Vanessa Carlton: Nature Walk

Motherhood is just the latest stop on Vanessa Carlton’s thousand-mile journey

At first, Vanessa Carlton is a bit flummoxed. “I didn’t even know I had an interview right now—I was talking to my mother on the other line!” she sputters, reached by phone at her new home in Nashville, which she shares with her husband, Deer Tick’s John McCauley, and their baby daughter, Sid. “My mom brain is so bad, and I hope it goes away, because I lose my wallet everywhere. So, this is a complete, surprise, this talk, to be honest with you.”

The keyboardist soon gets into the rhythm of discussing Liberman, her latest solo set and fifth overall. But not before a discussion of motherhood, and all the attendant changes it’s brought to her life.

“What it does, more so than when I got my dog (her constant dachshund companion, Lord Victor, now 10), whatever you do outside of providing for your kid needs to be really, really good,” she says. “And also, you have no extra fat in your brain—it just cuts out all these extraneous thoughts and concerns about yourself or your project. They’re just gone, and all I have room for is what’s important. So, I think people go to therapy, or to shamans in the middle of a foreign land, to try to get to that same place. So, it’s been a really good thing.”

You can hear it throughout the pianosketched Liberman—and classical-motif tracks like “Blue Pool,” “Take It Easy” and backward-masking-dense closer “Ascension”; Carlton has seriously upped her game, and is now composing complex etudes that easily eclipse her chiming Grammy-nominated hit from 2002, “A Thousand Miles.” Looking back now, she sighs, the pressure to top that smash—and its Be Not Nobody parent album for A&M—was enormous. Recently, she was listening to a songwriter’s radio interview, and his first placement was on a prestigious John Prine record, which he initially couldn’t comprehend.

“So, he had to pretend like it never happened, so he could go back to his work,” says Carlton. “And to be honest, it took me two albums after that crazy first pop-culture exposure to get back to the questions of, ‘What am I? What is my point? How do I make the record that I want to listen to? The kind I love so much? So, how do I stop trying to please other people?’ So, I’m a late bloomer. It took me to age 30, but whatever—better late than never.”

And she hasn’t even begun to pen music about motherhood yet—the album was written before her pregnancy, with seven tracks completed in England (where she cut her last disc in 2011 at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios), three in Nashville after relocating there from New York and one, “Operator,” recorded six months into her pregnancy. “Which I think my voice sounds really weird on,” she admits.

Lyrically, shamans and vision quests pop up on Liberman (named for the singer’s late grandfather, and a painting he made that impressed her), inspired by an eye-opening peyote trip she took in Mexico with a girlfriend a few years ago. “It really fundamentally altered my sense of joy, my capacity for joy,” she says. “And I just stayed on the sunnier side of the street more easily after that. Then I discovered Rebecca Solnit, who’s a modern-day philosopher, and in her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost, she writes about shamans. And she’s not preachy—she’s really smart, and just sharing her stories.”

Also at work on Liberman—and material like “River” and “Willows”—is a strong undercurrent of nature, respect for the environment. She employs the device the way her idol Bob Marley did, explaining: “And he was one of those guys that chose to make music just to make people feel better, you know? So, nature is a huge element in my life, and in this album. And even more so, I just wanted the lyrics to make a brain feel good. The album wasn’t really about me; it wasn’t too much detailed storytelling. But it really worked for me when I listened back to it—I was like, ‘Oh, I just feel like taking a break, taking some time just to listen to this.’”

Carlton once dated Third Eye Blind mainman Stephan Jenkins, who produced her sophomore Harmonium while the pair was residing in San Francisco. But in December 2013, she surprised herself by getting married, spur of the moment, on a Christmas holiday in Phoenix, where she traditionally spent the holidays with her longtime chum Stevie Nicks.

“John and I are pretty quiet people—we just wanted to do our own thing,” she says. “So, a month before the trip, I sent Stevie’s assistant a link to this thing online where you can sign up and be an officiant—it’s this weird church. So, she signed up as Stephanie Nicks and we did this cute little ceremony, and he and I wrote a letter to each other, and it was really perfect. It was exactly what we wanted to do.”

In fact, there’s only one odd man out in the whole Liberman equation, Carlton reveals: Lord Victor. “Because he’s not first fiddle anymore—he has been replaced, so he is now second fiddle,” she says. “But it’s funny how babies and dogs connect—my daughter is most interested in him, and he’s a low rider. So, he’s down on her level, and she will squawk if he ever leaves her line of sight.”

—Tom Lanham