Vanessa Carlton doesn’t look much like a bad girl. Sitting in front of her piano, her straight, dark hair streaming around her face, the 22-year-old singer-songwriter comes off more like a Juilliard egghead prepping for her final recital.
But a few years ago, when she was a student at the School of American Ballet in New York, Carlton might as well have been a pirouetting version of a warthog. After being at the top of her class, she started getting frustrated with her strict school-regimented lifestyle. She got in trouble with her teachers. She ditched class. She blew off homework. “If there were demerits or something, I would have had a shitload,” she laughs.
Not that she was off on some Ferris Beuller-style free day. Carlton spent most of her time locked in a small room playing piano. While she had grown up plunking the keys, it started to become an obsession. There was a freedom in those 88 keys, something she couldn’t get drilling someone else’s choreography day in and day out. Melodies began popping up. Poems became lyrics. After a few months, the songs were piling up.
“I was looked at as someone who didn’t take things very seriously, which is not true,” Carlton recalls. “I just couldn’t handle how strict things were. I was doing what everyone else wanted me to do. I had to follow my own vision.”
The only problem: Carlton wasn’t sure what that vision was. She’d always dreamed of being a ballerina, not a rock star. She’d never performed her songs in front of an audience. She had no idea how to go about getting label attention. Her dad even had to physically shove her into clubs to play open-mic nights. She was just a few steps from being permanently entrenched as a Hell’s Kitchen waitress struggling to cover rent.
“I was really naïve about the whole thing,” she says. “When I started writing, I didn’t even have a goal to make a record or anything. I just had these songs.”
They would eventually save her. Driving every weekend to her parents’ house in Pennsylvania, Carlton slowly culled together the kind of demo tape A&R guys have wet dreams about: a stark and emotive skeleton that, once fleshed out, could make Carlton a pop princess. Some of the songs had a juvenile fascination with the sky and simplistic love, but others tracked the dark musings of a woman coming into her confidence and identity, Carlton binding up tales of obsession and dismissal in Top 40 Bach melodies.
Most of those songs ended up on her now-platinum debut, Be Not Nobody (A&M). Playing almost like a brief history of Carlton’s formative years, the album grows up a bit with each track. Early numbers like “A Thousand Miles” and “Ordinary Day,” Carlton’s first two singles, sound like the kind of songs Ben Folds would write if he were a high-school girl with a crush. By the time “Rinse” and the torchy “Paradise” roll around, Carlton is a woman not to be screwed with, trying on both Tori Amos’ dark snarl and her emotional upheaval. Carlton says that the album was pieced together that way on purpose, not only to show what she’s been through, but where she’s headed.
“The span of the record really reflects the span of my life,” she explains. “There are songs on there that are very young and inexperienced, but there’s also songs on the record are from a mature songwriter who’s gone through some things. I just can’t wait for the second record, because I think my songwriting has matured even more since then.”
It will be a while before Carlton can head back into the studio, though. Having already logged more miles than she cares to think about, Carlton will be touring through the end of the year, opening for arena acts like the Goo Goo Dolls as well as playing smaller headlining gigs in clubs such as Bricks. It’s taken some getting used to. At first, Carlton couldn’t adjust to life on the road. “I couldn’t stand hotel rooms; I’d open the door and just start crying,” she admits.
“I just couldn’t find a lot of comfort on the road. You live out of a suitcase, you sleep in a moving vehicle. It’s not easy. But I eventually learned you have to create your own sense of comfort. And really, it’s a lot better than waitressing. That was stressful. Hungry people aren’t very nice.”