Vanessa Carlton: Grown Up And Strong, In Music And In Life

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In the summer of 1998, “Interlude” was just another song to Vanessa Carlton, an angst-ridden teenager living at home in Philadelphia after graduating from the School of American Ballet.It was nothing more than a piano riff. She was stuck, suffering from a mean case of writer’s block. And it wouldn’t be until later that year, when a producer stopped her in the middle of playing the intro, that she finished the song one fateful Saturday night in an hour flat.

Little did she know, the pianist had just written the framework for a number-one hit.

Sung by countless fans all over the world, “A Thousand Miles”—renamed by her former producer, Ron Fair, president of A&M Records—has racked up 61 million views on YouTube to date, even though the video was posted seven years after the single originally dropped in 2002.

The success rocketed Carlton, who will perform Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, to the top of the corporate music industry. And, eventually, it gave her the courage to walk away from it altogether.

“I felt like that song wasn’t even one of the really good songs. I thought it was just another song, like, whatever,” she laughed nonchalantly last week during a telephone interview from her circa-1938 bungalow in Nashville, Tennessee, with 12 years of retrospect behind her. “That time was too fast for me, you know? It took me a while to recover.”

Most of Ms. Carlton’s early memories involve a piano—her small hands pressing down the comparatively large keys of one of the many instruments in her childhood home. Her mother gave lessons, she said, and the little girl was always the youngest in class.

She split her time between music and ballet, which started at age 5 and turned serious four years later. At 14, her professional aspirations brought her to Manhattan, where she studied dance by day and, more and more, dreamed of music by night.

“It started off pretty good, but if you don’t fit the mold there, you’re not going to do great,” Ms. Carlton said of the ballet academy. “As time went by, I just really didn’t fit. It was so painful.”

That was when she discovered a piano in her dormitory, and it was there she wrote “Ordinary Day,” which would eventually appear on her debut album, “Be Not Nobody.”

“The other girls in the dorm would listen to me play, even though I’d be really shy,” she said. “I always had music. When the ballet thing didn’t work for me anymore, I didn’t feel like I had no identity. Music came to the rescue.”

Before graduation, the amateur musician walked into The Bitter End on Bleecker Street and booked her first gig—with the help of her father, because she was underage. Come 10 p.m. on her big night, all of her friends were in the audience. And Ms. Carlton was “terrified,” she said.

When she exited the stage 30 minutes later, to rousing applause, she knew.

“I didn’t know if I would be successful or not. Or how much was on the line,” she said. “But this was what I was going to do. And I was going to be authentic.”

Agents, managers and record labels had other ideas in mind. This was the era of Britney Spears. When pressed to conform, Ms. Carlton—an independent soul with a lithe figure and flowing brunette waves—stamped her stubborn foot and refused to compromise her integrity for sex appeal.

She was shocked when A&M Records agreed to sign her in 2001.

“I wasn’t going to sing anyone else’s songs and do a dance,” Ms. Carlton said. “That wouldn’t have made sense for me, and it would be silly.”

A year later, “A Thousand Miles” peaked inside the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 and snagged multiple Grammy nominations, including “Record of the Year.”

“I think people are always down with a good piano hook,” Ms. Carlton said. “And I had no idea what to do. It was unreal. But I couldn’t appreciate it. I was so out of it during that time. I was exhausted.”

In mid-2005, the musician left the label behind and made a decision. If she were to write another record—her fourth studio album—it would be the one she always wanted, with no pressure to fulfill anyone else’s expectations.

Six years later, she finally did with “Rabbits on the Run.” And, back in the studio, she has done it again.

“Liberman,” which Ms. Carlton expects will drop later this year, was recently mastered, nearing the final touches to her most sonically driven, philosophical, dream-like record yet.

“You listen to it when you take a walk with your headphones on,” she said. “The sounds are really lush and beautiful. There’s room for instrumentals and room for rabbit holes. Beautiful little vortexes, I call them. I really love when I stumble across those things in a song.”

Her newest work will not stop her from playing older favorites during her current tour, which makes a stop at the PAC on Sunday night.

“People will say, ‘I listened to “A Thousand Miles” when I was little!’ And even me, I’ll say, ‘I wrote that when I was little,’” she said. “But we all look the same age. I don’t feel like I look that much older. I know I’m older, and I’m very happy to be older, but I don’t feel it.

“It’s very bizarre. It’s like we all grew up together.”

Singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton will make her East End debut on Sunday, June 15, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $30 to $50. For more information, call (631) 288-1500, or visit whbpac.org.

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