“Take away my record deal. Go on, I don’t need it,” Vanessa Carlton sings defiantly on “Nolita Fairytale,” her first single released under a new deal with Irv Gotti’s The Inc. For every Britney, Lindsay, or Paris flashing their private parts, driving under the influence, or landing in rehab and/or jail, there’s a Vanessa Carlton, behaving well (at least in public), avoiding the pitfalls of fame and success, and managing to evade the seductive glare of the paparazzi lens. Perhaps there’s a sexist social disease at work that creates young girls starved for attention and willing to self-destruct in revolt once they get it, but it’s more likely that they just lack good manners, a solid foundation, and common sense. Carlton managed to keep her four-year relationship with Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins off the sleazy pages of Perez Hilton, and according to “Nolita Fairytale,” apparently the trick is keeping a rent-controlled apartment just north of Little Italy as opposed to a Hollywood mansion, and hanging out at Ruby’s, a cozy downtown Manhattan café, rather than fashion week. Carlton and Jenkins have split since he helped record the singer’s new album Heroes & Thieves, but you probably didn’t hear about that in the tabloids either.
The 27-year-old dancer-turned-singer endured a different kind of break-up a couple of years ago, this one with A&M Records, which expertly set up Carlton’s debut album in 2002, leading to two hit singles, three Grammy nominations, and a platinum plaque, but the label fumbled her follow-up, 2004’s criminally overlooked Harmonium. After performing a showcase for former Sony boss Don Ienner, Carlton says she was lucky to find Gotti, whose label (formerly Murder, Inc.) was in need of an image makeover of its own following accusations of money laundering. Carlton took a break from rehearsing in Nolita for some upcoming appearances (which are part of what her label promises will be a two-year push for Heroes & Thieves) to talk to me about the new album, her former label, and her “fairy godmother,” among other things. She was extra candid (thanks in part to a double espresso), but also a little cautious. “Protect me from myself,” she joked after letting out a few barbed comments that shall remain off the record. When I assured her no one else was listening in on the conversation, she said: “I’ll just choose to believe you.”
I heard you recently made a trip to Egypt.
Yeah, I was in Cairo. It was just extraordinary and peaceful while at the same time being the most chaotic city I think I’ve ever been to. To be on a horse in the desert looking at these pyramids was just out of control. But then the grittiness…there are no rules there. They literally have no traffic signs. If you hit a pedestrian with your car—I almost got hit so many times—you have to pay $150 and you’re cool.
In the new documentary About a Son, Kurt Cobain talks about how his fondest memories of Nirvana came right before Nevermind was released. Do you remember how it felt just before your first album came out?
I think I tried to put it out of my mind, speaking of chaos.
So it wasn’t one of your fondest memories then?
You know, there was a lot of positivity going on, obviously, and I was on the eve of something that was very special and hugely impactful on my life, but as a person I didn’t quite have my feet under me. And when something that big happens…I think it was just a little bit lost on me. If I could redo that moment now and be 27 maybe I’d feel a little more…nirvana [Laughs].
How old were you at that time? You were still in your teens, right?
I was 21. But I might as well have been a teenager.
The video for “Nolita Fairytale” begins with you playing a roving piano in the same way you did in the clip for your first single “A Thousand Miles”—until the piano is demolished by a taxicab. Being that Heroes & Thieves isn’t exactly a big departure musically, what does that moment in the video symbolize for you?
Yeah, obviously I didn’t go hip-hop. [The director] Marc Klasfeld is just a brilliant guy—he directed “A Thousand Miles” as well. And so we were sitting in L.A. going over ideas for “Nolita Fairytale” and he said, “What if we open with the ’Thousand Miles’ video, like we’re tricking everyone into thinking that they’re [hearing] the wrong song [set] to the wrong video, and then you get literally run over by a cab.” My initial response was to laugh, and then I sat with it and I was like, “Wow, it is kind of a heavy statement.” Aside from getting into the metaphor of it, visually this girl traveling on a piano kind of created an iconic image that was bigger than me or “A Thousand Miles.” So I said, “To create something new, let’s destroy it and start anew.” Literally the breaking of the piano isn’t about wanting to destroy anything; I’d like to look at it more as a coming out of a shell. It’s just like cracking the egg.
In the song you sing, “I lose my way searching for stage lights/But Stevie knows and I thank her so/’Cause it’s your seeds I sow and now I know.” How has touring with Ms. Nicks impacted you personally and professionally?
Stevie Nicks is my fairy godmother. But she’s also my friend. She can be this all-knowing woman that’s kind of mentoring you but also like just the funnest chick to hang out with. She came into my life at a transitional period, where I wasn’t sure if I was going to just kind of go into scoring films, which I’d been threatening to do for a few years, or writing songs for other people. The battle of the industry and dealing with labels—I didn’t know if I had the fight in me. And it’s so easy to get chewed up and spit out. But Stevie just literally took me out on the road with her, and she has this belief in me that energizes me. She would write me letters and notes and take me aside and say that I am absolutely up for this fight, that this is my life’s work, that I don’t have a choice, I can’t just bail on carving out this singer-songwriting career because there are very few singer-songwriters that get to their best-of record. She’s like, “You are one of those writers. You have to continue.” She just thinks that I’m really…good [Laughs]. I was like, “All right, I’m gonna not let you down!”
You also worked with Lindsey Buckingham on 2004’s “White Houses.” Do you have any plans to work with any of the other members of Fleetwood Mac?
[Laughs] Yeah, I know, right? I’ve gotta go through everyone. Christine [McVie] is an amazing songwriter too. You know, I would love to play with Mick [Fleetwood].
I saw you perform a showcase at The Living Room for Don Ienner two years ago when you had just started shopping around for a new label, and you talked about how your record company at the time refused to realize that you’re not a pop princess. Were you feeling pressure from them to be like Britney Spears?
That was a really hard time. There were some people at the label that were very supportive of me, but in general I didn’t have one person that would unconditionally support me. And I couldn’t continue like that. And at that point, after them kind of not really supporting [Harmonium], and then saying you have to do everything we say now…I mean, what’s the point of being a creative person if you are in an environment where you’re given ultimatums and you don’t get to grow and shift and evolve in the ways that you should? The labels aren’t cultivating career artists anymore, and they have to. They just have to. I mean, I was just about to give up and I did not. I know I’ll have a long career, despite certain powers that be. And now I have a great family.
At the show you also mentioned that you couldn’t decide on a title for your new song “Hands on Me.”
Oh yeah! That’s when I was calling it “The Dalai Lama Song.”
Was “Put Your Hands on Me” ultimately deemed too suggestive?
No, I’m all for that, but another song had come out [with the same title]. Joss Stone has a song called “Put Your Hands on Me.”
You’re not an overtly sexual artist, but sexual-political themes seem to pop up in many of the articles written about you and I think it’s because you approach sexuality in a very open and honest way that resonates with your fans. Do you think the general public is resistant to that approach or is it simply a lack of ingenuity on the part of the industry?
It’s weird. When you really approach things in a very honest way, in a stark way, it gets under people’s skin. It literally…penetrates—oh my god, what a horrible pun [Laughs]. It hits a chord in you more than if you sing about being slutty. You know, like the Kelis song “Milkshake.” I love that song and I like her, but it’s so obvious. So when you do have these subtle lyrics or you’re approaching it in much more of a poetic—but stark—way, you have more of an emotional response and it makes people uncomfortable.
Right. It’s apparently kosher for Justin Timberlake to tell a girl to come “sit” on him [as he does on 50 Cent’s “Ayo Technology”] but it’s not okay for a young woman to sing about losing her virginity.
It’s infuriating, right?
Yeah, it is. Do you think sexism was a factor in MTV’s decision to ban the video for “White Houses” due to its lyrics?
[Sighs] Yeah, it’s just so hypocritical. I mean, I could write a long essay about it. They want to sell their version of sex. It’s desensitizing. I just don’t get it.
Speaking of white houses, do you think this country’s ready for a woman president?
I think so [pauses]. Yeah, I think we are. She [Hillary Clinton] is brilliant. And, um…yeah, I do.
How did you manage to maintain what was a relatively high-profile relationship [with Stephan Jenkins] for four years and avoid becoming fodder for the Perez Hiltons of the world?
Well, that kind of stuff happens to people mostly because they are actively pursuing it. You can choose if you want to be a tabloid star. Move to L.A., start going to clubs. It’s just my choice. I live in Nolita, and [Stephan and I] lived in San Francisco mostly.
Stephan produced Heroes & Thieves as well as your last album. Have you guys ever considered recording a song together?
Well, he sings background on some of the songs. They do feel like “our” songs, you know? You mean like an official duet?
That’s probably not going to happen.
Another strong female figure on your album is Linda Perry. Did you originally plan to collaborate with her on the entire record?
Oh, that’s a whole other article. We actually have two other songs that are going to come out as b-sides. We did a pretty large batch but in the end two made the cut. And I wanted to work with a few different people. Irv did a fantastic job A&Ring. And Stevie helped A&R it and she sequenced the record. Her presence is everywhere. Also, in the artwork there’s a pair of boots that she drew.
Oh, yeah, I noticed that! Who are some of the other artists you’ve been listening to lately? What would I find on your iPod?
I love the new Peter Bjorn and John record. It’s excellent. I like the new Kanye record. My staples for the past year have been My Morning Jacket, Bob Marley, and Ray LaMontagne. As of late I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush on repeat, over and over.
Finally, you ran the New York Marathon in 2005 and donated your pledge money to Musicians on Call, and our film editor here at Slant is running this November on behalf of Team Continuum, which raises money for people living with cancer. So, first, what was your time? And second, do you have any advice for a first-time marathoner?
Oh, good, yes. My time was three hours, 56 minutes, and 43 seconds or something like that.
That’s impressive. Was it your first marathon?
Yeah. I really wanted to get under four hours. My advice is to do the full eight-month training. That’s what will get you through it. And actually, everyone was telling me not to start out too fast, but I got stuck because it’s so traffic-y and there are so many people. So my advice is not to go out as slow as they say. I think I lost some time because I started out slow. Oh, and I definitely went easier on the bottle when I was training!