Vanessa Carlton doesn't like to do as she's told.
When the time came to follow up her 2002 platinum debut, Be Not Nobody, convention dictated that she shouldn't stray too far from whatever made the rollicking love song "A Thousand Miles" such a hit. But Carlton, who sat demurely behind a piano when many of her pop contemporaries were shaking it in half-shirts, has never been about meeting other people's expectations.
"I had my midlife crisis when I was about 17," Carlton explained, referring to when she was an aspiring professional ballerina. "I wanted to dance, but I wanted to do it my way. I started skipping all these classes, and I was deemed the bad, lazy dancer, the bad girl."
The video for "White Houses," the first single off her second album, Harmonium, due November 9, showcases the 24-year-old singer/songwriter's own unconventional style of dancing, while also displaying her two passions (see "Sick Of Sitting Down, Vanessa Carlton Gets Up and Dances"). She plays two roles in the clip: one Vanessa is seated at the piano while the other prances around in interpretive — and special-effects-enhanced — ways. The video also works as a metaphor for how she balanced the two sides of her personality while butting heads with her old dance instructors.
"It was very depressing, and the only thing that got me through it and kept me healthy is the music that I was writing. I was like, 'At least this is mine.' I started to become the dancer who could play [piano], not just the one who skips class. I was the dancer who had something else in her life."
Harmonium gives Carlton's fans a clearer view of the singer's whole personality, one that's a few shades darker than even the gray-mired outlook exhibited on Be Not Nobody.
"There are darker themes to the record," Carlton explained. "There's a song about a girl who's dead. There is a song about insomnia, which I have suffered from for many years — but now I sleep like a baby. There's a song on there in particular — ah it kills me — about a girl I met on tour who's dying of cancer. She's 5 years old.
"A lot of people listen to this record and they're like, 'Uh, I didn't know that those were the types of songs that you wrote. That's really cool,' " she added.
Whether the fans who fell in love with previous singles "A Thousand Miles," "Pretty Baby" and "Ordinary Day" will agree doesn't concern Carlton any more. The time for worrying about that is long over.
"Really, the pressure was in the studio," she said. "The pressure was making and maintaining the sounds of a record that is true to the state that I am in as a musician. It's completely going to represent me, it's not going to be dressed in fear and rehashing. The record is in jeopardy of going back to those old tricks up until the very last day you are mixing it, because there's always forces conspiring against you to prevent change, especially when you're in a business where you have money, where you're a monetary value to somebody else. If you're an investment, you don't want to change the investment if it worked the first time."
By Carlton's definition, Harmonium is already successful, long before it ever sells its first copy. If she's an artist, the album is simply an example of self-expression. No longer grouped with Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch as part of a crop of young female singer/songwriters who play their own instruments, Carlton's new challenge is trying to balance her artistic credibility with a fanbase built upon "TRL" appeal.
"On a certain level, I don't care if people think I'm as cool as Radiohead," she said. "Ultimately, what's important to me is the quality of the music and if I'm telling the truth. If I happen to be on 'TRL' with a song that the MTV audience happens to like, but also Flaming Lips fans are going to like, too, that's great."
Vanessa Carlton tour dates, according to A&M Records:
- 10/26 - Toronto, ON @ Mod Club
- 10/27 - Montreal, QC @ La Tulipe
- 10/29 - Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
- 10/30 - Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of Living Arts
- 11/1 - Alexandria, VA @ The Birchmere
- 11/3 - New York, NY @ Joe's Pub
- 11/5 - Savannah, GA @ School of Art & Design
- 11/12 - Denver, CO @ Soiled Dove
- 11/14 - Tempe, AZ @ Marquee Theatre
- 11/16 - West Hollywood, CA @ The Roxy Theatre
- 11/18 - San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
- 11/20 - Seattle, WA @ Crocodile Cafe
- 11/21 - Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater