As the 59th Annual GRAMMY Awards approach, we’re all about celebrating musicians and their accomplishments. In partnership with Bulova, we caught up with three artists in different stages of their careers to talk “firsts” — from the first album that truly inspired their craft, to what it was like crafting their very own first album. Read on for 15 minutes of musical milestones with Vanessa Carlton, Parson James and Jax.
Singer-Songwriter-Pianist | NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
In 2002, Vanessa Carlton’s single “A Thousand Miles” reached top-five status, simultaneously embedding its catchy piano riff permanently into brains across the globe. The then-21-year-old singer-songwriter-pianist went on to release her debut album, Be Not Nobody, later that year. She’d receive three GRAMMY nominations.
These days, even with five full-length studio albums under her belt, Carlton’s still celebrating firsts. Married to John McCauley of Deer Tick, she became a new mom in 2015. And, just this October, she released a live version of her latest LP, Liberman. We sat down with Carlton to talk firsts, including a nearly disastrous (but pretty amusing) GRAMMY experience.
What’s your first memory of the piano? What about performing?
I grew up with at least four pianos in my house at all times. My mom is a pianist and taught piano out of our home. At one point she used to sell pianos from the house too, so I essentially grew up in a piano store. It looked pretty amazing. Even though I was too young to officially be in my mom's class, she used to let me perform in the recitals for the parents. I used to get very into dressing up for that. I was probably about three.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician?
I started to take pursuing music as a profession seriously when my dreams of becoming a ballet dancer burst into a million pieces. I studied ballet at the School of American Ballet, and by the end of my sophomore year, it was pretty clear I wasn't going to get into New York City Ballet. I didn't want to go to any other company and I wanted to stay in New York, and that's when I really started writing my own songs.
Tell us about the first time you heard yourself on the radio.
The first station that played me on the radio was KROQ in LA. My first single was “A Thousand Miles.” I’d been living in LA temporarily working on my first album and was on my way home to this place called Oakwoods apartments in Burbank when the song came on. I was driving a white Toyota Camry rental car at the time, and in the middle of the song playing, I realized I had been driving with my emergency brake on for a full five weeks. It was quite a poetic moment, actually. You could smell my car coming a mile away when I lived in LA.
What was your reaction when “A Thousand Miles” first became a chart-topping hit?
I don't know. I guess I just felt like this is the opposite of failing. I had been teetering on the edge of feeling like a failure for a while because I wasn't dancing anymore. I also think when the song came out I was in a bubble because I was still working on the album.
Tell us about attending your first GRAMMY Awards in 2003. Any particularly funny moments?
I liked being backstage at the GRAMMYs and meeting Norah Jones. She and I were both wearing black dresses, but she clearly thought ahead and knew to wear black spandex shorts under her dress so that they could attach the battery pack for her inner ears securely. I didn't do that and ended up having some sort of emergency during the commercial break before my performance and all this interference ruined my inner ears. I literally couldn't hear anything and I was about to have to play a song. Thirty seconds before I played, I had three men under my dress as I sat at the piano bench trying to fix my stupid battery pack. It was awful. I don't think I was wearing underwear. That's my GRAMMY story. Other than that, yeah it's awesome to be nominated. Every introduction for the rest of time can be "GRAMMY nominee Vanessa Carlton."
In 2015, you became a new mom. Are you planning on teaching your daughter to play instruments?
Sid is the best. We play music around her all the time. My husband plays everything — from guitar to tin whistle to mandolin to piano — so between us, she's really getting all these sounds into her brain.
With his signature black wide-brimmed hat, long jacket, and lone dangling cross earring, Parson James channels a sort of couture Wild West preacher. James actually hails from South Carolina — the gay, biracial singer-songwriter left his ultra-conservative, church-dominated hometown at age 17 to pursue music and a wider world-view. Fittingly, he describes his genre as “conflicted pop gospel,” and his lyrics are studded with religious imagery.
In 2015, the then-21-year-old got his big break with “Stole the Show,” a collaboration with DJ Kygo that now boasts over 205 million YouTube views. It was a quick ascent from there: He signed to a major label, released his first solo effort (The Temple EP), and is currently putting the finishing touches on a full-length. It’s been a crazy ride, so we took a moment to chat through some of Parson James’s firsts.
What’s your first memory of performing?
Definitely in church, but that was with the choir. My first memory of performing by myself — on stage alone and really feeling what it was like to get a genuine reaction from an audience — was at a small theater in my hometown. It was a local contest; the prize was $100 and free studio time to record a song of your own. I was so shy and completely nervous. I sang “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers and I turned my back to the audience because I was pretty chubby when I was 10 or 11 [laughs]. People were clapping, so I finally turned around and finished the song. I ended up winning.
I got to record a song and write music at such a young age in a studio with a producer. I was like, “Oh my God, this is what I need to be doing.”
When you moved to New York, you started playing open mics to break into the music scene. What’s your most notable memory of those first experiences?
Definitely just a sense of disbelief. I grew up in such a small, sheltered community and I was the only singer, really, in my town. I thought I was great because you don’t hear anything else when you’re from a town of 5,000 people.
The first open mic that I ever did turned into a contest that ran for around five weeks … anyone that wanted to try out just kind of put their name down. I was probably the sixth person to sing, and in the 40 minutes it took to get to me, I heard some of the most incredible voices, and it shocked me. I was so not used to that; I thought it would be easy for me to go in and win a competition.
It was a reality check and it make me realize what was important, and that’s to create an identity and have something that’s unique to you. That’s when I started getting motivated to write about my own experiences and stories.
About a year after your collaboration with Kygo, “Stole the Show,” started making major waves, you released your debut EP, The Temple. Tell us about that.
It felt amazing. “Stole the Show” was a song I’d written years ago, and it took a year and a half for Kygo to come across it, and in that period, I was doing so much writing. I was basically homeless because I couldn’t have a day job — I needed to write, and if I didn’t write, I felt like I was slacking off. In this period, some of these songs from The Temple EP were formed.
I was writing a lot about a young, stupid love, and I look back to that time and I don’t think I was really in love; I was just using some very brief experience as inspiration. I remember a specific conversation: Someone, a guy at a publishing company, was like, “I know you have a really incredible story and unique background. Why don’t you write about that? The more honest you are, the more people will relate to you.” So, that was the first time I sat down and started writing “Sinner Like You,” about what it was like to come out to my mom in a community of such small-minded people. The EP just started to form from there.
Because I’ve been told to be silent for so long back where I’m from, to have it be so well-received by the label, the people that work for me, and everyone that’s reached out and told me it’s helped them in some way … it’s been incredible.
Singer-Songwriter | New York, New York
Last year, Jax made major waves as third runner-up on Season 14 of American Idol. The platinum-coiffed pop rocker was riding the buzz and ready to launch her career when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After going through chemo and having her thyroid removed, the now-20-year-old is back at it. Last month, she premiered “Stars,” a soaring, keyboard-laden single from her upcoming debut EP, Funny, expected to drop January 27. We caught up with Jax to chat musical firsts.
What’s your very first memory of performing?
My first time performing in a band was probably at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, when I was 11 years old. I was in a garage band. I watch videos back and I’m like “Oh my gosh” … I was totally nervous, but I thought I was all cool. I got purple fake hair dye — the kind you paint on. So, I had wet streaks of purple and I got these jeans from Abercrombie, but I ripped them up so they looked like they weren’t from Abercrombie [laughs]. I drew all over them with a Sharpie marker. I tried as hard as I could to be like Joan Jett when I definitely wasn’t.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer?
From day one. I was never good at anything else [laughs]. Singing was my number one from age four. I just loved to entertain people. I have some embarrassing home videos; they’re really brutal. I’m singing and my little brother is in the background running around naked but somehow covered in Scotch Tape. He was just a complete boy, he was crazy, and I was always just like, “Get out of my spotlight.”
What was the first musician or band that truly inspired you, and why was that?
I think probably the Beatles had to have been my number one inspiration in the world, and they’re still up there. There’s also Billy Joel and Janis Joplin. Janis Joplin is huge to me — I’ve always been a girl power-type person. But, the Beatles as songwriters … to me, John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the best songwriting team in the entire history of the planet.
Last year, millions watched you on TV. What was it like performing on the show for the first time?
They’re actually smaller crowds than I’d been performing in front of my whole life. It’s a much different environment. The scariest part was not the audience, but the fact that you’re performing for television. It’s a whole different ball game. Everything is kind of mapped out on the floor, everything is timed out down to the second, and you have to follow this red light, because to connect with people in their living rooms, you have to look at the camera.
On top of that, it’s super hard performing in front of the judges. I mean, I’m used to people judging me, but these judges are all so great, and they’re just sitting there watching every move and listening to every sound you make. It’s nerve-wracking, but in the best way possible. At the end of the day, they taught us to be really versatile performers — to have self-control and to really focus instead of being erratic and running around the stage. I think it gave me a different perspective as far as performing goes.
You’re about to release your first EP. Tell us about your creative process and what the overall experience of recording was like.
I went through a really weird health scare this year, so it was kind of therapeutic. The first thing I did when I came out of surgery for the thyroid cancer was literally writing and writing and writing nonstop, and running. At the end of the day, we came out some really, really good material about what I was going through emotionally at the time, both with relationships and my health. It was emotional for me at the time, but it’s a win-win, because now I get to put out music and have something to show for the craziest year of my life.
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