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‘I Hated the Song for Years’: The Story of Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’

VICE’s “The Story of ‘A Thousand Miles’” is out now, and the documentary follows Vanessa Carlton’s early days as a young artist under the extreme pressure from her record label. “I hated the song for years,” Carlton told VICE.

Her story shines a light on the stark realities of working in an industry that put many young artists like Carlton in unhealthy situations, and shows how she fought to change her situation. 

Before “A Thousand Miles” became an international hit, Carlton was hardly an adult and dealing with producers twice her age, describing “a lot of weirdness, a lot of possessiveness” in the studio, and she knew she needed to be assigned a new team. In 2000 when she was 20, Carlton flew to Los Angeles to plea to Jimmy Iovine, who ran Interscope A&M Records at the time. Iovine agreed, and Carlton was connected to Ron Fair, the executive producer behind the arrangement that turned Vanessa’s brilliant piano riff to a global pop hit. The rest is history.

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Despite her struggles, Carlton’s story is one of complete resilience and trust in herself. She spoke with VICE about growing up in front of the world, and the reflective and explorative music she is writing now, on her own terms.  

Carlton just released a new music video for Break To Save,” a bonus track from Love is an Art, an album she explained as “breaking down why we love the way that we love—what makes us desperate, what makes us secure, what makes us human.”

Carlton’s journey from teenage ballerina to a waitress playing open mic nights to early aughts hitmaker is dizzying, but she’s always followed her intuition relentlessly, and she writes now from the perspective of a wise and traveled songwriter, who is still open and evolving. 

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VICE: Your career in music has spanned decades and you’ve evolved so much as an artist over the years. What’s been your North Star when it comes to songwriting?
Vanessa Carlton
: My North Star and my guide for approaching songwriting and my career in general has been to maintain an evolved point of view that is my own. 

I think we’re all trying to find authenticity and integrity in our lives, asking, “Who are we?” So, if you want to apply that to writing over a long term, over decades… I read an interview with a musician from a very successful band who said something like, “Everything I write now, I ask myself, “can 50,000 people sing this back to me?” I will never forget reading that. Feeling pressure to hold onto whatever origin point of view it was that brought about your success, and feeling like you need to serve that image of you that everyone loved to watch; that is the graveyard of art. 

So, for me, I don’t give a fuck. When another human being and I have a conversation, or I’m experiencing someone perform, I want to connect with that person’s experience.

On your new album Love Is An Art, there is a song called “The Only Way To Love,” that one is my favorite. What is this song about?
There’s a book I was reading called Attached, about ten years ago. I was struggling to connect in love. I had wonderful friendships, but I am the opposite of a romantic and I wanted to change that because I felt like I was going to miss out on some big things in my life. 

So, “The Only Way To Love” is really about celebrating the courage of the romantic path, and just going for it, saying what you want to say, taking the risk. That is the only way. That’s the only way you find out who somebody else is, and who you are. You’ve got to be bold in your moves when it comes to love.

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What did you learn about yourself, in understanding your own attachment system?
It definitely changed the way I view my attachment to my creative process. As you’re forming as an artist, you’re developing a process and you’re not set in a groove yet. You have so much inner freedom and curiosity. Over time, you start to say “that worked, let’s try that again,” and it’s hard to change the process. When you do, that anxiety comes in. That’s attachment. 

You have to be willing to look at your creative process from a different angle, “what am I missing?” and “what do I keep doing that is the same?” I feel like there is an approach to writing that has to be a little bit scientific, where you’re like “I have to be open to new information. I need to be open to looking at myself and the world from a different angle.” 

I think the artists that do that just remain compelling. This is something I’ve learned from professorial producers like Dave Friddman and Steve Osborn, they showed me that you can’t attach yourself so tightly to “the way it has to be.” You have to say “let me try that, that might lead somewhere I don’t know.”

Recently, you’ve been working with Adam Landry, Patrick Hallahan, and co-writing with Tristen Gaspadarek, and you’ve talked about being spiritually and musically aligned with them. How is this different from the days you talk about in the documentary? Do you see this as a different chapter of your career?
I think trust is huge. There is so much strength that lies in the collaborative spirit. I think I really got into the collaborative spirit and understood how powerful that is once I made my first record independently, when I finally had the freedom to choose who I wanted to work with. I was assigned a producer for my first record and had the choice to work with him or get dropped, and following that, I was in a very dysfunctional working relationship with a boyfriend, it couldn’t have been more fraught.

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When I started working with Steve Osborn in England on my 2011 album Rabbits on the Run, it was such a privilege to work with him. Great artists have their egos set aside, and they’re interested in the work and the process. That was the project that started the rest of my career. 

I’ve admired Tristan’s writing and her work for some time. Patrick Callahan may have been my first collaboration in terms of recording a record with another artist. I loved his style of playing and his band. I didn’t yet have the confidence to reach out and ask someone “Hey, do you want to work with me?”, but my husband John McCauley (Deer Tick) is a master of collaboration. He wants to work with everybody. I sent Patrick my shitty garage demo. I told him I had this dream of doing this type of record, and he said it was cool and I should do it.

I look at my first three albums as ‘Vanessa 1.0’, but ‘Vanessa 2.0’ is where the inner freedom comes, that started with that record and these collaborations.

What is your favorite lyric on “Love is an Art” at this moment?
“I release you and I call this love.”

Watch The Story Of “A Thousand Miles”
Listen to the deluxe version of Love is An Art

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