Before October’s Liberman, the last time Vanessa Carlton released a full-length album was the summer of 2011. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” had only just taken over the world, the Royal Wedding was all anyone could talk about, and Friday Night Lights was just breaking everyone’s hearts in its last season. The album, Rabbits on the Run, was Carlton’s fourth full-length and her first without a major label, topping out at 62 on the Billboard charts. It hardly seemed like any sort of beginning for the singer-songwriter, whose relentlessly catchy “A Thousand Miles” had already served as the soundtrack for one too many coming-of-age tales and a regrettable White Girls scene. But to hear Carlton tell it, Rabbits on the Run was exactly the rebirth her career and creative side needed.
“Rabbits on the Run was the solidifying record that set me on my way,” she says. “[Liberman] is the second release on that path. It’s much less about me and more about the concepts.”
It was Rabbits on the Run where she began her work with producer Steve Osborne, whose portfolio includes credits on albums with U2, Doves and New Order. Osborne would go on to produce most of Liberman, too, continuing down the path of self-determination he’d forged with Carlton with Rabbits.
“I was really liberated in the sense that I felt like I was back to square one,” she says of their work together. “Whatever project or whatever record I wanted to make, I just could do. I felt like I could create anything I wanted. No matter what the genre — no pressure on singles or any of that crap.”
If Rabbits on the Run was about Carlton breaking out of where she’d been, Liberman is as much about finding her footing, settling in and expanding upon her newfound confidence.
“When you’re making art that you love, you have to really enjoy the process, just piecing together the puzzle and playing around with different sounds,” she says. Liberman is less confessional than Carlton’s previous work; it takes a more meditative tone and touches on universal, reassuring concepts. Its release comes on the heels of a slew of long-term changes in her private life: She wed Deer Tick frontman John McCauley, became a mother, moved out of her home in New York City and bought a place in Nashville, a decision that had musical motives alongside personal ones.
“I love New York,” she says. “I’m a New Yorker until the day I die. It’s my favorite city in the world, but you can be very isolated. I could go for days without talking to anybody. That’s just the way that city is, and that’s not really how it is [in Nashville].”
The last few sessions for Liberman were recorded there, operating out of Playground Studios with producer Adam Landry. His work with McCauley on albums for Deer Tick, Diamond Rugs and Middle Brother made him a natural connection for Carlton once she made her way to Music City.
“It’s a very pure approach to work, John and all the people I’ve met through John,” says Carlton. “Maybe they’re corrupted in certain ways, in terms of drinking or whatever — if you wanna use corrupted as a word for that — but in terms of their work, they’re not corrupted by any sort of big force that is pushing all of these musicians to try and sell their music.”
That’s the kind of purity that shines through on Liberman; it’s a purity that’s less about simplicity in execution and more about clarity in vision. Purity, in this case, meant moving beyond the girl-with-a-piano label that listeners had stamped upon Carlton with her ubiquitous releases a decade ago and creating art that ignores consumption. She pushes boundaries with varied instrumentation, bouncing between electric and acoustic guitars and integrating organs, pronounced percussion and synthesizers. The bridge between the old Vanessa Carlton and the new is, of course, her voice, which carries the lyrics to a more pensive place and gives each song a weight that makes “A Thousand Miles” feel like a thousand years ago.
“The shows are not going to be that sparse. I’m really going to try and recreate that sonic world the best that I can with two people,” she says of her upcomi ng live dates. Touring without a full band presents a challenge in the live setting, but Carlton feels confident about delivering the same auditory experience onstage with just two people. “Between Skye [Steele, strings player] and me, we can get weird enough. We can pull up enough sounds that I think it can come close to the feeling of the record.”
On Liberman and in the performances that have followed, Carlton crafts the sonic landscape where she wants to live, disregarding where she’s supposed to be in favor of where she wants to go.
“Once you listen to it, you get it or you don’t, but at least you know what the intention is,” she says. “It’s not all over the map. In a way, it’s a very short record in terms of what kind of world we wanted to create. Whether people want to live in that world or not, I have no idea. But that wasn’t really the point.”