Harmonium is the second album by American pop singer-pianist Vanessa Carlton, released by A&M Records in the United States on November 9, 2004 (see 2004 in music). Carlton co-wrote some of the album with Stephan Jenkins, her then-boyfriend and the lead singer of Third Eye Blind, who produced the album. Harmonium debuted outside the top twenty on the U.S. Billboard 200, and sales fell considerably short of those of Carlton's debut album, Be Not Nobody (2002). Its only single in the U.S., "White Houses", was not a top forty hit; two other singles, "Private Radio" and "Who's to Say", were released only in Asia. The commercial failure of the album, which Carlton attributed to poor promotion, led to her departure from A&M Records in mid-2005. She toured through the U.S. during 2004 and 2005.
Carlton said the album includes darker themes than those present on Be Not Nobody. She said she was past the "diary stage" of songwriting, in which "you're kind of mostly narcissistic and dealing with yourself", and that as one grows up they "start to absorb [the] environment in a different way"; she called the album a reflection of a "different" and "more womanly" perspective of the world, as opposed to the "innocent and girlish" quality of Be Not Nobody. However, she has said that although "things get a bit heavier as you get older", she still has a "lightness of youth" and is "able to be as girlie in ways that I should be. She referred to the album as "bittersweet" rather than "just bitter" and stressed the importance of the lyrics on Harmonium compared to those on Be Not Nobody, which she said was focused more on the music: "I want the lyric to resonate as much as the chord underneath it", she said. She said that instead of an album with "one-two punch songs", she wanted to make an album that engaged people to the point that they want to listen to it repeatedly, and that they would learn something new each time. "[T]hose are the kind of albums I love and that I'll listen to for years and I'll want to listen to every single song on it", she said.
An October 2003 article in Rolling Stone magazine reported that "Private Radio" would likely be the album's lead single, and "San Francisco" the only love song. Carlton was quoted as saying there was "nothing piano recital-y" about the album, which she called "goth ... The Wicca in me has come out ... I've been able to kind of just merge the Wicca and the Eighties chick." This provoked a skeptical response from MetaFilter users, one of whom wrote "this girl needs to buy a clue. Carlton later wrote on her official internet messageboard that the article misrepresented what she was trying to say, and that her fans should ignore what is written in the press about the album until they own it.
She said "Morning Sting", a song that was dropped from the album, is about "emotions being so raw in the morning". She excluded from the album because although she felt it wasn't "crappy", she wanted Harmonium to contain a certain amount of songs. The album shares its name with a keyboard instrument, the harmonium, but Carlton said she adopted the word and made her own definition for it; she intended it as a portmanteau of the words harmony and pandemonium to define the approach to the recording of the album, which she described as "kind of an organized, chaotic approach where I wanted to maintain and preserve that wild abandon to creating."
Carlton considered working with Be Not Nobody producer and A&M Records president Ron Fair on the album but decided not to do so, although Fair is credited as the album's co-executive producer. She said that much of Fair's "own aesthetic [and] tastes" were present in the arrangements of the songs on Be Not Nobody, in contrast to Harmonium, where "the dominant taste and aesthetic is my own". She cited the influence of live performances on Harmonium, as opposed to the "studio gloss" present on Be Not Nobody, in creating a feeling that is "a little bit rougher around the edges and a bit more comfortable in a raw form"; according to her, the tracks on Harmonium feature a lot of breathing space so that listeners don't feel there is "a million things going on... There's nothing going on that shouldn't be", and consequently, it is very "easy on the ears", organic and simple. Ron Fair himself contrasted the two albums, comparing the "more formal" Be Not Nobody to "Carlton in an elegant party dress" and Harmonium to "her in Birkenstocks and jeans". According to Carlton, because she had more knowledge of the process of recording an album and elements such as arrangements, she had more creative control over Harmonium than Be Not Nobody. She called the album "so much more sonically personal to me" and "my taste exactly. It's exactly how I would arrange everything, as opposed to someone coming in and just dressing up the songs that I wrote."
Carlton began recording the album in June 2003 at Morningwood Studios (owned by Jenkins) in San Francisco, before moving to filmmaker George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. During recording, Carlton cited Jeff Buckley, PJ Harvey as additional influences on the album: "Sonically I'd like to use the same approach ... If you're going to hear strings, you're going to hear them squeak", she explained. She experimented with sounds reminiscent of the music of The Cure. Before recording began, Carlton and Jenkins conducted a series of "A-B-ing" tests to compare analog tape with Pro Tools (digital). Because they could not tell the difference, they used a mixing board that Carlton said was "similar to what a lot of the old [[Led Zeppelin|[Led] Zeppelin]] tracks were mixed on, so basically we were able to get a very warm, easy-to-listen-to mix where it didn't come across as 'icy' sounding". Several instruments were tracked using analog tape, but Pro Tools was used for most of them. According to Carlton, Jenkins was "generous" with his knowledge as a producer and taught Carlton about the recording studio, helping her to "realize the way the song is enveloped is sometimes more important than the song in some ways." Carlton wrote each song with arrangements in mind and played it on the piano for Jenkins, who joined in on drums, and they began devising the arrangements. Recording was completed at The Record Plant in Los Angeles because, as Carlton put it, "When you're in the middle of a bunch of cows, the pace of things tends to slow down." The album, which took a year to record, was mixed at Olympic Studio in London, at Waystation Studio in Beverly Hills, California, and at South Beach Studios in Miami Beach, Florida by mixers including Mark "Spike" Stent and Tom Lord Alge. According to Carlton, her label "wasn't very happy" about the decisions she made during the making of the album.
Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine suggested that Carlton co-write with Jenkins after Carlton played the album's first five songs for him. Carlton said she felt trepidation about collaborating with Jenkins and that there were "moments when things got intense" between them, but because they had similar intentions for the album and Jenkins "deferred" to and was "sensitive" to her style of piano-playing and the direction in which she wanted to take the album, she "trusted him completely" and called it "a cool collaboration". Carlton credited Jenkins with helping her to withstand and protect herself from pressures the record label executives, who wanted to influence the recording process, placed on her. Jenkins also played instruments and performed programming and mixing work on the album, and he recorded backing vocals with Carlton on several songs, including "She Floats", in which their vocals were edited to make it sound as if a forty-member choir were singing.
"White Houses" was the first song Carlton and Jenkins wrote together, and Lindsey Buckingham of the band Fleetwood Mac played acoustic guitar on the track after Jenkins met Buckingham, who was recording in the same building (The Record Plant, Los Angeles), and invited him to listen to the song. Carlton said the process of Buckingham writing and recording the riff "happened very fast, and turned out amazing". Several other guest musicians worked on the album. Pharrell of the production duo The Neptunes, who were working with Good Charlotte, contributed backing vocals to "Who's to Say". Two of the three drummers on the album were Abe Laboriel Jr., who played on Be Not Nobody, and Bryan "Brain" Mantia ("She Floats"), formerly of the band Primus. Third Eye Blind guitarists Tony Fredianelli ("San Francisco") and Arion Salazar also appear, as does former Red Hot Chili Peppers member Jesse Tobias. Carlton said she wanted to record a duet with Fleetwood Mac lead singer Stevie Nicks but never got the chance; they did, however, collaborate on a song on Carlton's third album, Heroes & Thieves (2007). She said "there was nothing calculated about the collaborations [on the album], nothing corporate".
A documentary, Pleased to Meet You, highlighted the process of recording the album and is included on an enhanced CD. Carlton said she thought it would "shed a lot of light the direction that I am going in and where I come from", mentioning that its working title was Pleased to Meet You: Vanessa Carlton, the New American Goth.
According to Ron Fair, a key element in the promotion of the album was radio airplay for "White Houses", which was released to radio in late August 2004. Its airplay slowly increased afterwards, and it did not enter the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 until October, peaking at eighty-six in early November. MTV censored, and later banned, the single's music video because of a lyric in the song that refers to sexual intercourse. Carlton said it was hypocritical for MTV because "All that is on MTV is sex. They are selling it all the time with sexy hip-hop videos with girls in their bras and panties doing their booty dance. But an eloquent statement about it from a female point of view...".
Harmonium debuted at number thirty-three on the U.S. Billboard 200 with 36,000 copies sold in its first week, before falling out of the top forty in its second. By the end of 2004 it had sold less than 108,000 copies in the U.S., and it remained on the chart for just seven non-consecutive weeks. According to Nielsen SoundScan in February 2006, the album had sold 179,000 copies, an amount that compared unfavorably with the platinum sales of Carlton's debut album Be Not Nobody, which reached the top five in the U.S. Explaining Carlton's "predictable plunge" with Harmonium, the New York Daily News indicated the release date was partially responsible for the album's underperformance, and emphasised the low radio play for "White Houses": "Every holiday season, some acts wind up with nothing but a lump of coal ... more importantly, radio found no hits on Carlton's sophomore CD". Slant magazine, also attributing the album's low sales to the failure of "White Houses", alleged a lack of promotion by A&M Records: "Whether ["White Houses"] wasn't promoted adequately or audiences just didn't connect with the more mature, narrative style of the song, the label decided to let the album languish on store shelves with little support".
In early October, Carlton opened for alternative rock band The Calling on their short tour of Brazil, and a performance she recorded for Sessions@AOL was aired over the internet. Later that month, Carlton travelled to Japan to promote the album there. Harmonium was released on October 21 and peaked at number fifty-two on the Oricon album chart, where Be Not Nobody had reached the top twenty; it stayed on the chart for six weeks. In Taiwan, Harmonium debuted at number ten on the international albums chart the same week that "Private Radio", which was released as a single there, reached the top ten on the singles chart. Another single from the album in East/Southeast Asia, "Who's to Say", was released in 2005 as the follow-up to "White Houses" in Indonesia, where it failed to reach the top forty ("White Houses" had peaked just outside the top twenty).
To support the album, Carlton embarked on a North American concert tour, which began on October 21 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and concluded on November 21 in Portland, Oregon; her opening act was pop rock band Low Millions. She said the tour would be "just me and the piano" and "totally stripped down, like an in-your-living room-type of feeling, that type of intimacy." She recorded a cover of the Kai Winding song "Time Is on My Side" (1963) for a Time Warner digital video recorders commercial, which also served as promotion for Harmonium and received heavy rotation on U.S. television during early 2005. The newspaper Metroland wrote, "we tend to think time is most definitely not on her side — how else to explain the near-universal apathy to the release of [Harmonium]?". Harmonium was not re-issued to include the song. Carlton was quoted in a March 2005 interview with Fly Magazine as saying it was "difficult" for someone like her, a singer-songwriter who played the piano, to "reach a lot of people", but that "depending on what happens with the second single, I think it will do really well. I hope the record goes gold and all those things.
A second tour, with Cary Brothers and Ari Hest as support acts for many of the shows, ran from March 9 (in Atlanta, Georgia) to April 30 (in Plattsburgh, New York). In April and May 2005, songs from Harmonium were featured on the WB teen soap operas Charmed and One Tree Hill, and Carlton participated in an exclusive performance with Ryan Cabrera. After the conclusion of the Harmonium tour, A&M Records sent Carlton into the recording studio because they didn't feel that there was a potential follow-up single on the album. During her studio time, in which she wrote songs with Linda Perry and The Matrix, she had what she called a "revelation" about leaving the label to find another record deal.
In May, Carlton wrote to her fans on her official website that because "shortsighted (nonmusical bastards)" at the label did not believe the album would sell well if given promotion, there would be no second single released in the U.S. "[I] worked my ass off promoting [H]armonium in the ways that [I] could control, but you can't sell records to someone in the middle of [[Indiana|[I]ndiana]] without a little help", she wrote. By the following month, Carlton had separated from A&M Records. Weeks before the announcement, PopMatters magazine wrote, "One has to wonder how long it will be before we hear the inevitable "the industry ate me up" stories from Vanessa Carlton. Perhaps when this record fails to outsell her debut and A&M drops her?". The Herald & Review said that Carlton "[became] another one of the new millennium’s poster children for what happens when music labels are taken over by accountants and artist development is abandoned. Carlton explained the situation in an interview with Express in 2007:
Actually, I was given an ultimatum — basically like a slap on the wrist, like, "You shouldn't have made Harmonium; you should have done everything we said." Meanwhile, it wasn't supported by them, so of course I was doomed to begin with on that project. They pulled the plug on my record and then said, "See, it didn't work. You have to now reaudition [and] submit your songs as you write them. You have to do everything that we say." So what's the point of having an aesthetic and being an artist if you're just some kind of puppet for a team of people that don't necessarily know their own aesthetic? There was no other choice for me but to leave.
During summer 2005, Carlton supported rock singer Stevie Nicks on her Gold Dust U.S. tour. Nicks said she was glad to give Carlton the opportunity to perform in front of a large, caring and loving audience, particularly because the poor state of the music industry meant that artists such as her weren't "nurtured ... I really respect her. I'll be damned if I'll let her go by the wayside. She is one of the great ones. She won't quit. In October Carlton embarked on solo dates in the U.S., including one at Dartmouth College, where The Dartmouth wrote that Carlton "sought sympathy not only as the girl suffering in her song but also as the artist disappointed with her apparent lack of popularity." Carlton rejoined Nicks on her ten-date tour of Australia and New Zealand in February and March 2006.
Carlton said she was suffering from the lack of promotion the label gave to the album because of her non-conformist attitude, but that she felt she made the right decision with regards to gaining press attention and credibility that she wanted to maintain throughout her career so she could attract loyal fans. "That's really important to me", she said.
|Album||Chart (2004)||Peak |
|U.S. Billboard 200||33|
|Taiwan Albums Chart||10|
|Japan Oricon Albums Chart||52|
|Single||Chart (2004)||Peak |
|"White Houses"||U.S. Billboard Hot 100||86|
|Indonesian Singles Chart||22|
|"Private Radio"||Taiwan Singles Chart||9|
|Single||Chart (2005)||Peak |
|"Who's to Say"||Indonesian Singles Chart||45|