and] that’s very Steve Osborne. He is a really unique artist and I think we worked really well together. [It’s] very much his style I think, [that] totally made Liberman what it is. But at the same time, I didn’t do the whole record with him. I ran out of time in England, it’s expensive to be there, [so] I only finished seven songs with him.

I still had to find a producer in the States to finish and my husband [John McCauley of the band Deer Tick] introduced me to Adam Landry, who is one of the best producers in Nashville, in my opinion. [He’s] very rock ‘n’ roll style, his studio is a garage turned into a studio and he’s known for getting live takes, getting everyone playing at the same time, [in a] really raw [way]. When I played him what I was trying to do, he totally got it and we were able to finish out Liberman. And I love that we were able to do it. I started it in England and ended it in Nashville, — it’s kind of a full circle.

JM: Because of an oil painting by your late grandfather, you chose his last name as the title of your most recent album, Liberman. Was the entire album inspired by the visual arts?

VC: The album is very visual. People [just] ask me about the painting, but I was really in the frame of mind when I was coming up with the mood board and concepts for the record. It was so visual — [I looked at] Georgia O’Keeffe stuff, but very geometric stuff, not her floral stuff at all.

She uses colors [that are also] in my grandfather’s painting that people know about. I think the reason that I ended up calling it Liberman aside from the fact that it was a family name I didn’t know we had (I didn’t realize it was our original name) is [that] the sound of the record is very much like the whirly colors in them.

You can make something sound a certain way based on what you’re looking at, there’s a sound to every object. I could write a little song about everything in my kitchen right now just instrumentally speaking.

JM: Were there any paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe that you were influenced by in particular?

VC: Yes, the white, it looks like a white triangle, it’s a white and black one. If you look at Georgia O’Keeffe [paintings], it’s the only one that has nothing to do with a flower. It’s just black and white, and it’s kind of this curved, white, clunky triangle.

JM: How is your more recent music in dialogue with your older music? How do they portray who you were as an artist then and who you are as an artist today?

VC: I mean they’re not really much in dialogue with each other at all, in a way. People who listen to my last two records or particularly my last record say it’s hard to even reconcile the two artists. But I played piano and wrote the songs [for both].

I think it’s a reflection of the revolution [as an artist]. You’re being an artist and figuring out your way in front of the world to a certain degree — not that the whole world is watching, but there is evidence of things I’ve tried to do, and it’s out there.

I think I was really packaged and sold as a pop artist way too young. I don’t think I should have ever been a pop artist. I naturally am not a pop artist; my natural inclination is to make the music I’m making now. So even to figure out these [things] took years. Some young artists are like my husband, for instance: he released his first record, he was 19 years old, and [that] was it. There is a self-awareness and this old, old, old thing going on [in his music] that’s like that will be there forever [in his work].

But I’m not one of those artists; I had to really figure it out — what is my sound here?

JM: In the album trailer, you talk about “music that feels like medicine.” What is the power of music to heal?

VC: It’s so uniting, this music. I think it has this effect on the brain, humans just respond to music in a certain way. In general, obviously, it’s very powerful and it can also have a very soothing effect.

I look at my daughter listen[ing] to music, and she’s 10 months old, and she already moves to it, she just has such a natural response. I think it’s how we all connect, really — through sound. I think, also, that what is so incredibly devastating is that one of the incredibly devastating acts of what happened in France was terrorizing art, it was terrorizing a theater and a band, and as a music lover, that’s really, really incredibl[y] devastating — very disturbing.

I find my music in really dark times. I hope that Liberman, perhaps, is an album that people can very easily turn to [in dark times].

JM: You recently announced on Facebook that you’re planning on taking a sort of leave of absence from your phone and from social media. What advice would you give college students about creating social media space for themselves, particularly around the holidays?

VC: The holidays are stressful for everybody. The holidays can be really joyful and great and magic and I think people want to get lost in their world and their escape. So many kids are just staring at their phones in family situations. I totally get it. I will say this — this is something that I will actively encourage in my daughter — there’s etiquette, there’s absolutely etiquette in how you incorporate technology into your life. Right now, we have no rules, it is just blown open and I think the generation of kids right now who are at school and even younger, their parents don’t really know what they’re doing. They are on the frontier of social media and I think a benefit to my generation — because I’m 35 — is that I, in my late teens and 20s, [had] no phone I was staring at, looking at pictures and constantly trying to reaffirm my security of a sort, which is what I think people kind of do.

I was able to experience not having it, and then it blew up, and of course I had my iPhone, too, and I’m all over [social media], I’m on Instagram finally, I get it. But I think that because I didn’t come up with it completely taking over my life, I am now able to step back easily from it. I think some other kids — their social lives [are] all online. And it’s not real life; it really isn’t real life. It’s almost like a drug and I think people could totally make rules for themselves, like, “I’m going to do one day a week.” … You can’t just receive a phone call from your mom or your brother, and then not get sucked into the rabbit hole of Twitter – that’s the issue. I will just say that you can pose rules for yourself and I think it will lead to a happier life.

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