Seated on a traveling piano playing an aspirational pop song called “A Thousand Miles,” Vanessa Carlton‘s introduction to the world is impossible to forget. The track has played in countless commercials, TV shows and movies. It’s the song that started her career, but it’s not what has made it.
The song hailed from her 2002 debut LP Be Not Nobody, released 15 years ago today on April 30, 2002. With songs like “A Thousand Miles,” “Pretty Baby,” “Ordinary Day” and a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Back,” Carlton put herself on the pop-rock map.
But there’s a lot that people didn’t know about that record. For one, Carlton was about to be dropped from her label at the time. And while she wrote the songs for the record, she didn’t have much creative control when it came to the production. “When you’re in that kind of survival mode, for me, it really muted a lot of my aesthetic,” the 36-year-old musician explains. It wasn’t until her fourth album, Rabbits on the Run, that she felt most comfortable in her craft. That album spurred the creation of 2015’s Liberman: a raw, Fleetwood Mac-esque body of work that revealed a different side to the artist the public had come to know.
But Be Not Nobody was her first foray in the music industry. At 21, her career took off, though she thinks it happened too prematurely. “I was somebody who, I think, should have waited to make a record until they were 28,” she says.
While it might not be representative of Carlton’s aesthetic today, Be Not Nobody was a seminal album in the early ’00s. Ahead of its anniversary, we caught up with Carlton for the story behind Be Not Nobody and the evolution into her latest LP Liberman.
You’ve changed the direction of your songwriting from when you first started. What did the process of Be Not Nobody look like for you? What does the album mean to you now?
It’s funny. Not until I got the request for this interview did I have any awareness that it was the anniversary of this record. I’m a different person now. I think I was about 19 or 20 when that record came out [Ed. note: Carlton was 21]. I was about to be dropped from the label, and then Jimmy Iovine and I had a meeting and he decided to hook me up with Ron Fair who he just hired to do A&M [Records]. My goal, honestly, was to not get dropped from the label [with this album]. When you’re in that kind of survival mode, for me, it really muted a lot of my aesthetic. It was very much [Ron’s] show. It was very much, “I’m going to save your ass.” I had a little bit of say in the artwork, but not really. I did write all the songs though.
If you could do it all over again, would you have created the songs differently?
I will say this: I wasn’t ready — in my opinion — to release an album. I got a publishing deal, and I should have been fine with that and worked on my craft. I was somebody who I think should have waited to make a record until they were 28. There are a lot of older artists. I’ll give the example of Stevie Nicks. When she joined Fleetwood Mac, she was in her late twenties. I didn’t talk them into not releasing [my record] at the time because I was this young, hungry and scared kid.
When you hear “A Thousand Miles” [one of Billboard’s 100 Greatest Choruses of the 21st Century] or have to play it now, do you hate it?
No, no. I enjoy it like everyone else. I’m fine with it.
So Be Not Nobody was basically a commercial album that was your first album, but shouldn’t have been your first album?
I would say is that the record was produced by someone who had just been hired and needed to prove himself. That was the scenario at the time. If you want to move forward with your career, you have to acknowledge your role and your path. I’ve done that. It really helped me to get to who I am now and where I’m at. I’m a late-bloomer so that was a record that came out way before I was ready to make it.
Rabbits on The Run was the first record you felt like you had the most creative control. What made you feel most comfortable as a songwriter after that? How did it help you make Liberman?
The thing with Rabbits on The Run was, there was an element with that album that I was never allowed to do. I had this really beautiful children’s choir sing, The Capital Children’s Choir. I wanted a children’s choir and I wanted to work from the drummer from My Morning Jacket, Patrick Hallahan, and I wanted to work with Steve Osborne who produced Doves. He produced the Doves album The Last Broadcast. I met Osborne through a friend and sent him demos. He had no idea who I was, and that’s how I started working with him. Rabbits on The Run was my first real album as an artist. At that point, I finally had some dignity. We had collaborated in a really beautiful place. We went to Real World Studios in England where Sade does her records. You always want to go where Sade goes: it’s Peter Gabriel’s studio.
With your latest record Liberman, do you feel like that record is most representative of your truest self? When I saw you at City Winery, you played it from start to finish and emphasized the importance of it being experienced all at once.
I will say this: there’s a song from Rabbits on The Run called “Hear The Bells.” That was the sonic world that I wanted to put Liberman. Rabbits on The Run was my first foray into the idea of an album. Liberman became my baseline album: I can go anywhere with this record. It was a concept record. In the journalism world, this is the album where people — for the first time in interviews — were accepting where I’m at. That was great to hear.
What does future music look like for you? Are you writing and recording for another record?
I have a baby, so it’s hard to plan ahead. I do plan ahead, but very lightly. When I first had her, I was like, “oh I’m probably never going to write a song again.” She screams over every voice note I make. But I write songs. I’ve processed the changes in my life: I moved to Nashville and I have a little piece of land, a car, a wonderful partner and daughter, how to achieve that balance is something I really never thought was possible for me. I was this New Yorker girl. In a way, it manifested. But having a balance and being a touring musician is key to me. Now I’ve been able to try out some songs like this new one “Love Is An Art” that I’ve been playing on the road and a couple other songs I’ve been mixing in with that. I think you’ll see an album. I have a producer that I have my heart set on working with — he doesn’t know me, so I don’t know if we’re a match, but I’m not ready to reach out to him yet.