Inside the Music with Vanessa Carlton

Interview with Vanessa Carlton

Vanessa Carlton is an American singer-songwriter and pianist who sprung to fame in 2002 with the infectious "A Thousand Miles"—the lead single from her debut album Be Not Nobody, which went platinum in the United States.

Vanessa Carlton recently collaborated with Hal Leonard to create The Best of Vanessa Carlton sheet music collection, featuring all of her most popular songs from 2002 to today. We caught up with her to find out about how she got started in music, her songwriting process, what's on her personal playlist, and more.

Download Vanessa Carlton sheet music.





Interview with singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Just starting from the beginning, at what age did you first become interested in music and the piano?

Vanessa Carlton ("V"): My mom was a piano teacher, so I was raised in a very musical household. She taught lessons out of our home and we had multiple pianos in the house.

I'm mostly classical trained, but I learned so much about the piano and music through Hal Leonard books, because my mother had a subscription. She taught us all these really cool, modern-day albums that we could attach our classical stuff that we were learning to. Songs that we knew on the radio or songs that our parents listened to. That was really the beginning for me. And then I started writing music on my own. I was like eight or nine writing little compositions and that started moving into songwriting when I was a teenager.



S: Very cool. When you say you started composing at eight or nine, what initially inspired you to start creating your own own songs?

V: Well, for me, I just hear melodies. And a lot of what was so interesting about the way I was trained and what I appreciate so much is that my mom, who was my teacher, would kind of let us find our way when we were making mistakes, not correcting right away. She’d say, "Oh, that's interesting. I heard it differently." And, not to take away from the integrity of the piece, but she would really support us in our little inventions. Turning mistakes into inventions. I think that was a big part of why I felt comfortable creating my own melodies.

   What I've learned as I get older is that songwriting takes constant reinvention, self-awareness, self-exploration."

S: That's awesome. And how do you approach songwriting? Is it a musical thing first or lyrics? Or does it just depend on the song?

V: First of all, I think what I've learned as I get older is that songwriting takes constant reinvention, self-awareness, self-exploration. I think to be willing to change up your process is key to so much in life. So for me, I started out with, "I kind of like the way these words sound with this melody." And it was sort of almost mimicry when I was first writing. The way I would learn was to mimic.

But then, as I've gotten older, I really wanted to focus more on lyric writing and not a wasted word. For me, that meant writing with other people at times—mainly this artist, Tristan, who I absolutely love. I just co-wrote my last record with her. But I’d never done that before. So, I think the process can change, but I mostly start with piano. I'd start with a melody. I start with different melodies and piece them together. The top line comes after, and then conceptually, the lyric can exist on its own sphere, away from the piano.

S: Excellent insights on songwriting. And, speaking of, congrats on your new album. I love it! I dig the theme about love and how it is the energy you put into the world. And the textures too—amazing textures!

V: The texture, I have to say, is from the master Dave Fridmann. I knew his aesthetic and his palette, and I must give him credit where credit is due for producing that.

S: I read that you worked on it for two years. Where did the inspiration come from?

V: Well, I started with a few songs and I had a concept in mind. And really a big part of my concept was wanting to collaborate with Dave Fridmann, who is a brilliant producer, arranger, and engineer. So for me, making a record now is just like pure fun arts and crafts, like: "OK, what is the concept going to be? What is the main meditation of the record? What should it feel like? Where do I want people to go when they listen to it? What do I want people to feel?"

Of course, these things you never know. But over the years I think I've gotten more dedicated to a concept. And then it allows me to have a framework to write within it. And then once Dave Fridmann signed on, it's very collaborative. It's very much like creating a recipe. I think that this person with their aesthetic, and this person with their aesthetic coming together, it's going to feel like this.

S: Fantastic. I just have to say, my personal favorite is "The Only Way to Love." That lyric: "I want to run, but I won't get very far 'cause I can't fight the force of my young beating heart" is literally stuck in my mind.

V: Yeah I think everyone knows that feeling, where they know they need to slow it down or use their head but they just can't fight their heart. Of course, sometimes this leads to major trouble lol.


S: Do you have a favorite song from the new album?

V: I feel like "The Only Way to Love" is definitely one of the main elements of that record. It embodies so much of what the album is. But also "I Can't Stay the Same," which is the first song. Again, this goes back to what I was saying about being willing to change your process and being willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone—which is very uncomfortable. I read this Michael Pollan book, How to Change Your Mind, and I've always been very interested in cognitive behavioral therapy and trying to change the way I look at things or feel about things. Being willing to be like: "I feel like I could do better. I feel like I made a mistake. I feel like I want to just improve upon myself." These are things that, especially now in this culture, in this country, we need. It's OK to be like: "I don't think I did that right. And I want to improve. And I want to look at this differently." That, for me, is very much a place I'm at in my life. I think "I Can’t Stay the Same" really sums that up.

   I've always been very interested in cognitive behavioral therapy and trying to change the way I look at things or feel about things. Being willing to be like: 'I feel like I could do better. I feel like I made a mistake. I feel like I want to just improve upon myself.'"

S: I heard, from my colleagues, that you were very involved in the 'Best of Vanessa Carlton' sheet music songbook that was just released by Hal Leonard. What was that process like for you?

V: Well, I can read music, but never had the opportunity to actually transcribe my recordings into sheet music. It wasn't until recently that I found out I had the opportunity to be involved with the sheet music; working with Hal Leonard on these was a fun process. With 'The Best of Vanessa Carlton' sheet music collection from Hal Leonard, you are getting my approved arrangements of these songs the way I've always intended them to be played.

S: Excellent. So, circling back, say someone is just starting out now. What advice would you give to them about how to approach songwriting and how to stay with it? I think you've already said a lot of different things about re-evaluating your process etc., but any advice for beginners?

   I feel like using other people's music as some sort of spark for your own creativity is something we all do. We're just kind of passing on this energy and this torch to each other."

V: Well, I think exposure to a lot of different types of music can be excellent. But I was going to say, especially with 'The Best of Vanessa Carlton' book we just discussed (and I write this in the introduction), it's just like a jumping off point for your own vision and creativity. If you're a pianist, the songs I chose fit really beautifully in the hand. I love the way they feel to play.

And I feel like using other people's music as some sort of spark for your own creativity is something we all do. We're just kind of passing on this energy and this torch to each other. It could be any book or any piece of music that you love. You study it, you dissect it. Why do you like it? But also coming at things from a more intellectual way. That, coupled with instinctual response, I think is the ultimate combo.

S: Very, very cool. Switching gears, on a personal level, what songs or artists are currently on your personal playlist?

V: My husband and I have a radio show that we do every Sunday night on Stationhead, and it's so fun, I can't tell you how fun it is. But it also gives us some semblance of feeling like we're going to work at some point! But honestly, for me, my go to is Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill, which I kind of listen to obsessively.

In terms of new music, I feel like a lot of things were swallowed up in Covid. I really like the new Perfume Genius record. I would love to try and highlight the projects that came out and were just swallowed this year. There's Josephine Foster's new record a couple of months ago, for example. I keep forgetting that I released a record in March! Like: "that happened? I don't even know!"

But, for me, I think a lot of times I just go back to my comfort records, for sure.

S: Awesome. Well, I just want to say thanks so much for having this chat with us.

V: Like I said, I'm like a huge Hal Leonard student. I learned a lot of my songs through the company because my mom was a piano teacher and ordered a lot of Hal Leonard books. So for me it's like coming full circle, and that's super awesome.


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