May 11, 2002
The feeling of riding in a car and singing the hell out of a favorite song is an exhilarating one. Even better when friends are in the front or back seats. Driving songs are fun when they come on the radio because they put you in the moment and make it feel like you can just keep going forever. It doesn't matter if you're on a cross-country road trip, or taking a 15-minute drive to the mall. You want that feeling to last forever simply because you know it won't.
Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" is probably not the best driving song ever written, but it's up there. Even though I was still living in Queens at the time and had no desire to get a driver's license, I could vicariously feel like I was on the open road not caring about shit whenever I heard the song. And it came in the middle of a stretch where female singer-songwriters were dominating both the pop charts and my personal top 40.
Vanessa Carlton was born in 1980 in Milford, Pennsylvania, the eldest child of a pilot and a music teacher. She became attracted to her mother's piano at an early age, and soon her mom taught her how to play. She also learned dancing, and enrolled in the School of American Ballet when she was 14. She moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, but dropped out after a year. Soon she recorded a demo with songwriter Peter Zizzo and before long was signed to A&M Records.
Carlton began work on a debut album that was initially going to be called Rinse. The name of the album was changed to Be Not Nobody, and several of the tracks were re-recorded and retitled. The song that would become "A Thousand Miles" began as a track called "Interlude". Carlton came up for the piano riff for the song when she was 18 and her mother encouraged her to create a song around it. But Carlton developed writer's block and put the song on the back burner for a while.
When she finally did finish it, she recorded it for her demo. Ron Fair of A&M Records was impressed with the track, but he, like other label executives, wanted her to change the title. Carlton couldn't agree on any of their choices, but Fair worked with her on the arrangement of the song. Eventually Fair put his foot down about changing the title, and so the song became "A Thousand Miles".
Carlton's narrator in the song is on her way home but thinking about the person she loves. She sounds like she's so in thrall to this person that she's disassociated from wherever she is in that moment. She's feeling like she's not good enough for them to love her: "'Cause everything's so wrong/and I don't belong/living in your precious memory." She'd walk a thousand miles just to see the one she loves for one more night.
With a different sort of instrumentation, the lyrics might come off as slight and middling. But Carlton's piano is a force of nature on the track. Backed by a string section, it gives the song a regal feeling, almost like it should be heard in a Victorian ballroom. Given that, the lyrics ground the song back to reality. It feels like a daydream come to life, as if you can put yourself in the narrator's shoes, longing for the one you live while stuck in a dreary commute.
Then there's the music video. Carlton plays a piano as it winds through suburbs, city streets, and a highway. There were no special effects putting her in any of these places. A piano was placed on a dolly and towed around different parts of Los Angeles, with Carlton strapped onto the bench in front of it. It's the type of video that would immediately grab your attention when it came on TV. It's also a video that rewarded repeat viewing. All the little details in the background behind Carlton - the kids' party, the breakdancers - don't really register the first couple times you see it.
Or maybe they did, but I was so enthralled by the song, that it took time for me to appreciate everything about it. I'm still fascinated by the owl that perches on Carlton's piano midway through. I have to assume that it was a trained owl, but a small part of me wants to believe it just landed there serendipitously and the crew just went with it.
It feels like a small miracle the song did as well as it did. But given how an artist like Michelle Branch was simultaneously seeing success with her debut album, it's likely there was an appetite for female singer-songwriters on pop radio as an antidote for the more pre-packaged pop stars that rose to fame just a few years prior. And while Branch held down the #1 spot on my chart with "All You Wanted" for seven weeks, six of those weeks saw "A Thousand Miles" stuck right behind it. Once "All You Wanted" began to decline for me, "A Thousand Miles" was ready to take its place.
The song saw massive airplay on top 40 and adult contemporary radio. It topped the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart for five weeks and eventually got to #5 on the Hot 100. Carlton followed it up with "Ordinary Day", a rollicking track that followed a similar formula to "A Thousand Miles". I loved it all the same, and it got to #7 on my top 40 in the fall on 2002. Perhaps it was a little too similar for radio audiences, however, as the song only reached #30 on the Hot 100. The third single, "Pretty Baby", saw decent airplay on pop radio, but failed to dent either the Hot 100 or my top 40.
Carlton followed up Be Not Nobody by working with her boyfriend at the time, Third Eye Blind singer Stephan Jenkins. (Third Eye Blind would've been in this column a bunch of times had I started my chart in the 90s. Instead, their biggest hit on my chart, 2003's "Blinded (When I See You)", peaked at #26.) The resulting album, Harmonium, is somewhat darker than its predecessor, and didn't do nearly as much business. Only one single from the album, "White Houses" was released in the United States. It scraped the bottom of my top 40 and got to #86 on the Hot 100, but I imagine you'd be forgiven for not being aware of the song at the time.
It seemed like "A Thousand Miles" had become an albatross around Carlton's neck by this point. She wasn't the first artist to get an enormous pop hit that wound up being impossible to properly follow up. Carlton lampooned this in the video for "Nolita Fairytale", off her third album Heroes & Thieves. It starts the same way as "A Thousand Miles" only for the piano to be destroyed by an oncoming taxicab, with the setting now shifted to New York. ("Nolita Fairytale" peaked at #36 on my top 40 in 2007.)
Carlton hasn't appeared on my top 40 since "Nolita Fairytale". She came out as bisexual a few years later, and married John McCauley, the lead singer of indie band Deer Tick, in 2013. She's released three more albums, most recently 2020's Love Is An Art. Despite coming out right at the beginning of the pandemic, it still entered Billboard's album chart at #76. But Carlton's days as being a pop star are long since behind her. We won't be seeing her in this column again, but I would go a thousand miles just to hear this song one more time.
Perhaps one reason why "A Thousand Miles" became so impossible for Carlton to follow up was its inclusion in the dumb-as-rocks 2004 movie White Chicks. Here's the scene where Shawn and Marlon Wayans - in whiteface and drag - struggle to sing the song when it comes on the radio.
And here's the scene where Terry Crews admits it's his favorite song and belts it out:
Here's Georgia singer-songwriter Teddy Swims' cover of "A Thousand Miles" that he recorded in 2019.
Unwritten Law's brooding pop-punk hit,"Seein' Red", peaked at #6 behind "A Thousand Miles". I can't stop the words from running through my head.