You probably remember Vanessa Carlton, girlish and doe-eyed, playing a piano atop a moving truck on a dirt highway, that spellbinding riff from "A Thousand Miles" playing over and over in your head long after the song had ended. That was 2001.
Now, sixteen years later, with five records under her belt, after struggles with drugs and alcohol, Vanessa has long left that polished pop-princess look behind. A recent album, 2015's Liberman, is a bold and refreshingly raw ethereal concept LP. It focuses on cautionary tales of love and loss, and includes poetic paeans to the themes of self-healing and renewal. Since then, she's released two live albums, Liberman Live and Earlier Things Live, which cement Vanessa's range as a formidable performer.
Recently, I got to catch up with Vanessa in between stops of her current tour. Vanessa and I went to the same Montessori school in the Catskills, and while we're a decade apart, there are remnants of a shared childhood experience. Her mother, a classically trained pianist, was my piano teacher, and Vanessa is still a friend of my sister's. We talked about Stevie Nicks, her response to the Cam'ron track "10,000 Miles," and why it wasn't the best idea to hire her then-boyfriend to produce her second album.
Jillian Scheinfeld: Your mother was a piano teacher. What role did she play in the carving of yourself as a musician? What was it like to grow up with such a strong-minded woman in your life?
Vanessa Carlton: I think it's really a touchy [subject when] your mother [is] teaching you a craft. I think she was a great piano teacher because she never cared about the little things. It was always about the overall performance of the piece. You play, you make a mistake, you keep going. I would improvise on some Mozart sonatas, or a Greek piece, taking it to another place entirely, and she would never correct me. That was super-important to me, supporting my desire to explore different sounds that weren't on the page. So, in that way, I think she had a profound impact on my creative life.
But outside of that, she's incredibly intense and very stubborn. We've had major growing pains — as mothers and daughters have — and we've arrived at a really good place. Once I had my baby, I was able to channel a lot of empathy for my mother and start to imagine what she was like when she was in her twenties and got married to my father, who was a pilot, and they didn't have much money. She set up this amazing life for herself and her kids as a working mother. She's very progressive. I agree with a lot of [the decisions she made throughout the years] now that I'm a mother. But it took me some time to get here.
JS: Considering the overall instability of today's world,what's most important for you to teach Sid, your two-year-old [with Deer Tick's John McCauley]?
VC: The most important thing now and what is breaking my heart daily is the lack of empathy that emanates from the administration. I think the most important thing is awareness of how other people live and the awareness that we don't live in a bubble. All human beings crave the same things and need the same things, and we all do better when we connect. I hope for her to be a really ethical woman and know where she stands in this world. I hope she has that inner confidence that will lead her to feel like she can really explore and push herself. As my mother says, in her thick Jewish-mom-from-Queens-accent, "Vanessa, you're here to make the world a better place." And that's the whole point, really. Because that's what makes us all feel better. When you give, you feel better. And that's just the way it is.