Carlton maintains musical integrity despite label pressures of conformity

By on April 6, 2005

For the majority of new artists afforded the opportunity to record an album with backing from a big name label the exposure often proves huge. If a second album comes along, artists can consider themselves lucky, as second albums are often produced with uncertain pressure that the artist will either be made or broken in the public eye. Fans and critics who argue that music trends and artist personas are dictated solely by record labels should consider Vanessa Carlton, a nonconformist musician stepping into her own as a female solo artist.

This 24-year-old, with two albums under her belt backed currently by Interscope Records, is certainly no stranger to the rigors of the industry. Rather than conform to meet label standards and pressures to compete musically with other female artists, Carlton pushed for her own voice to shine through the second time around, meeting much resistance.

At a recent concert at Quinnipiac, Carlton performed for a crowd of students who had certainly heard of her material, but could have been singing along to a few more tunes than they were, had they realized she actually released a second album. After the show, The Chronicle chatted with the performer about the motivation behind her work, and how she maintains her integrity as a female artist in a male-dominated, urban driven music scene.

The campus performance marked the first stop in a string of Connecticut dates included on the “Harmonium” tour, named for her second album. While in the area, Carlton performed at smaller venues, like Mohegan Sun Casino, and has included a few other college dates on her tour roster. The Quinnipiac crowd seemed to impress Carlton, who enjoyed the opportunity to perform for her peer group.

“It’s been great,” she said, of performing at colleges like Quinnipiac. “It’s kind of the demographic that’s really suited for what I do and it’s kind of nice when people are old enough to get my jokes.”

Included in Carlton’s stage show are tunes from her first release, “Be Not Nobody,” (2002) as well as songs from last year’s “Harmonium.” Although her debut garnered media attention with the radio worthy “A Thousand Miles” and “Ordinary Day,” it is her follow-up disc that Carlton feels should be more readily attached to her name. The singer is optimistic, hoping that by releasing a more layered album, her music will be able to survive the cyclical nature of music today.

“There’s a gloss on the first album that I took off (for the second album) in that sense; it’s a little more complex of a listen but once you do kind of absorb it, I think it provides more satisfaction over a long period of time and it’s definitely more layered in terms of depth.

“I would say if the first album is wearing a dress and going out on a Friday night, this one is kind of dressed down casual and old vintage…the second one is closer to where I’m heading (artistically and personally),” she said.

Carlton admits that she did face resistance prior to the disc’s release, but stood firm to make sure she was satisfied with the final product that carried her name. She understands that her initial opinions on the album resulted in reduced sales and flack from industry brass, because she refused to conform to what was “in” at the time of “Harmonium’s” release.

“The label wasn’t very happy about (my decisions) so I’m kind of suffering from that, but I don’t regret the album that I made. I feel like artistically I definitely made the right decision in terms of kind of gaining the kind of attention from press and the credibility that you want to maintain throughout your career so that you can have fans that will follow you for years and years. That’s really important to me,” she said.

In discussing her contemporaries in today’s music scene, Carlton reflected briefly on the Ashlee Simpson lip-synching incident during a Saturday Night Live performance. The 20-year-old Simpson was blasted by critics for performing to a backing track on live television. In contrast, for Carlton, her live performance is what sets her apart, she says, calling the nature of her music ‘organic.’

“I think that…it’s really an asset that I’m kind of in contrast to most girls and a lot of people in the industry. It’s nice that you set yourself apart,” Carlton said.

Like many other young performers watching out for their best personal and professional interests, Carlton works hard to always know what she is getting herself into. Regardless of how she fares with radio airplay or concert tickets sales, the most important thing for the singer to do is to make sure she can look back on her career and be satisfied.

“(In the music business) you certainly grow up fast. Suddenly you’re the CEO of your own company when you’re 21-years-old. It’s a lot of responsibility and it’s difficult for me in some ways. I’m kind of learning as I go along and trying to balance my career with what’s important to me personally. You really have to make sure that you are in control of everything you’re putting out there and you can stand behind what you do, and at the end of the day you can really be proud of your career and the way that you shaped it,” Carlton said.

For more information on Vanessa Carlton, check out her Web site at www.vanessacarlton.com. She continues touring in support of her second album through April.

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