This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week continues here as we check in with the artist responsible for one of the year’s biggest and most indelible hits: Vanessa Carlton, singer-songwriter behind “A Thousand Miles,” who has spent the last decade as an indie artist (and part-time teacher). 

Vanessa Carlton released “A Thousand Miles” 20 years ago, and has spent a good part of the past 20 years talking about it — how she came up with the piano riff, how it was almost titled “Interlude,” its many popular film uses, the times it’s been sampled by hip-hop artists. “Thank you for not asking the same questions,” Carlton tells Billboard with a laugh, before diving in once again to her signature song. “I mean, anyone can Google and get all my answers!”

Carlton understands why she’s been asked endless questions about “A Thousand Miles” as the song celebrates its 20th birthday. In 2002, “A Thousand Miles” gently cut through popular culture, a yearning pop-rock behemoth with an unforgettable piano line that reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped the 22-year-old Milford, Penn. native sell 1.4 million copies of her 2002 debut album, Be Not Nobody, according to Luminate (formerly MRC Data).

Although Carlton has spent the past two decades consistently creating music and scored three more Hot 100 hits — including follow-up single “Ordinary Day,” which peaked at No. 30 — “A Thousand Miles” remains a singular achievement, the type of transcendent pop moment that a generation of listeners can recognize from a few seconds of piano plinks. Carlton, 41, still recognizes its special glow: “I still play ‘A Thousand Miles,’ and I usually open my shows with it,” she says. She also sees how it affected her career both positively and negatively — the doors that “A Thousand Miles” opened, as well as the struggles to duplicate its success, and the bulimia and bouts of depression in the years that followed, which Carlton has been candid about since.

Carlton recently moved to Rhode Island with her husband, John McCauley (frontman of alt-folk band Deer Tick) and their seven-year-old daughter Sidney, and has been going to Nashville intermittently for songwriting sessions. She’s also been substitute teaching at her daughter’s school, which she describes as a “pretty life-changing” experience that allowed her to help children in her community during her pandemic. Yet Carlton — who’s been an indie artist for over a decade and released her most recent album, Love Is an Art, in 2020 — remains committed to her craft.

“After substitute teaching, I was okay at it,” she says. “But I’m definitely best at writing songs, playing them, singing them to people. I can teach on the side, but I’ll always keep doing that.”

For Billboard’s 2002 Week, Carlton chatted about the success of “A Thousand Miles,” what the music industry was like 20 years ago, and the popular artists she admires today. (Ed. note: this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

How do you look back on the year 2002?

[Laughs.] This is so funny — honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is low jeans. Like, the waists on jeans were way too low. Why? Why is this happening? Why did that happen?

It’s like an anthropology question. Why did humans do this? 

That really stands out. I mean, I think back on that time… I think it’s really difficult to be a 22-year-old, period. So in the face of this bullet-train-type early success, in a machine that I knew nothing about and I had no idea in some ways what I had signed up for — I mean, I look back on that time as being very formative. There were some traumatic situations. There were some incredible, over-the-top, dream-come-true situations. It was all-inclusive, and it all started around then, the good and the bad.

I also look back and have great appreciation, in a way, for the timing. I mean, it was like the beginning of the end of the traditional way of selling music. I kind of did get in before it was over, before selling physical records was basically the thing of the past. I mean, I know now people buy vinyl and cassettes, but not like people were buying CDs [back then], you know what I mean?

Another thing that stands out [about 2002] is I got to meet Neil Young — one of my heroes, one of my parents’ heroes — and I got to play the Bridge School Benefit that year. He’s my hero to this day. I have such respect for how authentic he is through all the decades of his life, you know, a complete badass. I guess that really stood out.

It’s interesting to think back about where pop music was in 2002 — coming off of the teenybopper music from the turn of the century a bit. The piano riff from “A Thousand Miles” stood out, and there were all of these different sounds and ideas, it almost felt like a sea change.

Yeah. I do remember getting signed as a songwriter before I got a record deal, because, even though I was such a baby writer, I think I was looked at initially as more viable as a songwriter than necessarily a pop act that someone would want to sign. I had a lot of meetings with different labels — and they were all [with] men — where they were very interested in my dance background. I used to be a ballet dancer, but I mean, I wasn’t going to do ballet! They were always hinting at, would I be able to fit whatever the format was at the time for selling these female pop stars? It was like learning how this works who has the power here. Is it like, they find these talented girls and it’s like, puppet-mastered? Or are they asking me if I have this skill set because they want to compete with that?

I think that there are questions posed by a group of artists, and then the next round of artists come in and answer those questions. All the pop girls that came out, like Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera] and all that, wasn’t that coming out as some sort of opposite energy from like, grunge music? Perhaps the energy that they were looking for after that — and I don’t know “they” is, by the way, I don’t know who decides this stuff! But after Christina and Britney, there was this handful of writers that came up during that time, but still really marketed as pop, but it was like “anti-Britney pop,” or whatever. I was pitted against this and that. I don’t know how that works.

Also, I feel like, when Fiona [Apple] came out — I don’t know her own personal experience, of course, but it seemed to me like she had complete control over how she was presented through her music, in her music, through the artwork. I feel like, for whatever reason… I thought I would have that level of freedom, I guess. And I don’t know that I had that, because I was still sort of in this pop world. I remember having a lot of arguments about artwork, what photos were used. People that will remain unnamed were like, “Every space on your record is real estate, Vanessa!” And it was like, what? What does that mean, and what am I selling?

It’s incomprehensible to think that the the male pop artists of that time were going through the same thing of, “Can you also dance?”

Totally. And I had a couple of women on my team, like [former Interscope Records senior vp] Michelle Thomas, but it was [almost] all men. I think back to that time, from 2002 to when I left the major label world, I was almost always in a room with all men. And I know that’s changing now, which is awesome.

I was curious if you thought you were pigeonholed by the sound and style and success of “A Thousand Miles,” in terms of setting expectations for what listeners and labels wanted. 

Yeah, 100 percent. I think in some ways, success can be such a trap. Also, I wasn’t really surrounded by a lot of people that I trusted at the time… I kept hitting up against a lot of “No, it has to be this way, or you’re not going to get your budget.” So I think I was straddling — I was trying to break out and do something totally weird or whatever I wanted to do, and then also like, “Yeah, but you’re not going to even be able to do your second record unless you check these boxes.”

I really think that, until I got out of that sort of power-play situation, it was very much me having to sound like that girl [on “A Thousand Miles”]. They really wanted me to draw the line back to her, and I didn’t necessarily want to do that. “That girl was very successful, so we need that girl again.” But that girl isn’t that girl anymore. I was a little bit trapped — and I take responsibility for that as well — until I was like, “Wait, I want to just do whatever the f—k I want now.” But the only way I could do that is if I could pay for it myself, and go totally independent.

How long did it take to get to that point? Was that a light bulb that went off right before you went independent, or had you been thinking about it for a while?

It took me six years. And then I had my horrific return to Saturn, my late twenties. A lot of health issues destroyed my body, and then I came out of that and really started taking care of myself, and doing some much-needed healing, and practicing self-compassion and reconnecting with how I got here in the first place — who am I, what do I have to say, and what matters? And let’s go from there.

It was like starting over, and it was the most liberating moment of my life. Part of it was like, ballet [when I was younger] was so intense, and I was so disciplined with that. When I first started writing songs, music was sort of my escape from that, and then I got sort of trapped in this very rigid system. I had to have this breakaway again, and it felt amazing.

What’s your relationship like with “A Thousand Miles” now, and how has it changed over time?

My husband describes it as lightning in a bottle. I look at her like — she’s a beast, you know, she is of me, but also separate from me. And I think the way that I look at that song now is as a miraculous moment in time. I know so many great songwriters who have written amazing songs that people won’t hear, so I actually think [“A Thousand Miles”] is sort of a miracle.

And it’s led to — I just kept working and putting one foot in front of the other, through all those weird sort of hardships and whatever traps I was falling into. I think that song has brought me incredible freedom. And if people still enjoy it, great. I don’t have to write another “Thousand Miles.” That’s never going to happen, there isn’t a part two to that song. And like, once you realize that, you’re like, “Oh, I’m good! I’m one of those lucky artists that got to have one of those moments, and [now] I’m over here getting to craft things that are inspiring to me. I have the freedom to do that, and that’s my dream.”

In modern pop music, it feels even more like “lightning in a bottle” happening all the time, with songs taking off on TikTok and creating this ephemeral type of success.

I feel like the artists that are coming out now are doing really interesting work like in the pop world. I can’t tell you how many times I will hear, like, Olivia Rodrigo, or Haim — artists in the pop world who are highly original and are able to be totally reflective about their own lives without filter. It feels, like, very highly creative. I don’t feel like artists are having to be a certain way to sell something, which I think was more of the model that was going on still in the early 2000s.

Another artist who’s amazing is Rosalía, who’s [incorporated] flamenco dancing in her music. Back in the day, they would categorize artists really weirdly, “urban,” “ethnic,” whatever. It’s just so blown wide open now, and everyone can be themselves.

Say you could take a time machine back to 2002. What would you say to that version of yourself?

I would probably just say, Keep working. Keep putting in the work. To that girl, that will make zero sense, but what I mean by that is like, keep striving to be a better artist, a better person. And surround yourself with people that you trust, so you have that feedback and you can start making the changes that you need to make that will be helpful to you in your twenties. Keep working and keep crafting, making, maintaining curiosity about the world and people and yourself. You’ll outlive any judgment about you, any pigeonhole about you.

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