Notes on Vanessa Carlton and the making of Harmonium
"Harmonium" is Vanessa Carlton's follow up to her multi-platinum debut Be Not Nobody, which had the number one single "A Thousand Miles" and top ten single "Ordinary Day". She wrote it while on tour and on sojourn in San Francisco. Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind produced Harmonium and it was recorded in San Francisco and Los Angeles over the last year. "Harmonium" takes its name from a vintage instrument which combines piano and flute. To Vanessa it means bringing difficult, chaotic things, things that have trouble fitting in one's life together to achieve harmony. Each of Harmonium's ingenious and individual tracks are unified by the talents of this unique musician and the purity of her voice. The result is a wholly authentic new album from Vanessa Carlton, and it marks her emergence as a musical stylist.
While on reprieve from tracking basics at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, Stephan Jenkins returned to the studio with Lindsey Buckingham who had praise for Vanessa's first album and curiosity for her new work. Soon the studio was filled with Stevie Nicks and Pharrell Williams; Kanye West dropped in as well. Lindsey ended up playing acoustic guitar on Vanessa's first single, 'White Houses,' and Pharrell sang back ups on 'Who's To Say'. These moments of spontaneity and community encapsulate the spirit in which Harmonium was recorded.
Making a Band
Two new factors influenced the arrangements and basic tracking of Harmonium: first, a year and a half of touring with her band developed Vanessa's empathy and nuance with other players; and second, Stephan and Vanessa arranged the songs together on drums and piano. "It was a band vibe in the way we put songs together,"it makes the album sound somehow younger and more organic," Vanessa has said. The spark being set so early in the song's arrangement allowed them to experiment without snuffing out the song's intent.
Sonatas and Improv
The signature of Harmonium comes from Vanessa's left hand. Classically trained from the age of two by her mother, Vanessa developed in a relaxed atmosphere. "I would learn a piece like Chopin, and then forget part of it and then make up a new ending myself." Her mother gave her the tools to explore. Piano was a world Vanessa could step into and control while growing up. "I would envelope myself in music, and that's how I navigated New York when I moved on my own so young. Music was my companion and my escape." It was also her expression. She improvises over classical voicings and time signatures, so she's not anchored by the usual suspects in pop progressions. Her style always finds the new harmonic and it gets nurtured on this album.
The common wisdom on follow-ups to successful debuts is: more of the same. Harmonium did just the opposite. Time moves and so has Vanessa. The songs for her first album Be No Nobody were written when she was seventeen and it was an inspired effort, not a formula. She made Harmonium at twenty-three after so much change. "So many second albums are made in fear. I couldn't make a new album based on remaking the last one, and I was not afraid to make an album based on what feels fresh and reflective to me. I think I realize only now that I really did take a risk."
Inner Landscape and Big Vistas
The music on this album goes from the painful intimacy of an uncertain breath, to grandly cinematic gestures of tympanis and a forty voice choir. Harmonium is about musical landscapes. Some are the inner landscapes of confessions and dreams; some are like musical expressions of mountains. Each song has it's own sensibility and none of them feels over thought or second guessed. A&M president Ron Fair: "If Be Not Nobody was wearing a cocktail dress, Harmonium is wearing jeans and a vintage shirt."
Co-writing and Collaborating
It was Interscope chairman, Jimmy Iovine that suggested Vanessa and Stephan write together. During a meeting where Vanessa played Jimmy the first five songs from Harmonium, Jimmy recognized similarities to his relationship as a producer with Stevie Nicks. "Stephan was my first successful co-write and he was careful not to foist anything on me. Instead he showed me that what is precious to me can be shared, not just protected, and I am a better songwriter because of it."
Vanessa's lyrics are more streams of consciousness. "I use my voice and words as another instrument and the words then tell me what the song is about." From the blissed out melancholy of songs like 'Afterglow' and 'San Francisco', to the bizarre noir of 'She Floats' and the secret track, 'The Wreckage', Vanessa conveys sensations that cannot be separated from their melody to be comprehended.
A Dancer Again
This year with the help of her choreographer Vanessa reclaimed her lyrical dance style. It is showcased in the video for 'White Houses', a study in different sides of Vanessa's personality making peace with the other, finding Harmonium. One can see what dancing again has done for Vanessa. The return of dance in Vanessa's life shows in her new ease and confidence. It changes touring as well. "I used to feel rooted to the piano, now I'm going to dance on top of it."