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Vanessa Carlton: No ordinary girl

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Vanessa Carlton

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(CNN) -- Vanessa Carlton knows a lot about journeys. At 3, she made the journey from the floor to the top of a piano stool. There she tapped out her first tune, "It's a Small World," on ivory keys. As a young girl, she made endless trips between home and ballet classes.

But more recently, the 22-year-old singer/songwriter can tell you about her journey across America, performing for thousands of adoring fans.

It's little wonder that "A Thousand Miles" is the title of the debut hit that has ridden the music charts for months and brought Carlton global attention.

"It has been more like 21,000 miles to get me where I am," she told The Music Room. "It was the most intense journey of my life."

Since the April release of her album, "Be Not Nobody," Carlton, a classically-trained pianist, has watched her career skyrocket alongside other young female singer/songwriters like Michelle Branch and Avril Lavigne.

Vanessa Carlton's world is not so small anymore.

From performing Disney to Debussy and from twirling in ballet slippers to singing in the spotlight, she talked with TMR about her monumental journey.

TMR: Tell us a bit about getting to where you are today.

Carlton: It was a very intense couple of years. Put aside the fact that I am someone who's younger and growing up and trying to find my way, and then put me in this really strange music industry where you're trying to accomplish something that's artful and pure, but (at the same time) it's a business. It was the most intense journey of my life.

TMR: Why did you choose the title "Be Not Nobody" for your debut album?

Carlton: I just felt it was a perfect declaration of independence, even though it's grammatically struggling!

TMR: How hard is it to keep your artistic integrity in an industry that is often so driven by teen pop?

Carlton: I think it's very hard. I've been a performer since I was 5 years old. I'm not doing it to get attention. I'm doing it to express something that I love, and there's no point in doing what I'm doing unless it's honest and real. So it's not really hard for me to maintain integrity. It's just something that's very natural.

TMR: You trained as a ballerina. How does your dancing experience relate to your music now?

Carlton: I love dancing because of the music, and it's just an incredible way to express yourself. And I love music because it reminds me of dancing. I feel there's this romanticism of movement.

Music is something that offers me peace, and it's soothing. It was just a necessity for me. I don't know if many people know how difficult it is to train to be a ballerina. But it's one of the most intense art forms there is. Besides being so physical, it's mentally very confusing, and competitive. It's nearly impossible to survive. I was a very talented dancer ... but it was hard for me to find the joy in what I was doing anymore.

TMR: Tell me how "A Thousand Miles" came about? It sounds like a classical motif.

Carlton: It is! It reminds me of a (Aaron) Copland piece. But I don't know, I have no idea. I like what I like. My fingers kind of find their way. I sit down and things are going on and I feel I'm kind of not really in charge ... these combinations of colors and notes come out.

TMR: Interesting you mention Copland, because you seem to use the piano as a percussive instrument.

Carlton: That's one of the reasons why I love the instrument, because it's a very percussive instrument. There are these patterns (and) it's like playing the drums. I'm a horrible drummer, but I find patterns on the piano that are just as satisfying as playing the drums. A lot of Mozart pieces are so percussive. I definitely adopted a lot of that.

TMR: Where are you going with your music?

Carlton: I feel that I'll never stop writing. If anything, it's funny, people always say, "you have a hit song, a hit album. Suddenly all eyes are on you so what are you going to do next?" Nothing can take away the relationship I have with this instrument. It's just a constant stream of discoveries for me, and I'm just always pushing myself.

So I can only see myself grow as a songwriter, and I already have, since this album has been released. (I've been) writing new stuff all the time.

TMR: Tell me about your first encounter with the piano.

Carlton: It has always been a part of the landscape of my home. When I was 1 year old, my mom was selling pianos -- she's a pianist and she was also selling pianos -- so we ended up having this room in our house that was just filled with pianos. There were about seven of them.

I was almost 3 and we had just come back from a trip to Disneyland and my favorite ride was "It's a Small World." So I climbed up on the piano bench and played it, with one of my hands.

It was the first time I had that connection between something I was hearing and actually creating by myself.

TMR: Musically, what are your early influences?

Carlton: A lot of Mozart sonatas, Bach, a lot of Debussy, a bit of Rachmaninov, a lot of Chopin. The thing about classical music is that each note has a very important role. There's nothing that is meaningless in the piece. It's like a series of colors; you can't do without one of them.

TMR: Do you like touring?

Carlton: I love getting on stage. It really is the best part of my day. There is an intimacy, even if you're playing in huge sheds, with thousands of people. There's never a time where I don't find that connection with someone in the audience.

It's been amazing across the seas. When I first went to Japan, or when I first went to London, England, Sweden or Amsterdam I feel like a stranger. I don't live there. I'm not familiar. Yet I'm not a stranger to these people. If anything, it reminds me how powerful music is.

TMR: How do you like being compared by critics with the likes of Tori Amos and Fiona Apple?

Carlton: It's so much easier for critics and the media in general to put people in categories and little groups and they especially love to do it with female singer/songwriters who play piano. It can be frustrating, but I can't really control it. All I can do is continue putting out great albums.

TMR: Tell us about your second single, "Ordinary Day."

Carlton: "Ordinary Day" is really one of my favorite songs. It's a waltz so it just dances. It's the perfect balance of my ballet training and my musical training. It's just a very pure little moment that I had. It's one of the few songs that's a cohesive story. And it's about finding true love and discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. It's written from the point of view of an 18-year-old who just wants to be swept away and who's very ambitious as well.

TMR: Is that you?

Carlton: Yeah, I think so.

Back to The Music Room main page.



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