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“Harmonium” was supposed to be Vanessa Carlton’s big breakthrough in the mainstream, but the record failed to chart to projections and Carlton was deemed a one-hit wonder. While virtually identical to its predecessor in the most important ways, its tonal difference with “Be Not Nobody” is jarring. No longer the wide-eyed girl behind her piano Carlton explores far darker, intimate and more personal themes on “Harmonium”. It was the second of two records that Carlton cut for A&M Records, and its lack of chart performance would herald an era wherein each new album was released by a different label partner. “Harmonium” tipped the scale.

Even though the record opens with the relatively upbeat and uplifting melody of ‘White Houses’ the tonal difference with “Be Not Nobody” should be apparent to the more attentive listener. While structurally similar to ‘Ordinary Day’ from her debut, ‘White Houses’ is decidedly more introspective. On “Harmonium” Carlton aims to be more than a light piano pop artist, and her singer-songwriter strengths come to the fore here more than her debut from a few years prior. Where Ron Fair had put his creative stamp all over her debut, it is on “Harmonium” that the real Vanessa Carlton starts to surface in all her idiosyncratic beauty and with her own set of limitations. The material bounces between lighthearted numbers about life, young love and infatuation to more pensive and introspective reflections on human nature, relations and emotions.

The record holds the middleground between two creative worlds. On one hand it is not nearly vapid and lighthearted enough to be simply considered an average pop album, on the other hand does it miss the introspective depths that typically characterize the singer-songwriter genre, and Carlton’s later albums. More importantly, however, is that “Harmonium” works within the framework that it positions itself in. On “Harmonium” the first glances of Carlton’s own artistic voice seep through. Mostly following the template of her breakthrough debut “Be Not Nobody” it is in the tracks where “Harmonium” deviates from the formula that are the most resonating and rewarding. While containing its fair share of poppy, life-affirming songs “Harmonium” is at its strongest with its introspective, more singer-songwriter based material. Vanessa Carlton is at her strongest at her most frail.

Where “Be Not Nobody” was almost diary-esque in its lyrics on “Harmonium” Carlton enters adolescent life, and her views on life and love have changed accordingly. This is reflected in her lyrics in the sense that they have lost their youthful naiveté. Both musically and lyrically Carlton etches more towards “Pieces Of You” and “Spirit” era Jewel than the more upbeat and poppy “Be Not Nobody”. ‘White Houses’ is about the magic of youth, the frailty of relationships and how we lose our innocence as we grow older. The track features the acoustic guitar playing of none other than Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac, Buckingham and Nicks).

‘Who’s to Say’ is this album’s ‘Unsung’ in the sense that it is Carlton’s nonconformist mindset and that youthful spirit of rebellion against various sort of authority figures one crosses in adolescent life. ‘Annie’ is about having a loved one succumb to illness. Allegedly inspired by meeting a leukemia-stricken fan while on tour. Arriving mid-album is the upbeat ‘Private Radio’, perhaps the most poppy song Carlton had penned to date, that has a sing-along chorus and a set of lyrics that is wide open for interpretation. Supposedly it is about insomnia. 'Half A Week Before the Winter' is full of metaphorical dream-like imagery about unicorns, and vampires. ‘She Floats’ is musically closer to “Be Not Nobody” than any other song of the album. ‘The Wreckage’, lyrically inspired by the frustration of being stuck in a traffic jam, is a minimalist song that sets the scene for Carlton’s darker and introspective direction that some of the songs on “Be Not Nobody” hinted upon but nevery truly explored.

The album was co-written, at least in part, by Stephan Jenkins from alt rock band Third Eye Blind with whom Carlton had toured in support of her “Be Not Nobody” debut. All songs were written by Vanessa Carlton, except ‘White Houses’, ‘Who’s to Say’, ‘Annie’, and ‘Private Radio’ written by Stephan Jenkins and Vanessa Carlton. The label and its executives tried to influence the writing and recording of the album and its aesthetics, but Jenkins swayed Carlton from caving in to demands. Thanks to his intervention “Harmonium” has more of Carlton’s own character than that of Fair’s. MTV censored and later banned the ‘White Houses’ music video for the infraction of having a solitary reference to sexual intercourse in the lyrics. Had the channel not banned the music video perhaps Carlton would have been able to solidify the promise of “Be Not Nobody” in the wider popular music consciousness.


As before no expenses were spared in making the record sound and look as lush as it possibly could. The album was recorded and assembled at the acclaimed Skywalker Sound, Mourningwood Studio, The Record Plant and San Francisco Soundworks. It was mixed at Olympic Studios, Waystation and South Beach Studios. The cover photography and art direction by Drew Fitzgerald is stunning, and slightly more suggestive than on the debut. The illustrations that would become centerpiece on her next album first appear in the booklet to this record. Fitting with the chosen album title Vanessa sits at a harmonium instead of her piano for the album’s promo shoots. “Harmonium” debuted at number 33 on the Billboard 200 and descended quickly after.

As a result of the less than favorable sales figures, from what Carlton later described as lack of support from her label, Vanessa left A&M Records, who in turn slapped her on the wrist for making her own artistic decisions for the album instead of following theirs, in mid-2005. “Harmonium” went on to sell less than 150,000 copies (as of February 2006), making it a commercial disappointment after her successful debut.

The tonal difference with her debut is somewhat jarring, and this is perhaps what contributed to the album’s rapid fall in the album charts. “Be Not Nobody” was uplifting, joyful and romantic, whereas “Harmonium” is pensive, introspective and even morose in parts. No longer hindered by constant press attention Vanessa Carlton could now write and produce the material without notable industry pressure. Her third album would prove vital in establishing her artistic vision and new direction. Valuable lessons were learned.


In the early 2000s Vanessa Carlton was considered one of the most promising young female songwriters along with Michelle Branch, Alanis Morissette and Nelly Furtado. Born in Milford, Pennsylvania Vanessa Carlton graduated from the American School Of Ballet, but pursued her interest in music instead. She demoed, and was signed to A&M Records in 2001, and started work on her debut album for the next two years. Vanessa Carlton then wrote and recorded a demo album called “Rinse” with Jimmy Iovine which remained unreleased, but attracted the attention of label president Ron Fair. Fair mentored the young Carlton and helped produce/write and arrange what would become her debut album “Be Not Nobody”.

Vanessa Carlton wrote and produced a demo recording somewhere in 2000 with producer Peter Zizzo. The two had made their acquaintance at a local singer-songwriting circle. Sources vary on the contents of the demo but they seem to agree that it was released on an actual old fashioned cassette tape. The recordings that Carlton cut with Zizzo at Big Baby Recording Studios in New York went untitled and later became known simply as the "Vanessa Carlton" demo. Under Zizzo's tutelage Vanessa was able to improve her blooming songwriting skills.

Her self-titled demo, while crude, led to a multi-album/development contract with Interscope/Geffen/A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine, who set to produce her debut "Rinse". Information on "Rinse" is scarce, but it seems only logical that it would be recorded at The Record Plant in San Francisco given Iovine's long history, first as an engineer and later as a producer, with the facility. The Iovine produced "Rinse" would be shelved, but was strong enough to attract attention higher up the label's food chain, specifically that of A&M label president Ron Fair, who took the young Vanessa Carlton under his wing and started to re-arrange the "Rinse" material.

Carlton’s debut record is a collection of new songs written in collaboration with producer Ron Fair and reworkings of a handful of the most promising songs from her independently financed, but never widely released, “Rinse” demo session. “Be Not Nobody” is a soulful pop album in the true meaning of the word. Heavy on orchestrations, percussion and big vocal hooks it is poppy, uplifting and soulful in equal measure. Lushly produced and full of instantly recognizable arrangements “Be Not Nobody” is Carlton’s most enduring and popular record even though the sound is hardly her own. It was a farcy from her Tori Amos inspired demo work.

Opening track 'Ordinary Day' is a reworking of an earlier demo track. Backed by a string section and some light percussion the song deals with unexpectedness and magic of reprocicated love. The song is about the unexpected and intoxicating effect of infatuation and young love. ‘Unsung’ is uptempo, exciting and talks about that “us versus them” mentality that is legion among adolescents, while the main narrative of the song is about unrequited love. ‘A Thousand Miles’” is mostly about longing for and the reassuring embrace of a loved one. ‘Pretty Baby’ is the big love song of the record, and is the most soul-oriented cut of the record. The string section for ‘Pretty Baby’ was re-arranged for newer versions of the album, such as the UK tour edition.

‘Rinse’, the title track of her unreleased demo, partly foreshadows the direction Carlton would embark on. On this record that direction is only hinted at as steady percussion, a string section and some electric guitar enliven the track. The Rolling Stones cover ‘Paint It Black’ is somewhat of a puzzling choice, but it is performed true to form. Why exactly it was included is somewhat of an enigma as it sounds nothing like Carlton’s original material. ‘Wanted’ is the most stripped down track of the record, with Vanessa accompanying herself with only her piano. Like ‘Rinse’ before it hints on the minimalist and introspective direction that Carlton would embark on later in her career. ‘Twilight’ concludes the album on an introspective note being the opposite of upbeat opener ‘Ordinary Day’.

Five songs of the unreleased “Rinse” demo were reworked and re-recorded for the “Be Not Nobody” session. ‘Ordinary Day’ was originally called ‘Divide and Conquered’ and later ‘Ordinary Days’ on both demos. Discerning fans will notice that the lyrics have omitted the “divide and conquer” line that made the song controversial in its earlier form. The hit single ‘A Thousand Miles’, the song that won Carlton no less than three Grammy nominations, was a reworking of her demo song ‘Interlude’. The demo version of the song had a different arrangement, a far more subdued vocal line and uneffective overall structure. Ron Fair re-arranged the song for the album changing the vocal line, adding a string section and generally giving the song a better flow that built towards a climax. Carlton rewrote the lyrics to fit the improved song structure. It turns out that Ron Fair’s influence on Carlton’s material was beneficial for the most part. The only song to be truly revamped was the solemn ‘Pretty Baby’ that was a lovely little ballad in its demo form, but was turned into a lush R&B ballad by Fair. Of her original songs only ‘Sway’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Twilight’ retained the most semblance to their original incarnations.

“Be Not Nobody” was recorded and assembled at some of the best studios that its major label could afford. Tracking was done at IGA Studios, Henson Recording Studios and Royaltone Studios while Eddy Schreyer mastered the album at Oasis Mastering. Drew Fitzgerald was responsible for the cover photography and art direction. Carlton’s debut was released in April 2002 and debuted at number five on the Billboard 200 albums chart with 102,000 units sold. It went on to sell more than two million copies worldwide. Vanessa Carlton’s future as a young singer-songwriter looked bright even after the initial setback with her demo album.


The question now was whether she could cement that initial promise with her sophomore record. Much like her singer-songwriter contemporary Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton would refuse to do concessions to her music and image even if it meant losing major label support in the process.