Over the past couple years, some musicians have taken the turbulence of our crumbling democracy and a global pandemic and turned it into art. Vanessa Carlton acknowledges this, but she can’t identify with it.
“I’m just not like that. I’m literally frozen,” she says. “I’m just absorbing, frozen in my chair, looking at my laptop.”
But when her dear friend and mentor Stevie Nicks asked Carlton to join her on tour this fall, it was the boot she needed to get back behind the piano.
“When Stevie called me the first time, she was like, ‘I’m going on the road. Do you want to come with me?’” Carlton recalls. “And I was like, ‘What? Stevie, I have not played the piano in months. I’ve just been sitting in my chair frozen.’ She was like, ‘You need to go and sit at the piano again.’”
Fast-forward a few months, and that’s exactly what she’s doing now—the new leg of Nicks’ headlining U.S. tour is underway and running through the end of October, with Carlton, 42, opening the show. It’s a familiar rhythm for the longtime friends, whose nearly two-decade relationship has encompassed not only a handful of live tours together, but also cover songs (Nicks recorded Carlton’s “Carousel” for 24 Karat Gold), wedding officiating (Nicks had the honors at Carlton’s wedding in 2013), and more than a few sage life lessons.
“Something I learned from Stevie is you create your world wherever you go,” Carlton says. “Don’t expect this room or this space or this moment to change your mood or cheer you up. And that’s what she does every night. That’s what she does in every town, in every room she’s in. She creates her world.”
In Carlton’s case, she’s certainly managed to reinvent and reshape her own world several times over. After her mainstream breakthrough in 2002—driven largely by her most enduring hit, “A Thousand Miles”—she ditched her TRL-friendly pop sound and has continued expanding her palette with each subsequent release. The opening track of her most recent album, 2020’s Love Is an Art, says it all in the title: “I Can’t Stay the Same.”
Now, Carlton is in the early stages of writing her seventh album as she rejoins Nicks on tour. Before hitting the road, she chatted with The Daily Beast via Zoom from her home in Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband, Deer Tick frontman John McCauley, and their 7-year-old daughter, Sidney. Below, Carlton tells us about learning not to feel “held hostage” by “A Thousand Miles,” how she met and bonded with Nicks, why her art is inherently political, and what to expect from her new music.
How are you feeling about getting back on the road?
Awesome. It’s my most favorite thing to do in my career to open a show for Stevie Nicks. It is the most honorable musical moment for me personally. It’s like watching a master class when I get to go out with her. So there’s a lot going on for me. There’s me sort of reshaping my little show: What do I want to say, what do I not want to say, how am I approaching this? And then there’s the, “OK, just watch and learn.” To be able to get to watch my mentor continue to evolve like this, it really is super inspirational.
So where are you at right now in terms of figuring out what you want to say with these shows?
It’s funny because when I’m talking to my computer screen at home, it’s like, no one wants to hear that onstage. I lose my mind every day. And I think what’s so cool about watching Stevie is she’s really good at bringing people together and inspiring people to think more positively, more deeply. It’s always been very healing for me to experience her show. So I think in times like this—where democracy seems like it’s really on the verge of falling apart, and to see the extremism that’s happening in our country—that fear can translate into rage or anger or aggression. And I don’t think that works for me on stage.
So for me it’s like, OK, how do I make this experience a really wonderful experience for everyone that maybe makes them want to feel more joy or makes them feel better about themselves or validate something dark in them that makes them be able to release that? That’s really why it’s so cool to tour with Stevie, because she knows that that’s her purpose. I’m a little bit more non-filter. So I don’t know. It’s really, for me, about creating an experience that, first of all, makes people warmed up and ready for the spirits, for Stevie, and also that they leave our show feeling like they maybe want to make their world better.
As an opener with limited time onstage, how do you get that message across? Is it through your setlist, or interacting with the audience between songs, or what?
It’s both. And I’m always paranoid that I’m going to be late. I hate going over. So I try to stay on point. It’s good. It’s like you got to get in, get out, cut the fat.
Considering you have so many albums in your catalog, how do you make those decisions about what to include in your setlist for shorter shows like these?
I think that I went through a period many years ago where I felt a bit held hostage by “A Thousand Miles.” The majority of people that attend my shows, they know all the records. But there will always be a couple people that are there just to hear that song and they get shit-faced and they start ruining the show. So I was like, “How do I solve that?” So I started playing that song first, which was great because it releases everyone, or the people that were just waiting for it.
I don’t want to hold anyone hostage at the show, you know what I mean? So with that said, I always play that, and I know “White Houses” really resonates with people. Those are songs that are from another time for me, but I totally understand their place in my set now. I get it. And then I will play stuff that’s interesting to me that makes me feel compelled, or something that I’m working on that I just really enjoy.
I imagine someone like Stevie can relate to that feeling of needing to “play the hits.” People would probably riot if she didn’t perform “Edge of Seventeen.” Is that something you’ve ever talked about with her?
Oh, yeah. Years ago, I was upset about some show that I had [where] people came in the middle of the show and they didn’t know any of the other songs. They weren’t interested in the performance at all, they just wanted [“A Thousand Miles”]. My shows are usually pretty intimate and I put a lot of thought into the arc of the set. So I was pissed and I was like, how do I get around this? And she’s like, “Vanessa, do you think there’s ever been one show I’ve ever played in my life that I didn’t play ‘Landslide’?”
So she gets it. She understands, and I do too now, that you are there not just to present an experience. You’re there also as a service to people who paid money for your show, and they have some expectations. And I’m not saying all artists have to follow that, but I think that I get more leeway to take some bigger risks and do whatever the hell I want in some ways because I fulfill certain duties.
So you and Stevie have known each other for such a long time. How did you two meet?
We met in 2004 at the Record Plant in L.A. I was there recording my second record and Stevie was with some of the Fleetwood Mac members in another room editing something. All I remember is her walking through the door, and I was quite starstruck. And then once you hear Stevie start speaking, she’s such a warm person. She immediately just makes you feel comfortable. She said to me, “I love your record. Jimmy played it for me before it came out.” Jimmy Iovine was at the time the president of my label, and Jimmy produced her first solo record. So I think it was really Jimmy that sort of brought us together in a way. And then my record came out and did not do what the label wanted it to do. I was like, “What am I going to do?” I was really young at the time, I didn’t know how anything worked. Am I going to get to tour? Is it over? I’m like 24 years old. And I get a call out of the blue from Stevie’s manager, Sheryl Lewis, and she was like, “Do you want to come tour with Stevie?” And I was like, “What? Is that a thing? Is that a thing that I could ever do?”
So ever since then, this was 2005, she took me on the road with her and changed my life. I went from the sad, sullen girl in her dressing room by herself with… what was on my rider? It was like a bottle of vodka, a roasted chicken, and a carton of raspberries. That was how I toured. My dressing room looked like a jail cell. And by the end of that tour, Stevie took one look at how I was touring and she was like, “You need to get a dog.” And she took me under her wing. And ever since then I’ve just felt like I’ve been flying, really.
Wait, why get a dog? Just to have more responsibility or something?
All of the things. I was doing my show on my own, just solo piano. And they were generous enough, this is back in 2005, to allow me to piggyback on their crew. So it was literally just me. And the vodka. It’s so important, yes, just the connection, the camaraderie. My dog, he just passed away last year, but his name was Victor and he was the most special long-haired dachshund. And yeah, you can’t just like mope around in a hotel room or sleep too late or drink too much. It’s connections with pets and animals—particularly if you’re some sad girl on the road by yourself, get a dog. It’s going to change your life. He totally changed my life. And that was because of Stevie, because I saw how she toured.
So she always tours with a dog?
I’m sure there are plenty of artists who have cited Stevie as an influence over the years and probably wanted the kind of relationship with her that you have. What is it that you think bonded you two together?
I would argue that maybe everyone feels close to her. She is one of those people that’s very honest about her experiences and very warm. And she has this natural teaching quality. So I think that she has that really magical ability to connect with everybody. But for her and I… I don’t know, you’d have to ask her. I mean, she and I are very close. When I had my daughter in my very unplanned C-section, she was there holding my hand as I’m like, throwing up into my hair. We’re really quite close and have seen each other through some tough times and some really beautiful times. So I’m just one of those really, really super ridiculously lucky people.
One thing you have in common, as you alluded to earlier, is that you’re both very outspoken about political and social issues. I know that, for example, when something like the war in Ukraine or Roe v. Wade is in the news, both of you will have said something about it on Instagram. Do you feel a responsibility to use your platform in that way, and does that come naturally to you?
Life is political. That’s the thing. It’s not separate from who I am. My values are not separate from who I am as an artist. So I think that it makes sense for Stevie to be inspired to write a statement after a school shooting about what happened or what she’s feeling about that and how she’s feeling about these gun laws. It’s all connected. Most musicians now, you have to stand for something. Given how divisive and how polarized the country is and how extreme the Roe v. Wade call was, I’m not saying you have to speak if you don’t want to, of course not. But you definitely stand for something. And every artist has to come to their own conclusion about what works for them in terms of how they communicate their values through their work or through their show. I do think it’s an obligation for every artist. I really do. But that’s me. I can be very fiery about this because I lose my mind when I see someone not saying something. And that’s not fair of me. But positions of influence should be used for good.
And what about putting that into your work? Because something like “Die, Dinosaur,” both the song and the video, is an act of protest. Do you get inspired to write and make music based off of what you see around you?
I have been completely frozen. Some artists wrote their pandemic record and wrote during the most excruciating year of news that I’ve ever seen or experienced. And I’m just not like that. I’m literally frozen. I’m just absorbing, frozen in my chair, looking at my laptop. Actually, when Stevie called me the first time, she was like, “I’m going on the road. Do you want to come with me?” And I was like, “What? Stevie, I have not played the piano in months. I’ve just been sitting in my chair frozen.” She was like, “You need to go and sit at the piano again.” And I was like, “I know.”
But I will say this, it’s pretty intense. With the Roe v. Wade thing, for instance, I had suffered a really intense ectopic miscarriage. My fallopian tube burst and I was internally bleeding and I had to go to the ER. And then once they took a scan and saw how much blood had pooled in my abdominal area, I was in surgery within 45 minutes. And so when Roe v. Wade was taken away, I started losing my mind. So this is my process, and I’m just trying to explain where I’m at so you’ll understand why I’m not quite ready to write a song about it yet. I was just swearing. I was just like, “Fuck this, fuck this. This is insane.” I couldn’t process my anger. I couldn’t process my fear. I couldn’t process my sadness. And I still can’t. I still can’t even write my story yet. And I think when the time comes for me to make my record—which I’ve written a few songs that I’m really excited about—I want it to be an experience for people and not like a dumping ground. My views or my experiences, if it ends up in a song, I want it to be more magical than brutal and miserable.
When did that ectopic miscarriage happen?
Before my daughter was born [in 2015].
Wow. I’m sorry you went through that. Where are you at right now in terms of dealing with writer’s block because of the state of the world? You mentioned some possible new music?
I’m going to take my Casio [on tour]. I’m away from my family for the entire month of October because Stevie creates this sort of hermetically sealed COVID bubble so that no one gets sick. So my goal is to write another huge chunk of my record on tour in October.
Do you think that record will take after Love Is an Art, or do you want to do something else entirely?
I don’t know what it will be yet. But I do know that I have the great privilege of getting to work with Dave Fridmann again. And I’m so glad I’m saying this out loud because it really makes it real, because he’s an awesome musician and producer. So I think to be able to just say, let’s do this again. Now that we’ve worked with each other for the first time, we know each other better, where can we go next? I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but it will happen.
One thing that struck me about that last album was that it sounded so different from anything you’d done before. Some songs, like “Miner’s Canary,” were very piano-forward, but there was a lot of psychedelic instrumentation too. Is that the direction you’re leaning toward, and is experimenting with your sound something you want to do more of?
Oh, absolutely. Working with Dave is like going to this sonic playground of dreams. That was the first time we worked together, and I know he’s had a longstanding relationship with The Flaming Lips, and look at how things evolved over the course of their work together. So I’m looking forward to playing with more ideas. And there’s no expectation.
The other thing is, it’s such a humbling process. It’s like the minute you start, you have to be willing to put all of your ideas aside because they can immediately become a restriction. Whatever roadmap I make for my next project, I’ve been very humbled by the map needing to change and loving how it changes, being open to how the map changes.
Is there any recent or new music that you have loved that you’re maybe taking a cue from?
OK, I’m a complete nerdo and I obsessively listen to music. But my latest is WCRB. It’s like Renaissance music. It’s like an old Boston, old classical station, 99.5. I don’t even know if it’s still functioning because the playlist runs out every seven hours. So it’s not modern music that I’ve been listening to. I don’t know if that’s because I’m such an ancient being at this point, but I just love it.
My mother is a classical pianist and she really raised me on a lot of classical music in my early developmental stages. So I think I sort of always go back to that. But what I’m always pursuing and what I always love to listen to is something that transcends. I have to get the bumps on my arm. I have to be taken to another place. But that’s just me.