“No, I am not a pop princess [and my] current label doesn’t realize this important tidbit,” Vanessa Carlton told her fans on her official website message board recently, calling the execs at her label “shortsighted, nonmusical bastards,” and claiming that “you can’t sell records to someone in the middle of Indiana without a little help.” Indeed. “Welcome to the music biz,” she went on to say. But Carlton was already welcomed, very warmly, in late 2001 when her piano-driven debut single “A Thousand Miles” was pushed to radio and MTV, eventually hitting the Top 5 and driving sales of her first album, Be Not Nobody, past the one million mark. Her brand of earnest, singer-songwriter Tori-lite (and stop pretending it’s not) was a welcomed alternative to the aforementioned “pop princesses” that ruled the charts in the late-late ’90s.
The trouble began for Carlton in 2004, with the release of her second album, Harmonium, and its shoulda-been-a-hit lead single “White Houses.” Whether it wasn’t promoted adequately or audiences just didn’t connect with the more mature, narrative style of the song, the label decided to let the album languish on store shelves with little support (while the likes of 50 Cent and the Ying Yang Twins are given full reign of the airwaves, Carlton’s poignant account of virginity lost was banned by MTV for being too “sexually explicit”). Flash-forward several months and Carlton is on a mission to find a new home for her in-the-works third album. She could re-release the under-appreciated Harmonium on her own terms via an artist-friendly label like, say, the aptly-named Sanctuary Records, but judging by the singer’s setlist at New York’s the Living Room last night, Carlton is itching to get her new tunes heard. She’s looking to the future.
The short set was more like a showcase than a concert: The venue—about the size of a large, ahem, living room—was filled with a mix of hardcore fans (autographed Vanessa Carlton tees, digital camcorders, gift bags, and all), label scouts, and curious out-of-towners. Carlton probably hadn’t found herself in this position of tongue-twisted judgment since before she signed her first record deal. She playfully mocked her stuttering intro to “Who’s to Say,” which she dedicated to “anyone in a relationship that’s unapproved of by their mother or government,” and joked about dressing like Stevie Nicks when she goes on tour with the Welch Witch this summer (for the record, she was sporting white boots that were very Stevie circa 1981). There were a handful of sour piano notes and some botched lyrics (during her final song “Twilight”) but that only endeared her to the crowd even more.
Much of the second half of Carlton’s set was devoted to new material, including the promising Linda Perry collaboration “This Time,” during which Carlton flaunted a coarseness previously unheard in her often nymphish voice, “The One,” and “Put Your Hands on Me”/“Dalai Lama” (she hasn’t decided on the title yet, though I’d go for the former since apparently her mom doesn’t like it). In fact, the provocative nature of the title—the song is actually more of a spiritual one—might just be the direction Carlton needs to go in to sustain her career. Singer-songwriter-pianists are a dime a dozen and one of the things Carlton’s got going for her is her ability to tap into the fact that most teens are more earnest than disaffected, and her willingness to expose that delicate, naked, and unbridled sexual honesty of youth is a much-welcomed reprieve from hip-hop and pop music’s hollow commodification of women and sex.