Here’s the latest video by the Chop Shop Records’ act Scars On 45, the title track to their Give Me Something EP. FYI, The British band’s name comes from an Emmylou Harris interview during which she remembered her dad warning her against playing with his record collection and leaving any scars on his 45s.
A Conversation with Vanessa Carlton
Mike Ragogna: Vanessa, how are you and what’s up with your new album Rabbits On The Run?
Vanessa Carlton: I’m great. I’ve been in a rabbit hole for three years. I’ve been in England, mostly, working on this project. It took me about two years from the commencement of the writing, to the mastering and the final days working on it. Actually, I’m still to this day working on the artwork with the wonderful Joe Radcliff, who did all of the amazing illustrations of the rabbit for the album cover and the vinyl cover. So, that’s where I’ve been…immersed in this.
MR: Great, Now, this is your fourth studio album is that right?
MR: And you recorded it at Peter Gabriel’s studio?
VC: I did. I was so lucky to be able to do that. I didn’t even know a place like that existed.
MR: What was that process like?
VC: It was incredibly organic. I call it arts and crafts. It was just a pure exchange of ideas that were kind of hovering around a very distinct aesthetic message that was carved out very clearly. I think that allowed us to really play around. We recorded all analogue. We collaborated with Patrick Hallahan, the drummer of the band My Morning Jacket and Steve Osborne my producer, and the Capital Children’s Choir – which is a children’s choir based out of London.
MR: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the album had a theme before you even started recording, right? Didn’t you get your inspiration from a couple of books?
VC: Yes, I did. I think one of the books that help me break out of the writer’s block that I was suffering from at the time was Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History Of Time. That was a very chaotic time of my life, personally, and it obviously got in the way of my creative process. I mean, I stopped writing songs. I wrote some instrumental pieces, but I was struggling a lot. That book helped me make sense of a lot of the chaos, from a physics standpoint, that goes on in the universe. But I was able to apply all of that to my micro-universe, if you will. The way that he marries the physics and the philosophical made it an incredibly influential and important book to me at the beginning of this process. Watership Down by Richard Adams was the other book – which seemed appropriate because he is an Englishman and I recorded this record in England. That story, which is about these rabbits breaking away and creating something pure for themselves was very inspiring to me. I literally carried that book around with me for a year, almost like a bible.
MR: As you were getting inspiration from these two books, were you also contemplating and exploring consciousness and evolution and things of that nature?
VC: Yes. I think I was also exploring existential reasoning. But, for me, it was kind of figuring out a spirituality of some sort, something that I felt I was maybe missing in my life. I felt much more plugged in once I found the recipe of those two books together for some reason. It made me feel alive again and made a lot of sense to me in terms of exploring my own purpose and why I exist.
MR: Nice. Do you think that the writer’s block that you were experiencing was because of something you were missing personally but found in those books?
VC: Absolutely. Things were very cloudy for me for a couple years. I mean, I think it’s difficult to be in your ’20s. But I definitely lost my way and I had to get back on track. I’ve never felt so clear-minded as I do now. If anything, it’s the most humbling thing in the world because it makes you realize just how small and daunting everything is, yet how beautiful it is at the same time. But I do think that I had to reach a place where writing was absolutely necessary.
MR: I know we mentioned that this is your fourth studio album, but technically, it’s more like four and a half for you. Can you tell us a little bit about your initial demos and the process leading up to your first full studio album?
VC: Sure. I started recording songs on a cassette tape when I was about 16 or 17, when I was still in ballet school, and the cassette tape ended up in the hands of Ahmet Ertegun who is one of the founding fathers of Atlantic Records – the godfather of the music industry. I then had the honor of being invited into his world. After I finished all of my classes during the week, I would go and talk to him and he would tell me stories about the music industry. During that time, I was also piecing together a record of sorts. Then, I ended up signing with Interscope Records, mainly because at the time, Atlantic was kind of a figurehead in the music industry. I think Ahmet was still very interested in working with me, but no one else at Atlantic was so I moved on to Interscope. After all of that, I recorded a record that was kind of put on the shelf that was tentatively titled Rinse – it was a cleansing, if you will. It’s certainly something that a 17 year-old girl would come up with. (laughs)
MR: Didn’t you work with Jimmy Iovine on a few more tracks while finishing up the others?
VC: Actually, I didn’t end up working with Jimmy, but he oversaw the project. He handed the project over to Ron Fair and Ron took it over and re-recorded it. All at once it was a big deal! It was a big flashy situation that I had never been a part of before – all of a sudden, there was an orchestra and everything. I was just watching everything that was going on with these wide eyes. These were my songs and I couldn’t believe it.
MR: And that record produced the hits, “A Thousand Miles,” “Ordinary Day,” and “Sweet Baby,” along with three Grammy nominations that year, right?
VC: Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. That was a big surprise.
MR: What was that like?
VC: That really opened some doors for me. I am, to this day, very grateful. That led to more and more work and I felt that it was my job to evolve as much as I can and refine my craft as I could. I really was given an amazing opportunity. I felt like I was lovingly accepted into the music world.
MR: And from there you went on to Harmonium, which was recorded at the Skywalker Ranch.
VC: (laughs) Light sabers everywhere. It was similar to Real World Studios, which is where I recorded this latest one. Kind of. It was beautiful. It was the same in the sense that I was an isolated studio where you lived and could bike to the studio everyday and work there. It was much more elaborate and enormous compared to where I was in England. But when you’re living, breathing, and working in the same space in nature, it’s great. To even be able to stumble upon a studio like that is rare, but that’s also the place where I work best. That was a great find.
MR: That album contained one of, if not my favorite, song in your repertoire “White Houses.”
VC: Thank you very much.
MR: There was also a bit of controversy behind that song, right?
VC: Well, that was a collaboration with the writer Stephan Jenkins, and it was a great time. I guess there was a bit of controversy and I understand it, I think. I think I was viewed as much more of a “sweet girl,” I don’t know. Not that that’s not a sweet song, but it’s a very realistic song. It’s a serious song with a serious and multi-dimensional story. I’m not sure why it was just accepted for what it was and it had to be censored in certain ways. I think it was because of my age or whatever pre-conceived notion people may have had about my image, I’m not sure. But I’m 30 now, so hopefully, it’s much more accepted. (laughs) Hopefully, the notion is, “Oh, I get it. She’s a woman now.”
MR: It seems that it’s always been a bit more of a struggle for young female pop artists in this industry, that they are judged much more harshly based on their actions and the content of their material than young guys or especially other older artists. Do you agree?
VC: Yeah. The other is issue is that, having been one of those girls, I know that they are all figuring it out on their own, so cut them a break. Also, girls in that position or young women that are coming of age can’t raise your children for you because they are on a path of their own as well. People shouldn’t be so quick to judge them. Granted, I have seen all of that from afar because I’m not that plugged-in to pop culture, but I know who Miley Cyrus is and I have a lot of compassion for her, and I think she’s going to come through all of this and do really well. She already is. But I do think it makes it harder for her and girls like her to get through all of that with the public being so critical. But that’s what happens when you’re in the public forum – that’s just what happens. I think they can be very unfairly judged.
MR: I also feel very strongly that there’s a double standard between young male and female pop artists in that if a controversy arises with a guy, the impact in much smaller than it would be if it were a young female artist. You know, boys will be boys.
VC: Yeah. That’s just too bad. It doesn’t sound very fair to me.
MR: Very true. Alright, getting back to our tour of your career, your next album was Heroes And Thieves, and you recorded some interesting things on the side, including that descant on “Big Yellow Taxi” for the Counting Crows. What was that like and how did you get involved?
VC: I don’t know, actually. I think like I was replacing someone else, to be honest. (laughs) I’m pretty sure that happened through Ron Fair. I was in Florida at the time and he asked me to come into the studio and sing a couple things. Their first album, August And Everything After, had a huge impact on me so I was really excited about doing something with Counting Crows, though they were not in the studio. I think I met Adam Duritz serendipitously on the streets of New York City one day, years after I did that for them, and I think I said something silly like, “I’ve been with you!” (laughs) He eventually realized who I was and we chatted. That was my experience with that. (laughs)
MR: You also supported Stevie Nicks on her Gold Dust tour.
VC: Ah…changed my life.
MR: How did it change your life?
VC: Stevie coming into my life and my friendship with her is one of the most important relationships in my life. She’s a very special, lovely woman and I can go to her with situations, stories and moments and she responds to me in a way that no one else does in my life. It’s just extraordinary. I feel extremely lucky to know such a lovely person. She’s been extremely generous with me. We did a little video clip for this record, “Carousel,” and I did a little ode to her. She gave me a little leather strung necklace that has a little square medicinal pouch with a little sword and I tied it to the back of my white dress. That’s a little secret about the video. It was like my little charm or talisman during the shoot…that made me feel amazing. Unfortunately, the necklace is still in the field that we shot the video in, but she didn’t mind, and she did wind up seeing the video and thinking it was amazing, so that’s important to me. As far as the tour goes, I met her a couple of months before the tour took off and she was just great. That tour was a very important time for me.
MR: Nice. Since you brought up your new album, let’s chat about one of my favorite songs “Dear California.” As a transplanted Californian myself, I’d love to know what went into the making of that song.
VC: That song is kind of a mournful one, but it’s also kind of inspired by The Beach Boys as well about my move from San Francisco back to New York.
MR: Do you miss California?
VC: I do, I love California. Well, I miss the foghorns in San Francisco. I do go back every few weeks. I’m a bit of a gypsy, so every few weeks, I go somewhere. So, I frequent San Francisco.
MR: What advice would you give to new artists?
VC: Hmm. I’m still figuring a lot of stuff out. But I would say when something doesn’t resonate to you musically but someone is trying to talk you into it, always go with your gut.
MR: Very smart. Thanks again for taking some time, I really appreciate it, Vanessa.
VC: It was my pleasure, Mike. Thanks.
2. I Don’t Want To Be A Bride
4. Fairweather Friend
5. Hear The Bells
6. Dear California
7. Tall Tales For Spring
8. Get Good
9. The Marching Line
10. In The End
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
A Conversation with Dan Bern
Mike Ragogna: Hello there, Dan Bern.
Dan Bern: Hello, it’s good to talk with you.
MR: Thank you, sir, it’s very nice talking with you too. You’ve got a great reputation from your songwriting and your live shows, a couple of examples of both being your latest, Live In Los Angeles, and last year’s Live In New York albums. So, live versus studio, what’s your favorite?
DB: Well, it’s hard to say. I feel like they’re two parts of the same thing in a way. I’m working on a couple of records right now, and they’ve both taken something like three years, so there’s something great about just strapping on the instruments and just getting out there to play. There’s something really satisfying about going in the studio and getting something just right. But boy, it does take some time.
MR: And of course you’d want to get your vision and communication exact for each song. Do you feel like that can add to your pushing off the release date?
DB: Well, that can certainly happen, every time you go in thinking you know what this record is going to be and then things get written. I think it’s kind of an important part of that process because the songs start talking to each other, and things get written to sort of fill gaps or expand things. I don’t know. It’s such a different kind of animal. When you start involving people other than just yourself, especially in this day and age, when most of us don’t have some deep pocket record company to just say, “We’re going to pay everybody this right now, and we’re going to get everybody in at the same time,” it becomes more of a chipping away, piecemeal kind of process that isn’t necessarily as glamorous. At the same time, it does mean that you’re taking more time with things, which sometimes works to your advantage, I hope. We’ll see.
MR: How much are you trying to capture what you do live in the studio? And do you do the reverse–see the vision of the song, and then transform it into a live environment?
DB: Well, I think it works both ways. Definitely, what you do live informs what you do in the studio, and a lot of times, you’ve actually done these songs live, so you’re bringing all that. But it works the other way too–you’re doing studio stuff, and then there’s some desire or some attempt to bring that to a live setting.
MR: We should, at this point, introduce the audience to another of your talents, which is that you’re a novelist, aren’t you, Mr. Cunliffe Merriwether.
MR: What is that name from?
DB: I have no idea. I think I was in Holland when I started it, and who knows. It’s just a name that appeared, and I just kind of went with it, and it became an alter-ego for a while.
MR: You wrote Quitting Science in ’04 under that name.
MR: What do you think of the book, looking back at it now?
DB: Well, it’s written in kind of small chunks, so it’s kind of good bathroom reading. I still kind of enjoy it in that context. Every now and then, I sort of toy with the idea of letting Cunliffe have at it again. I feel like I know him really well because of the bathroom aspect, so I feel like I could jump in at some point and see what he has to say now.
MR: Now, reviewers have compared Dan Bern to Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Elvis Costello. I have to confess, I hear all of them in your recordings. Is it influence or is it just that you’re channeling the same flow of creativity?
DB: Well, probably both. I listened to all of those guys a lot when I was sort of getting my thing going. You sort of use what they were able to do as a guideline for what the playing field is.
MR: And after all, Bob Dylan was the Dan Bern of the ’60s.
DB: (laughs) As someone said. Lately, in the last few years, I kind of feel like–and at least one of the records I’m doing will probably illuminate this–my inspiration of late has really been more in the old country thing, with George Jones, Merle, and all of that. Really, when I look back at when I was growing up in Iowa, that’s what was on the radio. I remember “One Piece At A Time” being on the radio every couple of hours. You know, when I picked up the guitar to start actually doing it, then I think I was more inspired and influenced by the people that were known for picking up a guitar all by themselves, sort of rambling around and singing whatever was on their minds–you know, like the Woodys and the Bobs, and then later Bruce and that ilk. I think maybe even longer ago, I was listening, like everybody else was, to that classic country stuff, and that’s kind of been what I’ve been dipping into.
MR: Speaking of what’s on your mind, when you have songs like “Bush Must Be Defeated,” you’re not exactly hiding your feelings politically. You’ve always been outspoken with your lyrics, and especially during that period, you must have been going out of your mind.
DB: Well I think, like everybody else, we were all going out of our minds. I think it was a release. It was a, “Well, I don’t know if this is going to do any good, but it sure feels better to be out there singing about it, saying something, and not couching things in a bunch of metaphors.” You know, I felt very strongly that we had a chance, and a necessary one, to try to change how things were going. In ’04, I basically just went across the country singing these songs. At some point, I felt like, “I don’t know. This doesn’t feel like it’s going right,” because it’s one thing when people come to my shows, and everybody’s sort of leaning a certain way, let’s say, but then at midnight, you go down the street, sit in the diner, and hear what the waitresses are saying.
MR: Very good point.
DB: It felt like it wasn’t necessarily going to end the way I was hoping it would, but I would have felt worse, I think, if I had just stayed home at that time.
MR: Right. Dan, but let’s get back to your country roots because they must have come in handy when you were co-writing songs for the movie, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, huh?
DB: Oh yeah. That was like a dream gig. Through this character, I got to write every conceivable period and kind of song that you’ve ever heard.
MR: You also contributed music to Get Him To The Greek.
DB: Yeah. Again, for a songwriter to get an assignment where you get to write for a character who is a songwriter is about as good as it gets. Also, to collaborate with my good friend and an incredible writer, Mike Viola, who is just down the street, was just great fun. I hope we can do more of that.
MR: In’ 07, you got the Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter Album award from The Independent Music Awards. Plus, you’ve been doing the DIY thing, basically, forever, regardless of having a major label record deal. So, what advice do you have for new artists?
DB: (laughs) I guess I feel like if you need advice, then maybe you’re in the wrong field, you know? Because if you’re going to do it, then you don’t need any advice–you’ll do it despite what anybody says. I heard more people saying, “Do something else,” than, “You must do this.” I don’t know–develop a thick skin because it’s tough out there. What can I say? You’ve got to like to drive. Try to hold off having a bunch of responsibility for as long as you can.
MR: And a lot of artists can’t do that balance.
DB: If you can live in a van for long periods of time and not be hurting anybody else doing it, you’re in pretty good shape for the long haul.
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