One of the most recognizable introductions to any song of the early 2000s is Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.” Since the 2002 hit, there hasn’t been much buzz around the New York songwriter. She’s put out a couple albums and toured extensively, but nothing brought her the fame of that little melody. Liberman, her most recent, released this October, and shows a massive change in her artistic direction. It’s clear pop stardom isn’t the direction Vanessa Carlton is aiming for anymore, so what is the singer-songwriter doing these days?
Vanessa Carlton’s Childhood and “Interlude”
Vanessa Carlton was born in Pennsylvania in 1980, the oldest of three. Her mother was a music teacher and pianist, so Carlton began learning piano when she was only two. When she was nine, she had a developed interest in ballet, and at 14, enrolled at the School of American Ballet.
Located in Manhattan, the School of American Ballet exposed Carlton to New York City’s culture. After graduating, she moved to Hell’s Kitchen, and began working as a waitress. While working, she performed at a variety of Open Mics, playing piano and singing.
During this period, she recorded song demos with simple equipment in her apartment. She presented some of these to producer Peter Zizzo, who eventually invited Carlton to his studio. After polishing her demos, Vanessa Carlton was signed to A&M Records. She began to produce Rinse, a full-length album that was never released.
Several tracks would be carried forward by A&M, and one of these was “Interlude.” Originally drafted in 1998, the song sat unfinished until Zizzo encouraged her to finish it. She did, and eventually the demo tape found its way to Ron Fair, president of A&M.
Fair instantly fell in love with “Interlude” but wanted to work with Carlton to strengthen it. Carlton was new to working with producers, and resisted a lot of the changes. Eventually, Fair would add signature transitions, the orchestral section, and shorten nearly every instrumental section. The most contention came over the song’s title.
“Vanessa Carlton is an incredible talent, but she’s also very stubborn,” Fair told MTV. His argument was simple: “When you’re trying to launch a career, people need a handle to pick things up from, and the word ‘Interlude’ is never in the song.”
So the song’s title was changed to “A Thousand Miles,” and after fourteen recording sessions, Carlton and Fair had a song they were happy with. Fair showed the song to Jimmy Iovine, his boss at Interscope-Geffen-A&M, who was instantly impressed. Iovine requested a music video be filmed and the song marketed as a single, despite Fair’s concerns that its piano basis would be a disadvantage.
“A Thousand Miles” was first made public as part of the soundtrack for the film Legally Blonde in late 2001, and in January of 2002, the song, and its music video, premiered on MTV’s Total Request Live. In February, the song was released as a CD single, and a month later entered the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for 41 weeks.
In April, the album Be Not Nobody was released. The album went platinum, almost entirely because of “A Thousand Miles”; the rest of the album received mediocre reviews. Almost every mention of “A Thousand Miles” was positive though. The song won the Cannot Get You Out of My Head award at the VH1 Big in 2002 Awards, and was nominated for three Grammys. By April of 2003, Chicago Sun-Times reported the song was the most requested song on British Forces Broadcasting Service Middle East, which broadcasts to troops fighting in Iraq.
It’s “like, the whitest song ever,” according to the 2004 film White Chicks, which has a great scene where Terry Crews sings the song. The song transitioned female vocal pop away from the high-production bubblegum of the 90s, and helped establish the tone of minimalist sophistication that would be carried on by the songwriters of the 2000s, especially those coming up from shows like American Idol.
After “A Thousand Miles”
Remember hearing “Big Yellow Taxi“ every time you went to the grocery for a year? The Counting Crows cover of the Joni Mitchell song was released just after Vanessa Carlton rose to fame with “A Thousand Miles,” and is demonstrative of how often Carlton was on the radio in 2002 and 2003.
After that, support for Carlton’s sound dropped off. She produced her second album, Harmonium, with then-boyfriend Stephan Jenkins, who is the frontman of Third Eye Blind. The single from that album, “White Houses,” is most notable because MTV refused to play the song. Carlton credits the censorship to the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at that year’s Superbowl, since there were sexual lyrics in “White Houses.”
Despite ending her romance with Jenkins, he still helped her produce her third album, titled Heroes & Thieves. Somehow, this dynamic worked, and led to a fairly strong work. While the album was not a commercial smash, critics were fond of the endeavor, and, piggybacking off that success, Carlton spent most of 2007 and 2008 participating in charitable events.
After Heroes & Thieves, there were some rumors that Carlton wanted to leave the world of pop singer-songwriters to pursue an interest in film scoring. Rabbits on the Run seems to be a compromise. Clearly following in the tradition of her earlier works, Rabbits on the Run set itself apart with a more coherent feel as an album, as well as capturing the atmosphere of its odd set of inspirations: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and the unsettling children’s book Watership Down.
Vanessa Carlton Now – 2018 Update
For her most recent album, Carlton goes even further down the rabbit hole. (She made that pun, it is only being repeated here to raise awareness that she made that pun.) Liberman is named after Carlton’s grandfather, and represents a massive change in direction for the singer-songwriter.
In fact, in order to avoid the connotations of her earlier work, Carlton send the demos for Liberman to Dine Alone Records without her name on them. Dine Alone president Carriere told the Toronto Star, “we never would have guessed it was Vanessa Carlton because her voice has developed so much since her pop songs 14 years ago and the songwriting had obviously changed.”
Liberman has received mostly positive reviews, with many critics focusing on how the album feels like a more authentic representation of her intentions, and highlighting her growth outside of musicianship. A lot has changed for Vanessa Carlton since “A Thousand Miles.” She got married, had a daughter, and developed the business acumen to retain control over her songs. These days, no one is going to argue with her over her song titles, and while that might keep her from being overplayed on the radio, she gives every appearance of being happy with her career.
Currently, Vanessa Carlton is touring across the US and Canada, with the west coast leg happening this January.