"I was very lucky to be offered a lovely piece of property to build a career on," says Vanessa Carlton. "I started building a house on it, but it wasn't necessarily a house I would want to live in. So I ripped down that house, and I worked with these great lumberjacks to build a really cool cabin - a place I want to drink whiskey in and hang out until the sun rises."
For her fourth album, Rabbits on the Run (Razor & Tie), Carlton needed a fresh start. She had been going at full sprint since she was discovered by legendary record executive Ahmet Ertegun when she was still a teenager, signed by Jimmy Iovine soon after, and exploded onto the pop scene with the platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated Be Not Nobody in 2002. But as she was nearing thirty, Carlton felt lost.
Ultimately, she made her way to Peter Gabriel's Real World studios in Box, England, where she created something that harks back to a different era of music-making: ten intimate, evocative songs, recorded direct to tape with a close-knit team of collaborators including producer Steve Osborne, drummer Patrick Hallahan from My Morning Jacket, and guitarist Ari Ingber of the Upwelling. It was not, however, an easy road to get there.
"For two years, I went through a very reclusive period," says Carlton. "I was confused by a lot of decisions I had made, heartbroken in a lot of different ways. Once I got through the initial stage of grieving, I started studying everything around me. I became a sponge - listening to a lot of music from the '70s, classical music, reggae, just observing and paying attention."
When she started creating again, she was writing instrumental music, and thought maybe that would be the next chapter of her work. But on a visit to England, she came up with a personal, revelatory song she called "London," and felt her writer's block receding.
As she returned home to New York City and tentatively ventured back into songwriting, though, Carlton knew that things had changed. "I had no one," she says. "I was completely self-contained, I left my label, had no producer. So this was me going back to the demoing process that I was doing when I was 17. In my writing, I didn't want to waste words anymore. It was a total arts-and-crafts vibe that I was doing all by myself."
During her years of retreat, there were two vastly different books that Carlton found herself returning to over and over, and she started to feel their influence in her new songs. "My brother is in college, and he and I would get into these intense debates about physics and philosophy," she says. "Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time really comforted me and helped me make sense of the chaos that is our lives."
Her other guiding text was a lifetime favorite, Richard Adams's epic tale of rabbit society, Watership Down. "My whole being related to this story," Carlton says. "I realized how lucky I am to be an artist in this world, how I somehow got out of the burrows. So not only did I link into the book in a fundamental way, but it helped me to continue to make the decisions on this project and keep exploring. I carried around Watership Down like a talisman, a bible."
As more songs were coming to Carlton, she was also realizing that she could hear an identifiable sound for them in her head. This concern for sonics was new for the singer: "I never had any interest in that - I love Pink Floyd, I love those sounds, but to me, they just appeared out of thin air." Recognizing that one of her favorite album was Lost Souls, the 2000 debut by post-Britpop band Doves, she made it a mission to locate its co-producer, Steve Osborne.
While continuing to sort out plans for her new music, Carlton visited her friend, singer/songwriter KT Tunstall. Coincidentally, Osborne himself turned up at a bonfire party at Tunstall's house - where, incredibly, he asked Tunstall if she happened to know Vanessa Carlton. Once she got over her shock, Carlton described some of her ideas for a new album, saying that she heard the sound of a "creepy children's choir" on some songs and that she knew she needed to record with analogue equipment. After this auspicious meeting, she began to send Osborne her home demos.
"I had a clear spectrum of sound in my mind for the album, and Steve understood and found the right tones for me," she says. Hallahan and Ingber eventually signed on for the ride, and they headed to England to bring a new and still-evolving batch of songs to life.
"We were trying everything many different ways, because we were so confident of the big picture," says Carlton. "In the past, I had always been really clingy about my words and arrangements, and that was a sign that I didn't really think it through. So I tried everything until I thought it was real honest - what it should be."
The songs that ultimately made up Rabbits on the Run retain Carlton's impeccable melodic sensibility, but are consistently surprising and unpredictable. "Carousel," the opening track and first single, sets a lilting and lyrical mood, while "Hear the Bells" creates a feel that's more ambient and creepy. The structures shift and veer on "London" and "Dear California," yet never lose their propulsion.
Incorporating the atmospheric sound of the studio, Carlton and Osborne stayed true to her ambition of capturing the vibe of her initial demos. "From the commencement of the sessions, the end goal was how it would sound on vinyl," she says. "It was always going to be ten songs, no matter what - I wrote all of these songs for this album, I didn't pull from a bucket of tunes."
With such commitment to the material, of course, some songs came easier than others. "The toughest nut to crack was definitely 'I Don't Want to Be a Bride,' because you can't waste a word in that song," she says. "I have at least twenty pages of lyrics for that one. The rhythm of the words has to be right, but it can't be elementary, every line has to move it forward. A song like that deepens my respect for old-school country storytellers like Johnny Cash."
In tribute to Stephen Hawking, Carlton explains, "In the End," the final song on Rabbits on the Run, has the album "disintegrating back to nothing." The haunting track - with a prayer to her brother woven in, addressing the death of a friend - actually uses the music from another song, "Tall Tales for Spring," with the tape slowed down. It's a perfect end note to an emotional and creative journey that represents nothing less than the rebirth of an artist.
"I felt like I wasn't navigating, but the time was navigating me," says Vanessa Carlton. "I wasn't manipulating the process at all. I got to that place where you don't think about how you're going to do it, you just do it in the way that feels the most clear and right. That shouldn't be so exotic, but I'd never gone through it before."