“A Thousand Miles” turns 20: Get up-close and personal with Vanessa Carlton
In 1997, a seventeen-year-old Vanessa Carlton sat in front of the piano at her parent’s house and started playing a riff. Immediately, her mother Heidi knew this song was different from the rest of the music her daughter wrote. In 2001, “A Thousand Miles” was Carlton’s debut single, and it quickly became a number 1 single in the U.S.
Twenty years later, Vice spoke with Vanessa Carlton and several other people about the song in a short documentary titled The Story of “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton. Looking back at the success of the song, and a certain meme that helped keep the song immortalized in movie soundtracks.
Using music as an escape
When Vanessa Carlton was a teen, she was in NYC attending the School of American Ballet. However, as she puts it, “This was the 90s, it was tough. There were a lot of. . . . problems with the school.” Carlton began ditching class and ended up spending a lot of time in front of a piano.
“I had music. I had something to turn to.” As her academic career at the school began to decline, Carlton spent more & more time writing music in the dorm. Her passion for ballet faded, but her love of music grew as a result. For the longest time though, she sat on a riff as she tried to find the rest of the song to go with it.
During her early songwriting days, Carlton wrote lyrics about a guy she had a huge crush on who went to Julliard. Of course, as she tells Vice, “I can’t say the person’s name, because they’re a famous actor now.” But to whoever went to Julliard in the late 90s, congrats on possibly inspiring “A Thousand Miles”.
Ron Fair saves “A Thousand Miles”
Vanessa Carlton was lucky enough to get a record deal with Interscope, but it became clear this wasn’t the big city dream she thought it was. One person in particular with the label was making her extremely uncomfortable, and she went straight to Interscope president at the time Jimmy Iovine to complain.
After being labeled as “difficult”, Jimmy Iovine was looking into possibly dropping Vanessa altogether from the label. As Ron Fair tells Vice, Iovine would occasionally send him demo CDs to review before Iovine would officially pull the plug on failing artists. When Ron Fair played Vanessa Carlton’s CD and got to the song that would eventually become “A Thousand Miles”, he couldn’t stop listening.
Immediately, he called Iovine and warned him not only to keep Vanessa Carlton but to set up a meeting between Fair & Carlton as “A Thousand Miles” could easily be a multi-platinum hit. Working back & forth, the two developed the song to become the hit we all know & love today.
The piano car
Just as iconic as the song is the video with Vanessa Carlton driving her red piano across America. Brought to life by Marc Klasfeld, the “A Thousand Miles” video is 100% real. Every shot was filmed with Vanessa and her piano being wheeled around on a dolly track.
Half the success of “A Thousand Miles” came from the success of the video on MTV. With such a crazy concept, it quickly became talk of the town, and even before the song hit radio stations, people were jamming to “A Thousand Miles”.
White Chicks brings it home
The other half of the song’s success can be blamed on Terry Crews. Yes, White Chicks actually helped launch the song into mainstream radio success. Even today, the song remains iconic because of the scene with Terry belting it out with full-fledged choreography.
While there was definitely a point Vanessa hated the song because of its tie to the film, over the years she’s come to recognize how much the song brings people together. “I think it’s easily one of the most universally loved songs.”
Dreaming of happiness
Vanessa Carlton can’t pretend like the journey to now was easy. But because of “A Thousand Miles”, she was not only able to quit her waitress job but release six albums, perform on Broadway, and be the artist she always dreamt of being.