Our Review: Vanessa Carlton at Asylum

vanessa-carlton-libermanDecember 5, 2015 – Entering Asylum to see Vanessa Carlton, I honestly wasn’t sure if I knew exactly what to expect. I knew the show was 21+, that my sister always brought out my inner 14 year-old belting out her music when she played White Houses on road trips, and that every time I heard the opening chords forA Thousand Miles, I wanted to cover my ears to prevent them from getting such a catchy riff stuck in them for weeks on end. Vanessa Carlton has always represented singer-songwriter pop for me. Sure, ear candy, but the kind that your grandma gave you in the little plastic wrappings to keep you quiet while shopping. The kind that you don’t admit that you secretly love, but always gives you that nostalgic warmth when you encounter it. Not necessarily the kind you get excited about, however. Before heading downtown that evening, my surprised roommate said to me, “Well, she certainly is talented,” which I shrugged off as I shut the door.

It has to be said that I underestimated Ms. Carlton completely. As I came in with four friends trailing behind me hoping to have this memory as a joke for later, Carousel was playing. I immediately came out with, “Oh, I forgot how many songs I actually know and like by her.” Going into her next song, “Tall Tales for Spring,” I was given chills. I began to notice the room, which was the most intimate seating I’d ever seen at Asylum. Everyone was quiet, listening intently. The movement of the music was powerful and reminded me of the soundtrack to The Snowman, the late ’80s animated silent film. I surprised myself as I teared up during the breakdown.

Before “White Houses,” Carlton’s storytelling really began to shape the movement of the entire performance. Her personality was genuine and her narrative about her brother’s trauma from the song’s popularity while he was in high school made you love her even more. Hearing the violin (played by Cartlon’s longtime dreamy collaborator, Skye Steele) open this tune just set the stage for the magic to come. Carlton’s featherweight fingers began to swell into the familiar melody, willing the audience to chime in with the third instrument of the composition: the echoing whispers of the lyrics surrounding the room. What a powerful unforgettable moment.

The rest of the set surrounded the newest material by Carlton and Steele, entitled: Liberman, named for her late grandfather’s surname at birth. Before entering into this part of the performance, Carlton explained “Liberman… Lives in it’s own space… a more euphoric territory.” Carlton’s folklore of the album as she moved through it song to song were told as vivid memories that the audience could adopt as their own to set the stage for the music. Her vocals were even more rich and etherial than I remember from her recordings.

My favorite song off the album that was performed was “House of Seven Swords,” named for a tarot deck. Before the song, Carlton explained, “It really showed me how we are each a sword, with two sides to each of our blades. This song is about courage and making choices about your character.” This completely resonated with my mid-twentysomething-year-old self. It began with a cathedral music type intro with the violin bellowing it’s power as her butterfly-on-glass voice sang, “Nobody can tell us how to build our house of seven swords,” in that flutter we all know and secretly love.

This new album mixes some of the same emotionally-entrenched, painterly lyrics, with the classical sound of her piano and Steele’s violin, with a more modern twist. A touch of electronic loops, light reverb and a consistent bass drum beat at a more dimensional shape to the new material. It’s Vanessa Carlton all grown up. She’s a vivacious person, a well-rounded performer, a storyteller, and a true artist in how she thinks about every part of her work and her collaboration, not only with Steele, but with the audience as well.

I didn’t cover my ears or escaped when “A Thousand Miles” was played after the loudest cheers in the room all night ended an elaborate story about how Carlton left ballet, and wrote the song. Instead I danced and sang the whole thing, then I escaped for a moment to contemplate, while she played her “Pretend we left the stage already and came back for an encore” finale: “The Marching Horn,” dedicated to those who have lost someone close to them.

Some graffiti in the building read, “What did you do to end patriarchy today?” I left with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. I saw the wonderful woman, Vanessa Carlton grace our beautiful city with her moving performance. And I am so grateful.


  • Carousel
  • Tall Tales for Spring
  • White Houses
  • Take It Easy
  • Willow
  • House of Seven Swords
  • Operator
  • Blue Pool
  • Nothing Where Something Used to Be
  • Sinners in the Sea
  • A Thousand Miles
  • Hear the Bells
  • The Marching Horn

Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.

An Interview with Vanessa Carlton

Vanessa Carlton recently released her fifth full-length studio album Liberman and an EP entitled Blue Pool.  She’ll play The Asylum in Portland on December 5th with opener Joshua Hyslop; tickets are still available.

vanessa-carlton-libermanWhat’s the story behind the title of your latest album, Liberman?
Liberman is my grandfather’s (on my mother’s side) original last name. He changed it when he got back from the war because of anti-semitism. He wanted to open a showroom selling his beautiful button down shirts that he designed for women and felt he would be more successful if he changed the name to Lee. He also happened to be a gifted painter and I have one of his painting hanging on my wall in NYC (this is when I still lived there). From where you sit at the piano you basically just stare at this painting and I get lost in it and I ended up writing most of the songs in that position. The music is the sound of that painting. It’s all about the palette. The original painting is the backdrop for my website.

What are you most of proud of with this album?
We set out to create a very specific sound and concept and me and all the artists on the record were able to follow through to the end with the idea. That’s hard to do sometimes. I’m proud of that.

You’ve mentioned Liberman is more of a sonic experiment, can you tell us more?
It’s not really an experiment its an album that priorities the sonic decisions. I’ve been heading in this direction for a while actually The sounds that we created and the palette Steve and I worked on is just as important as the songs in my opinion.

What’s your songwriting process like – does a song come all at once, lyrics first, melody first?
A couple songs came all at once but that’s rare. I wrote most of the instrumentals first and usually instantly have a vocal melody in mind but take a lot of time working on lyrics these days.

You recorded a duet with your husband, John McCauley, on the Deer Tick song ‘In our Time’ on their album Negativity and I see he plays on your new album… any more collaborations on the way?
Anyone is lucky to collaborate with John. Sure. Our finest and most high maintenance collaboration at the moment is our daughter Sid.

I’ve read that you started playing music at an early age, went to school for ballet, and turned back to music. What brought you to that place and is there anything you’d do differently?
I always played the piano even when I was very seriously studying ballet. I started writing songs when I was 16 and I got a publishing deal when I was 19. The music took over. Ballet is all or nothing.

Once Be Not Nobody was released things really took off, particularly with ‘A 1000 Miles.’ What was that experience like? Can you talk about how the music business has changed since that album was released in 2002?
It was pretty crazy. I was not ready for that and I was very much packaged and sold. That’s when people were still buying records. Things are different now obviously. There are more quality artists out there that are available to anyone around the world to listen to but it sucks that artist aren’t compensated for their work properly.

Related to the previous question, you released new material in an unconventional way this year on EW.com, Esquire, Nylon Magazine, Southern Living, and USA Today. What interested you about this approach?
I have great management, you’d have to ask them. That’s not my expertise by any stretch of the imagination!

You’re very open about your sexuality, your past with eating disorders, and health in general – your honesty is refreshing. Is it important to you to be honest with your fans? Has anything ever made you regret being so open about your personal life?
Not really.

My wife and I have a 16-month-old daughter and I know firsthand how much changes as a result. You have a 10-month-old girl – how has marriage and parenthood affected you personally and professionally? Congrats!
It’s the best thing ever. Our little family is everything to us.

What prompted your move from New York to Nashville?
I knew John wanted to be back in Nashville and frankly I was ready to finally leave NYC. I’d been there since I was 13! My dog needs a yard. And of course Nashville is such a wonderful place to live. Especially if you’re a musician.

What current music excites you?
I like the new Kurt Vile a lot. I can’t wait for new Deer Tick. I love the Florence and the Machine album. And the new Alabama Shakes sounds beautiful.

Lastly, any advice for musicians starting out?
Stay true to your instincts and seek out a mentor. Someone you trust that will push you.

Visit vanessacarlton.com to learn more.