Vanessa Carlton on not feeling 'protected' early in her career, friendship with Terry Crews and how she always got the 'White Chicks' joke

Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” is the latest iconic song to get the Vice “The Story Of” documentary treatment, but unlike other recent entries in the series, like SisQó’s “Thong Song,” Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” and Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee),” Carlton’s episode takes a dark and serious turn. Even the singer-songwriter herself admits to tells Yahoo Entertainment that it’s surprising she agreed to the documentary at all.

Carlton, now age 40, is a thousand miles, emotionally and artistically, from where she was when she wrote the piano pop song as a teenage ballet school student. And while the debut single was the biggest hit of her career — earning Grammy nominations for Record and Song of the Year and placing at No. 6 on Billboard’s overall year-end chart for 2002 — she admits she hated “A Thousand Miles” for years. And it is still associated with some painful memories of her early days in the music business.

“I was like, ‘I don't really know if I want to do this. What story am I telling here? I want this to be accurate. I want it to be helpful.’ I feel like everything I do now, especially since having a child, I just want to make whatever industry I'm in better for our kids,” says Carlton, who has a 6-year-old daughter with her husband, Deer Tick’s John McCauley, as she recalls her first meeting with Vice producers. “So this had to be done right. And it just was. I thought it was really wonderful. I feel like they use the song to tell a bigger story. … I really am really thrilled that I took the chance and was part of this documentary.”

The bigger story is that Carlton, who jokes that she didn't “make for a very good pop star” during the early aughts, looks back at that TRL era as a “very difficult time. … I just didn't feel like I was protected during that time. … What's the phrase, where like the vultures descend on you? It was like ‘baby Vanessa,’ just all these guys. It was not good. It was not good. But I survived it. And some great things came out of it.”

Carlton is referring to a turning point in her career — before her career even really began or her debut album Be Not Nobody even came out — when she almost got dropped from A&M Records. That moment came when she decided, against her non-protective manager’s wishes and advice, to tell label chairman Jimmy Iovine that she no longer wanted to work with a much older A&R executive who had been harassing her.

“It's so difficult when you're working with someone — they have power over you. You need to not ruin this,” she says. “But yeah, [I was getting] calls in the middle of the night, like wanting to hang with me and my friends. I was probably 19, and this guy's in his forties, inviting me and my friends out, giving us drugs. Because of so many weird phone calls and coercion, if you didn't make him feel like… I think a lot of women feel if you don't make a man feel certain way, feel that you like them, that you're into them, then they're going to punish you. So, that's where it got to. And there was also harassment happening with my producer at the same time. … I hit my wall. And that's when I was like, ‘I can't do this. I can't continue on with these people.’ So, that was a big moment for me.”

Iovine ultimately didn’t drop Carlton, and he assigned a new producer to the project, the legendary Ron Fair, who appears in the Vice documentary. When Fair became convinced that the track buried seventh in the sequence on Carlton’s demo CD, “Interlude” (later retitled “A Thousand Miles”) was a smash, things turned around for A&M’s young signing. But while Carlton is grateful that Iovine “listened to me and he didn't drop me, for some reason,” she also notes that Iovine didn’t fire that predatory A&R man.

“He was like, ‘Well, did he touch you?’ And I was like, ‘Well… no,’” Carlton recalls. “At the time, that wouldn't be grounds to be fired. He would totally be fired now, 100 percent be fired. Like, if I showed all the messages, it would be over. But it's a different time [now]. … There was so many inappropriate things happening, and this is so interesting: I'm born in 1980s, in 1980. … We’re the older ones, we’re the women that put up with so much more, because like in this instance in particular, it's like, ‘Well, he didn't touch me, so that's good. I can just deal with all this other stuff that's totally inappropriate.’ And now I know it's considered harassment or whatever. I guess for me, a lot of the events that have happened over the course of my career with different men, I look at it with a new filter now, because that's what this [#MeToo] movement allows women to do. You're like, ‘Ohhhh. That's not OK.’” Carlton then adds with a rueful laugh, “At least in my opinion, women that are born in 1980, we have much lower standards!”

Carlton concedes that the music business is “definitely getting better,” but notes, “To this day, I find myself to mainly be the only woman in a room in a lot of music industry situations. … There's not a lot of female producers, which is something that I'm really working on helping in the music industry and the community. I wonder if [male music executives] are having a reckoning there, a personal reckoning, about their behavior during that time and how they felt like they needed to sell women artists. It was just as important the way you looked. It was just as important, your photo shoot or what you were wearing. I remember somebody saying, ‘Every spot is real estate.’ … But it doesn't really totally change until there's more women in powerful positions in the music industry, because it's just a mess right now. It's still that man story — you know, they're writing the story.”

Vanessa Carlton at VH1's
Vanessa Carlton at VH1's "Big in 2002" Awards. (Photo: Star Max via AP Images)

A lighter moment of The Story of “A Thousand Miles” is an interview with Terry Crews — which takes place entirely in a parked car, with Crews in the driver’s seat, as a nod to his famous White Chicks movie scene. (“That song changed my life,” Crews gushes in the documentary.) In some ways, “A Thousand Miles” has become as associated with Crews as it is with Carlton herself, and while some might assume that that would bother her, or that she’d bristle at her signature hit being called the “whitest song ever,” she stresses: “Oh, I always got the joke. Also, the Wayans [brothers] asked me if I would do it and they explained the joke, and they're big fans of the song and of me, and support me. And that was what Terry tried to explain — like, the whole point of the joke is he actually really loved the song! That's what he's talking about. That song is the power of music at times, where it's like, gender, race, language, age, whatever, it just blows through all that. And it's just something that a lot of people feel they can connect to.”

Carlton does confess that “there was a time where it was going viral and people were like, ‘Oh my God, you're the girl from White Chicks!’ — that's annoying sometimes. Sometimes it does sound literally like they're just someone yelling, ‘Hey, you're a white chick!’ But then at the same time, it's so fabulous how it's interwoven. It has interwoven Terry's career, my career. We became friends because of it; we talk, we text.” Interestingly, Carlton and Crews are also connected through the #MeToo movement, because Crews was one of the first male celebrities to speak up about his own harassment experiences in the entertainment industry and express support for the women coming forward. “He's so wonderful. He is just one of those people. That's like a natural teacher too, the way that he speaks about his experiences,” says Carlton. “So it's really my honor to be connected to his career and that scene. I mean, it's a part of pop culture.”

And so now, Carlton has finally made peace with “A Thousand Miles,” as her new documentary illustrates. “It used to really bother me at times when I play certain shows and I'm presenting a new record and people are heckling, like really s***-faced and yelling: ‘I wanna hear “A Thousand Miles!”’ It’s usually guys, and it's like really annoying and really disrespectful and it makes me crazy,” she admits. “But I figured it out. … Literally, this is how I open my show: I say, ‘Guys, I'm going to let the elephant out of the cage. Welcome, welcome. I'm so happy to be with you. Let's do this.’ And I play the song. And then, after I play ‘A Thousand Miles,’ I say, ‘OK, now let's let the show begin!’ And then it gives them permission or a space to be like, ‘OK, wait — so I'm either going to step into this journey with this artist for the night, for this next hour and a half, or did I get my feeling? OK, I'm out!’

“And I've never seen anybody leave. No one leaves.”

Check out Vanessa Carlton’s extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below for a conversation about her difficult ballet school years, how she came up with the “A Thousand Miles” piano riff, terrible early-2000s fashion, her friendship with Stevie Nicks, repairing her relationship with her mom, living with her parents during the pandemic, becoming a part-time substitute teacher, the rumors about who “A Thousand Miles” is really about, the many hop-hop artists who have sampled the song, and the new music she has in the works:

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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee