Welcome to The Drop, Refinery29's home for music video premieres. We want to shine the spotlight on women artists whose music inspires, excites, and (literally) moves us. This is where we'll champion their voices.
Like every girl with a portable CD player in the early aughts, I, too, had a poster of Vanessa Carlton on my bedroom wall. It was one of those fold-out ones tucked in the CD case for her 2004 album Harmonium, the follow-up to Be Not Nobody, which is home to the single that still follows her, “A Thousand Miles.” Right now, pop culture is obsessed with nostalgia, which should mean there’s no better time to have been a 2002 Grammy-nominated artist for "Record of the Year" and "Song of the Year." Over fifteen years later, though, Carlton is reluctant to rely on her past reputation when it comes to her future. For one, she left A&M records, who were part of her first two albums, in 2005.
“When you're that young, [and] you get signed to a big record deal, you're kind of promoted and seen by all these older men as this young pop star person” she told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the debut of the video for “Future Pain,” the first single off her upcoming spring 2020 album Love Is An Art. “It's hard not to internalize that in yourself. And it's like, that's not who I am.”
The “Future Pain” music video, directed by Joshua Shoemaker and premiering here on Refinery29, is all about Carlton’s various reinventions — finding out who she really is. There’s a nod to the early-2000s nostalgia many fans watching, like myself, are craving, but two other Vanessas are also there — literally. Three versions of the singer sit at a bar as her voice, grown now, croons, “Bad boys become sad boys / It's only cute when you’re young.”
In the end, this reflection lands in a satisfying place. It’s not the end of her story, but the clearing of her slate. Now, it’s time for a new era. We spoke to Carlton about what that means, and if she’ll ever look back.
Refinery29: What is the importance of “Future Pain”?
Vanessa Carlton: “In the context of the record, this song is a more specific tale. We all have that one person that you know is bad for you, but you just keep going back into the waters. But the more general philosophy behind the song is: Why do we lean into the dark side when we know what's going to happen?”
Who are the three different Vanessa’s sitting at the bar?
“Imagine that you could sit with two former versions of yourself at a bar and have a conversation with them. I defined it pretty clearly with early 2000s, and then there's the return of Saturn chapter, which was really painful. She comes from a place of fear. She's very judgmental of everything. She kind of looks closed off to the world. And then we get more in our 30s, late 30s, where you just kind of are dropped into your own body and you're like, 'You know what? It's going to be okay.'"
The early-2000s Vanessa was using a flip phone. Are there any other hidden details like that?
“The drinks. She has a pink-ish kinda drink, the young Vanessa. Middle Vanessa is just straight liquor. And then older Vanessa's drinking a beer. Conceptually, when the young Vanessa gets up to leave, she presumably becomes second Vanessa. And then second Vanessa, when she gets up to leave, she presumably becomes third Vanessa, so it's like the peeling of the onion.”
You had a few notable moments in your early years, like the lyrics to “White Houses” being censored because they were about sex, and later coming out as bisexual five years before the Marriage Equality Act. How does it feel to know you were paving the way to things that are much less taboo now?
“It's nice to see things changing now for sure. I think people feel so much more freedom. I'm just really hoping that the #MeToo movement really takes root and changes work culture.”
Some artists have said #MeToo hasn’t hit the music industry hard enough. Do you agree?
“I absolutely feel that. The most important thing that you can do rather than focus on what's not happening, is focus on what one can do to make the industry more balanced. Seek out women to hire for your crew on tour or your band. I mean, I'm still in rooms basically with mostly men.”
Right now, we’re going through a period of nostalgia obsession. Would you say that’s benefitted you or hurt you when it comes to trying to evolve?
“I've had to philosophically think it through a lot because I need to be able to not be defined by my past in order to try new things and explore and do weird shit and redefine myself. I've had to try to pretend that my first major label career is almost somebody else's — that was what I had to do in order to really just go off and become an independent artist.”
Part of your success was when “A Thousand Miles” appeared in the movie White Chicks and now they’re working on a sequel. Would you consider writing a song for it?
“I haven't talked to those guys in a bit. They know where to find me!”
And for people who only know you from your first chapter, how would you describe your next?
“This is the most out of my comfort zone I've ever been, in terms of wanting to work with someone like Dave Fridmann and do this enormous-sounding record. I want that era to continue. I just want to keep going into the — I just saw Frozen 2 with my daughter — keep going into the unknown.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.