Vanessa Carlton has been on a journey of finding her musical place in the world since she broke into the scene in 2002 and was branded a pop star by her label at the time, A&M. Never feeling like she truly fit in to that stereotype and defined at an early age by the much too popular track “A Thousand Miles”, Carlton – now 35 years old – has released an album that she is entirely comfortable and artistically intertwined with. Last Thursday, the singer-songwriter visited the Imperial Vancouver on the last leg on the tour for her fifth studio album, Liberman, a soothing, atmospheric, lyric-heavy concoction inspired by her late grandfather’s oil painting of three nude women which now hangs in her home.
“He was a difficult, cantankerous oil painter,” Carlton said of her grandfather on Thursday, laughing fondly. It is clear that she is all about family now – revealing stories that inspire her to talk about her husband and daughter while explaining each songs powerful meanings and realizations. This certainly broke down barriers between her and the audience, allowing them to imagine the process and what she was thinking during the creation of her songs.
Taking her place at the piano at the beginning of the night with a glass of red wine and a simple “hey,” Carlton began immediately with “Learning to Fly” from her last album, Rabbits on the Run. Carlton’s style certainly has always been solemn, and if concert-goers were looking for an intimate experience with simply just the artist, the bare bones musical accompaniment and Carlton’s musings, that’s what they got. Her performance was not extravagant or particularly enrapturing unless you were listening closely to her lyrics, which is what she wanted.
Accompanied solely by opening act Skye Steele – a violist and fellow New Yorker – Carlton made her way through tracks from most of her albums, focusing heavily on Liberman. Having met Steele years ago during her self-described “Baroque Edwardian phase,” the two singer-songwriters formed a strong team given their similar styles and pensive attitudes. During his opening set, Steele impressed with “He Tears the Page”, a song inspired by poet Li-Young Lee’s quote, “Every wise child is sad.”
Carlton’s popular song, “White Houses”, from her second album, Harmonium, was a highlight of the night, but it certainly was not the only time audience members were caught mouthing the lyrics. Two of her latest singles, “Operator” and “House of Seven Swords”, had fans swaying in the audience before Carlton finally gave them a stripped down version of the early 2000s angst anthem, “A Thousand Miles”.
As Carlton prepared to wrap up the night with “Marching Light”, she addressed Vancouver’s notorious East Hastings surroundings: “I just want to project this song to what’s going on outside,” said Carlton, describing the scene she and her crew pulled up to in the alleyway behind the Imperial earlier that afternoon. “It’s so beautiful here.” And beauty is what Carlton herself seems to be focusing on, if an album spawned from a gorgeous oil painting is any indication.