She's fast becoming one of music's hottest young singer-songwriters. What's more, she's doing it her way. NBC's Edie Magnus reports.
NBC News
updated 12/9/2003 4:00:58 PM ET 2003-12-09T21:00:58

She says she’s been inspired by both Pink Floyd and Mozart. But Vanessa Carlton’s voice and talent are distinctly new and completely her own. She’s fast becoming one of music’s hottest young singer-songwriters. What’s more, she’s doing it her way. She spoke with Correspondent Edie Magnus.

She's been called one of those annoyingly perfect girls who’s good at everything — and they have a point. She is a former ballet prodigy from a tiny town in Pennsylvania, her first double platinum CD earned her three Grammy nominations this year and she recently guest-starred on American Dreams.

Rolling Stone magazine says Vanessa Carlton, age 22, might just be the next big thing.

Magnus: “Did you think it would be this easy?”

Carlton: “It’s never easy.”

From the very start, Vanessa was consumed was by music and dance.

Magnus: “You started pounding out little tunes at the piano at age two?”

Carlton: “Every time people ask me about how old I was, it just gets younger and younger. [laughter]”

She grew up in a home filled with music. Her mom taught piano, and her dad was an amateur fiddler. But her first love was dance. She moved away from home at age 14 to attend New York’s prestigious school of American ballet. But she said she felt trapped there. By her junior year, Vanessa says she was always in tears. She says she just didn’t fit in and could never be prima ballerina others had in mind. She was miserable — until she discovered a piano in the ballet school dorms.

Carlton: “That music and writing those songs it just saved me. And then it got to the point where I was like, ‘screw ballet class, I am not going to dance.’”

So Vanessa tried college, enrolling at Columbia University. But that didn’t fit either.

Magnus: “You gave up an ivy league education to wait tables for a while, right?”

Carlton: “Yeah. Yeah, waiting tables. I mean, I know there were many times when I second-guessed that decision.”

Like thousands of other hopefuls, she worked by day and sang by night, hoping for her big break.

“Dateline NBC” went back with Vanessa to the legendary Greenwich Village club the Bitter End, where her performing career had its beginning. She was so young at first, just 17, she had to bring her dad along.

Carlton: “You don’t understand, I was so afraid to step on this stage. This is where it all began.”

Magnus: “Do you remember when you first heard applause?”

Carlton: “It was kind of one of those moments where when you finish you are like I really hope they clap, I really hope they clap.”

And when Vanessa began looking for a record deal, it wasn’t that easy. The meetings were frustratingly the same.

Carlton: “I remember one meeting with a guy and he’s like, ‘You know, you’re a cute girl, you’re a cute girl. ‘I was like, ‘This is not why I’m here, you know.”

She didn’t quite fit, they said. Her soulful piano melodies and original lyrics were just not commercial enough. If they could just make her more mainstream, maybe sex her up a little.

Carlton: “He’s like, ‘How would you feel about having back-up dancers with you?’ And I was like, ‘That won’t work with me playing the piano and having dancers.’

And then he is like, ‘Is this how you normally dress?”

Magnus: “So they wanted to turn you into a dancing—”

Carlton: “Unbelievable.”

Magnus: “—sex kitten.”

Carlton: “I was like, no, I’ve got to start out doing what I do. And I just left. Needless to say, I didn’t get a call back.”

Now it is easier for Vanessa to make her own choices. “Dateline” went with her as she chose clothes for her international tour.

But when she started out, it was her unwillingness to compromise, to fit in with some music executive’s idea of what will sell, that led one record company to shelve Vanessa’s first CD and ultimately release her from the label. But that didn’t shake her confidence.

Magnus: “Ever have a moment where you thought this will never work out?”

Carlton: “I didn’t. I never had that moment when it came to my music. I never did. I want to go for the whole thing. Why not? Why would I sell myself short?”

Even now there is resistance. Ironically, it is her own early choice not to “sex it up” that threatens to box her in again.

Magnus: “Your videos seem pretty wholesome.”

Carlton: “That’s not necessarily reflective of my entire self, you know... So, when I came to my third video, I was like, okay, there needs to be some kind of diversity going on. And God, it didn’t go over well. It was interesting.”

In her video “Pretty Baby,” the scene of bondage was rarely played on television. Some broadcasters thought it too disturbing, so many didn’t show it.”

Carlton: “People assume that I live on my piano, you know, and that I’m like this piano recital chick maybe, and so, I think you’re kind of pigeon-holed.”

Magnus: “You don’t want to be painted into a box.”

Carlton: “Never. Never.”

It is why she loved her cameo as Dusty Springfield in the hit NBC show American Dreams.

Carlton: “Oh, my God. It was so rocking back then. I so wish I had been — I think I was born in the wrong era.”

It’s why Vanessa says acting is a perfect fit. She can play any part, try anything, be anybody, without worrying it’ll box her in or permanently define her. Because when you are young and smart and beautiful, there is always plenty of room to grow.

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