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Don't Call It a Comeback: Vanessa Carlton

Six years ago, A&M Records signed the piano-playing singer-songwriter while she was just a young lass studying at Columbia University. It was a match made in Billboard heaven when Carlton‘s debut single, “A Thousand Miles,” went Top Five and scored three Grammy Award nominations. Along with Michelle Branch and Alicia Keys, Carlton was in the forefront of the “Britney backlash” — young female artists who played instruments and composed their own songs.

Then her Tori Amos-influenced single, “White Houses,” got banned from radio and MTV because of its blunt lyrics about a girl losing her virginity. Its low chart position caused the album, “Harmonium,” to sell poorly and A&M to lose confidence. Carlton left the label.

Last year she caught the ear of Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo, who signed her to his hip hop label, The Inc. — formerly known as Murder, Inc.

But Carlton hasn’t gone rap, nor has she done a Nelly Furtado and sexed everything up.

The label allowed the 27-year-old to hold steady to her artistic vision and she’s quick to say the “seemingly odd coupling” works. She may be right: Her new CD, “Heroes & Thieves” is arguably her best yet, with its funky, autobiographical lead-off single “Nolita Fairytale” and the gorgeously wistful coming-of-age ballad “Spring Street.”

Carlton talked with Express by telephone in advance of her Birchmere gig. She spoke candidly about topics ranging from her relationship with ex-boyfriend Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind (who co-produced the new CD), to her feelings about her devoted fans, who call themselves “Nessaholics.”

» EXPRESS: Who thought up the idea of satirizing your “A Thousand Miles” video for your new video, “Nolita Fairytale?” They start the same, but in the new video, your trademark piano gets smashed by a cab.
» CARLTON: It was idea initially. My initial reaction was to laugh. And then I realized it’s so much deeper than just being humorous. It’s obviously a big metaphor, and so perfect to open the new door into the next chapter of my career.

» EXPRESS: On “Nolita Fairytale” you sing “take away my record deal.” Can you explain what happened with your former record company?
» CARLTON: Actually, I was given an ultimatum — basically like a slap on the wrist, like, “You shouldn’t have made ‘Harmonium’; you should have done everything we said.” Meanwhile, it wasn’t supported by them, so of course I was doomed to begin with on that project. They pulled the plug on my record and then said, “See, it didn’t work. You have to now reaudition [and] submit your songs as you write them. You have to do everything that we say.” So what’s the point of having an aesthetic and being an artist if you’re just some kind of puppet for a team of people that don’t necessarily know their own aesthetic? There was no other choice for me but to leave.

» EXPRESS: How did you come to work with producer Linda Perry on “Spring Street” and “This Time?”
» CARLTON: After “White Houses” was released, the label sent me back into the studio because they didn’t feel like I had a follow up single. One of the artists I worked with was Linda Perry and I really did connect with her. So I have to thank some people at my old label for hooking me up with Linda. We have a couple of other songs that didn’t make the record, but might come out in Japan or something.

» EXPRESS: You’ve released several rare b-sides and some of your early demos are circulating on the Internet. Are we ever going to get a Vanessa Carlton rarities CD for all the “Nessaholics?”
» CARLTON: I’d love to do that. Absolutely. When I collect enough b-sides that have enough buzz around them I think a selection of rarities warrant a record. I will do that in a heartbeat. I love those kind of Nessaholic-type fans. I love that’s the name they give themselves. I give them whatever they need to keep the addiction going.

» EXPRESS: I found it ironic that Stevie Nicks was on the record, singing backup on “The One,” because it seemed like you were working in a situation similar to when Fleetwood Mac was recording “Rumors,” where relationships within the band were breaking up.
» CARLTON: It’s funny you said that, because Stevie was in the studio with Stephan and me, and she was like, “It was just like [(Fleetwood Mac guitarist] Lindsey [Buckingham] and I.” She was stepping back in time, in a sense, because it was a very similar environment in the studio as it was when she was in the studio doing “Tusk” and “Rumors.” I met Stevie in 2004 when Lindsey played guitar on “White Houses.” We just connected. And she asked me out on tour with her at the end of 2005. I’ve been touring with her on and off for the past two years. But we developed a real friendship, and even more special than that, she’s been guiding me and mentoring me. It’s pretty extraordinary the impact she’s had. Not just on my career, but on my personal life.

» EXPRESS: How are you finding you fit in with the hip-hop artists at The Inc.? Doesn’t that Ivy League pedigree destroy your street cred?
» CARLTON: Ha, ha. Actually, you’d be surprised. A lot of these guys are so eloquent when they want to be. They have different lexicons they speak depending on who is around. It’s pretty funny. I guess I get the intellectual side of some of these hip-hop guys who you assume would give one word answers or something. But they’re all quite lovely and intelligent. I love the fact that this is kind of this abnormal and seemingly odd coupling. In the end I signed with Irv because I think he’s a brilliant guy and he has fantastic musical ears.

» EXPRESS: I had read some media outlets banned “White Houses.” Is this true — or is it a rumor that evolved because Ashton Kutcher made this an issue for a skit that featured you on “Punk’d?”
» CARLTON: It actually was censored and then Ashton kind of played on that. In the bridge of the song it lyrically describes a woman losing her virginity — in a very poetic, subtle and beautiful way. But nevertheless I do say the word “blood.” And I guess it wasn’t OK for me to say that word. And I think it’s absurd considering how graphic and disgusting things are on TV lately.

» EXPRESS: Back in April you performed at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser. Did you get to meet her and President Clinton?
» CARLTON: Yes, I did. I adore them as people in addition to their brilliant political careers and work. I am all for Hillary 100 percent. I really like Chelsea. I think they’re an extraordinary family. Anything I could do in terms of cross-pollination with the musical and political world to support Hillary I will.

» Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria; with Graham Colton, Wed., 7:30 p.m., $20; 703-549-7500.

Written by Express contributor Tony Sclafani

Photos by Kurt Iswarienko