I was very lucky to be offered a lovely piece of property to build a career on. 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.
Forget everything you know about Vanessa Carlton. Realistically, forget the one thing you ever knew about Vanessa Carlton – the “da-da-da da-da-da dum” song from those five-year-old Zales commercials. The voice you heard in “A Thousand Miles” belonged to Carlton, as did the melody; but the orchestra, the overproduction, and the publicity that made us love the song all the way to three Grammy nominations were largely handiwork of hitmaker Ron Fair. Now forget everything you know about Ron Fair.
What would it sound like if Vanessa Carlton made her own album?
Answering that question required a transformation. Carlton spent two years as a recluse, she says, absorbing and moving internally but not creating much of anything. Then came the instrumental pieces “that probably no one will ever hear.” Only when a personal reflection chanced to grow into a fully lyrical song did the veil draw back and the possibilities of a return to the album format as an artistic outlet become possible.
She determined to fund this “arts & crafts” project herself to avoid any label’s influence until it was done. Under the guidance of voices from the 70’s, she sought to record the entire thing to tape to enable a true classic vinyl experience. All of the songs were written and arranged by Carlton herself explicitly for this album and never drawn from a well of old material. This was to be the album she had always wanted to make.
The names and places who contributed to the recording are a cabinet full of gems. The producer is Steve Osborne, who brought to life Doves’ “Catch the Sun”. Musicians Patrick Hallahan (My Morning Jacket) and Ari Ingber (The Upwelling) appear as players while the legendary Stevie Nicks – Carlton’s friend, mentor, and occasional collaborator – sequenced the tracklist. Most of the work was done at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, while the world-famous Capital Children’s Choir worked at Abbey Road to lend their talents to four tracks.
I guess by now you might be wondering what the album actually sounds like.
Rabbits on the Run kicks off with an unassuming piano line and soon echoed, multitracked vocals are layered on top of it. Track one is the single , “Carousel”, which features hopeful lyrics, plenty of uplift in the chords, the soft heartbeat of a bass drum, and just a little bit of Osborne’s mellotron that is absolutely flute-like. At the bridge, “Carousel” opens into a grand canon led by the children’s choir with many of the instruments taking up their parts. It comes off as charming that this song is centered around a hook that is nothing more than an ascending C-Major scale.
Later songs like “Hear the Bells” build an unabashedly creepy atmosphere. A rich darkness surfaces and resurfaces throughout the ten tracks, always receding again to a more driving melodic sensibility that faces forward with its chin up. Gone are the childish attachments and dependencies that haunted older material like “Pretty Baby” and “Rinse”, replaced wholesale by stories of acceptance: of wrongs, of destiny, and of the unknowable.
While an ambient spirit claims the early and late tracks, the same lyrical approach is taken to more rocking and romping tunes in the middle, especially the infectious “Dear California” and follow-up “Tall Tales for Spring”. “Get Good” stands out to me as a campfire song that begs for a country-style cover. I’d pay good money to hear what Tim McGraw and his missus could do with that sheet music.
Through the album’s progression, Osborne’s mastery of expansive and engrossing soundscapes shines. His own instrumental contributions match Hallahan’s in their cleanness and frequent subtlety. Carlton herself has an effortless, almost conversational voice that is however not the most pure. (She once said she used to smoke and drink whiskey just to make her sound more “leathery.”) Some listeners may wish they could hear the vocal qualities of a Carole King or a Norah Jones on some verses, myself included. But her speech, like her songwriting and fingerwork, is not lacking for beauty; and this is, after all, her record.
Stevie Nicks must have had an easy time choosing the closing track, “In the End”. Musically, it is a slowed-down sample from “Tall Tales for Spring” that glows with an eerie electricity. What few words there are come out muted, buried ominously beneath the sounds. The dearth of lyrics is unsettling in itself, as if the songwriter abandons us to groaning emptiness as the album “disintegrates back into nothing.”
The creative process behind the album fed on inspiration from Richard Adams’s Watership Down, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and the Tolkienian mysticism of the village of Box, Wiltshire, where Real World Studios is located. Carlton has had an occasionally uncomfortable time promoting the immensely personal album; making the late-night talk show rounds was visibly less enjoyable for her than conducting one-on-one interviews with people who actually remember who she is, and you can see a back-and-forth between these modes in her brief appearance on Fox’s “Good Day LA”
The experience of making Rabbits on the Run was a gift for Vanessa Carlton. But the album itself was intended for anyone who likes to be wrapped in a blanket of beautiful music; for anyone who misses the classic approach to analog recording; and, of course, for the fans who have stayed with Carlton through her fall from the spotlight and even through her quietest years. She has a special name for these last ones:
Dear Phantom Friends,
The album, the collaboration, the arts and crafts project that is Rabbits on the Run, is a vault of melodies, philosophies, and questions that will forever preserve the past three and a half years of my life. A chunk of time that has reshaped who I am and has humbled me. The process of making the record was restorative and prickly and shook me out of a ten year slumber. It was also magical. I made this record with a group of artists that I never thought I’d get to work with. On the eve of this release, as I type in to black buttons, and stare at a glowing screen in my hotel room, I feel grateful that I’m able to create music and send it out into the world like some sort of ship on the sea. It is how I connect. It is how I stay alive. I realize now that this record isn’t mine anymore, it belongs to the hearts and brains of those that connect with it. And I humbly hand it over. I hope that it brings you to life in the way that it brought me to life.