In the "junior" stage of her career, Vanessa Carlton looks for creative and "warm" ways to express her music. On her latest album, Heroes and Thieves, the piano-playing pop star feels listeners are getting a real sense of who she is - at the moment.
"It's a record inching more toward my true aesthetic," says the singer-songwriter, who headlines the Recher Theatre in Towson on Saturday. "You would think when you're writing a song you're reflecting yourself. That's not true."
Although Carlton has written all of her material - including her inescapable breakout single, 2002's "A Thousand Miles" - she says previously she wasn't very involved in the technical sound of the music. So for 2007's Heroes and Thieves, her third album and the follow-up to 2004's ambitious but commercially dismal Harmonium, Carlton was diligent in crafting not just the flowery lyrics and melodies but the overall sound of the record.
"As I recorded more, I learned more about the process and all that goes into making the recording," says the Pennsylvania native, 27, who talked by phone last week while traveling in Arizona. "I wanted everything to sound warm, like it was on vinyl. We tested a lot of mikes for what would be warm for my vocal tone. All the gear was made before 1972. It was a ghost-in-the-machine type situation with haunted equipment. Analog, the tape just sounds better. It's harder to work with tape, but technology doesn't necessarily mean better."
Despite the attempts at creating a throwback LP sound, Heroes and Thieves is still very much a modern pop album. The 11-song set ripples with Carlton's mellifluous melodies underpinned by unobtrusive beats and shiny synth textures. The approach is pitched somewhere between Carlton's platinum-selling 2002 debut, Be Not Nobody, and Harmonium. The former was an ingratiating, if flawed, showcase of Carlton's complex and hopelessly pretty melodies. But the latter mostly forsook memorable melodic lines for insular confessional songwriting that tended to meander. Where Be Not Nobody was a smash, swiftly selling more than 2 million copies and garnering three Grammy nominations, Harmonium quickly tanked. The album - produced by Carlton and her former boyfriend, Third Eye Blind lead singer Stephan Jenkins - sold fewer than 200,000 copies and produced no hits. A&M;, Carlton's label at the time, wanted a compromise, which meant the artist would have to relinquish creative control. Carlton refused, and she left the company.
In 2006, Carlton caused a few eyebrows to arch when she signed with The Inc. Records, the label run by urban music impresario Irving "Irv Gotti" Lorenzo. The imprint, which is marketed and distributed by Universal Motown, is known for overseeing the multiplatinum careers of such rap and urban-pop acts as Ja Rule and Ashanti. Seems like an unlikely recording home for Carlton, an artist classically trained in piano who sings lightly dramatic songs of sweet romance and heartbreak. But Carlton says that at her new label she has received the creative freedom and support she needs.
"Ah, the space to turn the austerity of recording into an arts-and-crafts project," she says. "That's what it is, after all."
Mining more of the confessional and introspective lyrical terrain of Harmonium but with a lighter, streamlined touch, Heroes and Thieves is a reflection of an artist in flux.
"Extremes punctuate my life," says the New York City resident. "One side of the pendulum harbors heroes and the other thieves. Naming my album Heroes and Thieves is a way of reflecting existential confusion, I suppose. Who am I supposed to be? And how do I decipher between the heroes and thieves that exist in my life? [It's] never-ending."
See Vanessa Carlton at the Recher Theatre at 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $17 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com
To hear music from Vanessa Carlton's latest album, Heroes and Thieves, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost