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March 22, 2017

Vanessa Carlton making her way to Northampton

(Robert Rigo/ Daily Collegian)

Vanessa Carlton, the singer-songwriter behind the pop hit “A Thousand Miles,” is headlining at The Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton Tuesday night. More than 15 years since Carlton’s debut single, she has created her own unique voice for herself as an artist, intentionally breaking from the mainstream mold.

Her current tour is focused on her two last album releases: “Liberman Live” and “Earlier Things Live” released on Oct. 21, 2016 and Feb. 17, 2017, respectively. “Liberman,” her fifth studio album was released in October 2015 and is an ethereal listening experience. Carlton describes it as “a concept record” with a “trance-y, dream feeling.”

For listeners who only know Vanessa Carlton from her early-2000 hits like “White Houses” and “Ordinary Day,” she is nearly unrecognizable on her newer albums. While her signature piano harmonies run throughout “Liberman,” her distinctive vocals have matured; she incorporates synthesizer and strings to create an airy, almost haunting atmosphere throughout the album. The result is a collection of songs that flow like a breath of fresh air, both more authentic and surreal than their pop-song predecessors.

“I don’t make for a very good pop star,” Carlton said in a phone interview with the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. “Once I got myself out of the major label machine, I felt the freedom to really explore sounds and ideas that I previously would never have been able to do.”

Literature and philosophy largely influence her lyrics and compositions. Carlton said that “very quickly the ‘dear diary’ thing gets pretty old” so she turns to outside sources like authors, science and nature to continue composing. She shared that her song “River” was inspired by a time when she “was thinking about the parallels between powerful rivers and all of the rivers of blood in our bodies and how we have a million rivers that run through us.”

Her relationship to nature is apparent through other tracks on “Liberman” as well, such as “Willows.” Her voice echoes on the track singing about a tree in a backyard: “Our weeping willow is hanging above me/On my back in the sun.” Carlton elaborated on this idea of our connection to nature, stating that people are like “walking micro-universes.” While writing lyrics for this album, she sought out these spaces that are “soothing to [herself] and listeners.”

Many of the songs still maintain their catchy tunes while incorporating these newer influences. Carlton’s song “Nothing Where Something Used to Be,” is arguably the catchiest song on “Liberman,” and quickly has the listener singing along to the lyrics, “You should do it, do it. Do it, do it.”

When asked how her marriage to Deer Tick frontman John McCauley and the birth of her daughter affected her songwriting in the past few years, she joked that she now dedicates her 2011 song “I Don’t Want To Be A Bride” to her husband. Carlton elaborated that that song is about the “real, real connection between people.”

“You get really lucky when you find a partner like that,” Carlton said. She added that the song was about not needing “the ritual or the party or the hoopla,” but about true love.

Looking back on the lyrics, she found it a funny coincidence that the song also includes the lines “Don’t need no golden ring/It’d be no match for the love it brings/From London/To Tennessee” considering that she is now living with her husband and daughter in Tennessee, something she “never in a million years thought would happen.”

In both the songs on her “Liberman” album and during the interview, Carlton focused on the deep connection between people and our world. Her voice has an authentic coon and genuine sense to it. Staying true to her own intuition is a high priority in her work nowadays.

She advises all aspiring artists to also avoid “adhering to trends.”

“Do not be afraid to go out on some limbs or on some tangents,” Carlton said. “We all try on hats for size, but at the end of day it’s really important to follow your own instincts because that’s what makes your point of view interesting.”

Carlton also shared that she has recently begun writing again after a hiatus.

“I foresee an album,” she said.

Although she is vocal about her opinions and politics on Twitter and believes that artists should not stop speaking out for what they believe in, when she steps on stage she said it’s not about politics.

“It’s about the music and it’s about the connection,” Carlton said of her performances. “For that one moment in the room, we escape our lives for an hour and a half to go to another place.”

Carlton is bringing this escape to Northampton’s The Iron Horse Music Hall tonight, March 7. Tickets are $25 in advance or $30 cash-only at the door. The show begins at 7 p.m.

Madeleine Jackman can be reached at mjackman@umass.edu.

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