Vanessa Carlton on Analog Tape and Upright Pianos


By Michael Gallant

Vanessa Carlton used some unexpected tools to striking effect on her newest album, the organic Rabbits on the Run. For starters, the whole album was recorded to analog tape at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the U.K., aided by U2 and K.T. Tunstall producer Steve Osborne. Second, in lieu of the polished piano tone that characterized her early radio hit “A Thousand Miles,” Vanessa gravitates towards a time-worn sound played on an idiosyncratic upright she discovered thanks to Tom Jones—more on that later. Then, there was quantum physics: Rabbits draws lyrical inspiration from a number of books, among them Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

Why did you record to analog tape?
There are two reasons. First, I love the soundscape of analog recording. It was always what this record was supposed to sound like in my mind. It’s an aesthetic that I grew up with, listening to my parents’ record collection from the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve always dreamt of recording this way, so in a way, it’s odd that it took me ten years into my career to make it happen, but at least I finally got there.

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The second reason is that recording to analog tape fundamentally affects the way you perform a song, the approach you take to an arrangement, and the overall vibe in the studio. Having the limitations that are part of working with analog tape can actually be wonderful. A lot of times I find that when musicians are put into situations where there are very set kinds of rules—let’s say we only have four tracks or this much tape to work with—there’s an energy and honesty to the performances all around, because you have to make it work in that moment. And it’s all due to working in this medium.

Was recording to tape ever a problem?
We had some headaches with the tape recorders breaking because it’s vintage gear. I’m lucky, though. While Steve and the Real World staff were working on fixing things, I got to sit under a willow tree and refine lyrics for another song. [Laughs.]

Did you record most takes live?
A lot of the skeletal elements—drums, guitar, and piano—are live with us all playing at the same time. There was great energy recording with the other musicians in the big room at Real World. A lot of the vocal effects and lush, swooping sounds that you hear coming in and out, those are magical things that Steve knows how to do. We crafted those very late at night as overdubs. A lot of the swells and things, those came from manipulation on my vocals.

What kind of piano did you use? It has a really distinct tone.
Tom Jones had done a record at Real World and there was an upright piano on one of his tracks that Steve really liked. He found out where that piano had been borrowed from, somewhere in a town in England called Bass, which is about ten minutes from Real World. It’s this little old white pine upright called a John Brinsmead. He knew right away when he heard it that that was what we were looking for.

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How did he know?
When Steve and I had started talking about pianos, I’d said that I wanted the piano that’s been sitting in the parlor at Grandma’s house forever. Nobody ever plays it and it’s probably the most charming sound you’ve ever heard. It feels like an old wine and it doesn’t sound too precious because it’s not a big grand. So that’s it—the John Brinsmead. We found it. We opened it up to mic it when we recorded, and it had the word “Schwander” on a sticker inside. I think that’s the description of the piano’s action—but anyway, we call it the Schwander, because the name “Brinsmead” is so proper. The piano has some swagger and it’s a little eccentric, so the name stuck.

What other keyboards are on the album?
We used a Hammond B-3 through a Leslie on “I Don’t Want to Be a Bride” and a Mellotron as well—but most of the swells and sounds that you hear came, again, from manipulation of my vocals.

Where did the piano part from “In the End” come from?
That was one time when you realize, God bless the analog approach. It was really kind of random. We were winding tape for “Tall Tales for Spring” at half speed, and the most spooky sounds filled up the studio. It became a whole other animal, and we never forgot that. When it was time to decide how to conclude the record, we asked ourselves, what made sense? We ended up pulling out the tape from “Tall Tales” and overdubbing on top of that—some ukulele and other stuff. I started singing the top line, Steve drenched my vocals, and we created what you hear on the album. So basically, it all started with slowed down tape. The piano part is the exact same piano part from “Tall Tales for Spring.”

What was the songwriting process like for the album?
I’m reading a book called Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit that’s all about how the mind develops so much from long walks, and I’ve spent a lot of time walking. There were a couple years after my last record, before I commenced on this record, where I just wandered around this earth, a total gypsy. A lot of the ideas for songs crystallized on walks, away from the piano. The melodies always come so easily for me, and I feel that that door, for some reason, is always open for me. But really getting down to what I want to say, what poetry or picture or story I want to connect with—that’s more difficult. I just don’t think I ever pushed myself in a very extreme way [with earlier albums]. It’s scary to be honest. So there were a couple years that went by when I didn’t write anything, and then I started crafting together the stories and notions in my head based on the books I’d been reading, and weaving it all together with melodies.

What books were the biggest influences?
Watership Down by Richard Adams and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I was looking for anchors and those books ended up fulfilling that role. They spoke to mysticism, spirituality, and science in a way that I really connected with, especially for that time in my life—I was dealing with a lot of chaos, a lot of pain and loss, all at the same time. The books are actually so different, but they hit me in the same way, and they influenced both my personal philosophy and what this record turned out to be.

Do you transcribe melodies when you write songs?
I never write out notes. I just memorize everything as I write. Every song I’ve written, I know what notes to play—lyrics, I forget all the time. The Hal Leonard songbook for this album, though, is something I’ve worked on a lot. It’s definitely the most accurate songbook I’ve ever done, in terms of reflecting what I actually play. In terms of crafting the top line combined with the melody of the piano and having it all make sense, the songbook really is its own variation, and it has to be done right. Books like these are mostly done by other arrangers, but I wanted to get in the trenches and be part of the book for Rabbits on the Run. It was an amazing process.

Musically, who do you look up to right now?
In terms of dynamics, I love the way Aaron Copland writes. In terms of building layers upon layers and creating tension, I think Philip Glass is a master. To be honest, I haven’t listened to popular radio in a long time—I have satellite radio, but I go to the vinyl station—so when it comes to mainstream music, I’m a bit out of it. I should start paying more attention. [Laughs.]

Is the piano you used in the studio going on the road with you?
My dear Schwander is in England. She’s an old lady, and I think that’s where she belongs. I don’t know if she can handle the road. I do have a ’72 Rhodes I’m going to take out with me, and Yamaha has been awesome about providing me with pianos and keyboards on the road.

Given your background as a ballet dancer, do you see any overlap between dancing and playing piano?
It all comes from the same place, and I connect to both the same way. I love dancing because of the music, and I wish I could not be so idle when I played, that I could move more with the music. As a dancer, I also love waltzes, and I think I have a waltz on every album. “Tall Tales for Spring” was written as a waltz, and I spent a lot of time working on those lyrics to make them match that feel.

How has your songwriting changed since “A Thousand Miles”?
I feel like I’m chasing after something. There’s no end to the process of growing as a person or an artist, and it’s very important to me to evolve my aesthetic in a way that’s organic. I want to protect that mental space where I can move, grow, and experiment.

In terms of lyrics, it’s an honor to be able to write and to have people look to me for that. But just because I can complete a song doesn’t mean a song is done. There’s so much to learn. When you’re 20 or 21, you’re going full speed ahead and not necessarily getting into the art of truly crafting something. There’s an awareness that comes with age and experience. I just want to get better and better, and to write stories that people connect with—beautiful, transcendent, simple, uncomfortable, or whatever a song may turn out to be. I just want it to be honest.

Watch the official video for “Carousel” and get a complete songbook for Rabbits on the Run.

*Photos by Brantley Gutierrez.