A Conversation with Carter Vail
By Cathleen Freedman and Gabby Etzel
CATHLEEN FREEDMAN: I first heard your song, “Velvet,” through my Spotify Discover Weekly back in, well, I can't even think of the months from 2020. But “Velvet” was a highlight of that period for me. It's such an interesting song lyrically and musically, and I continue playing all your songs because I’m really impressed with your lyrics. I don't say that lightly, it’s a huge compliment. So we're going to begin with some questions for you, and we're going to break it into two sections. Our first section is going to be craft-based and background based to learn more about you. The second section is going to be our “Absolutely Anything” questions, which are a bunch of questions that we guarantee you will have never been asked before, or ever again.
CARTER VAIL: Okay, I'm ready.
CF: Where are you from, and where are you based today?
CV: I'm from Connecticut, originally Wilton, Connecticut. Just kind of a pretty normal suburban town. I moved to Nashville, about three years ago.
CF: So this is, of course, a little naive. I'm from Houston and when I think of Nashville, and especially its music scene, I think of country music.
GABBY ETZEL: So... what genre do you feel like your music resides?
CV: That's always such a tricky question. Because I'm sure people can probably place me pretty easily into something like indie rock. But it's always difficult to place yourself in one genre because I like a lot of different kinds of music. I feel like I'm always trying to do a bunch of different genres, whether it actually comes across is that who knows? Probably limited by my skills on different instruments. So it probably always ends up sounding more similar than I anticipate. But it's probably not a bad thing.
CF: No, I will say that every single one of your songs are really distinctive.
GE: Kind of on that note, will you tell us more about your music journey and what musical instruments you play?
CV: In terms of music journey, I went to school for music at University of Miami. I am primarily an audio engineer and producer. That means I am just “okay” at all of the instruments. I'm not great at anything. But I like doing the mixing and the production side of stuff. I ended up forming a band with three other guys, Andre Bernier (keys), Garrett Fracol (drums), and Reed Gaines (bass). We actually all live together in Nashville.
CV: And we were roommates! We all run a studio in Nashville. The “day job” is producing for other people and making other people's music. But we also are a band and make our own stuff. We were going to go out on tour at one point, but then COVID hit and so that has stunted the whole live show thing. Musical journey… That's it so far, just from Miami to here. And I like writing music.
CF: Any plans to do some live shows? Or is that still a later discussion?
CV: Oh, yeah, definitely. I don't know if you know the band Kid Sistr. They're an LA-based band, and they’ve blown up right now. I'm doing a show with them in northern Connecticut over the Thanksgiving time-frame. I'll also be playing in New York around that time.
CF: Continuing on your musical journey process... I really love how some of your songs sound like confessionals, like interior dialogue with yourself. Would you expand upon how you go about your songwriting process?
CV: I think the songwriting process is so interesting because everyone's stuff is so different. I have a bunch of great Nashville songwriting friends, and seeing how they work, I'm always like, “Well, how did that happen?” But for me, I like to do the music and the lyrics kind of at the same time. I never know what the song is going to be about. I just come up with phrases that feel really cool.
With a song like “Velvet,” actually, it was me and my friend Reed in our kitchen. We had just gotten a cassette recorder that we got for free, and we were trying to figure out what it sounded like, like recording through it. We started playing this one chord progression. As we played it back, I think we slowed it down accidentally. It was the finished version of “Velvet,” essentially. And then, the lyrics just started springing up.
That doesn't really give much insight into the process, but I think I really like that you can make something sound really vague and still connect with people. I think that what I'm trying to do most of the time in my songs is not make it too specific, but still feel really emotional to me. Or make it hyper-specific and not make any sense to anyone else! I have a few songs like that, like “Love-15.” [It] just gets way too in the weeds of my own bullshit.
GE: We all had to go through quarantine at the start of 2020, obviously, which was something that was somehow both exhausting and also left us with a lot of time on our hands. So how did you use your quarantine both artistically and personally?
CV: Artistically, I was going crazy, and that's when I came up with the whole premise for my EP, the Interstellar Tennis Championship. It's about a space tennis championship, so not something I'd normally write about. I was just kind of losing my mind and not feeling any inspiration to do more serious music, and so that's what came out. Personally, I was just in my room for way too long. I work out of my house because that's where my studio is, and so I'm pretty much always there anyway. But the quarantine was definitely the uptick of, “Oh, no, I'm alone all the time. This is gonna be a problem.”
GE: I also feel like there's a difference between being somewhere all the time by choice and being somewhere all the time because you have to be.
CV: I got to the point where I would floss a bunch of times a day just to have something else to do.
CF: Your dentist probably loved that.
CV: Oh, yeah.
CF: I'm off TikTok, but I have been seeing that you've been doing some Tik Tok videos. How has that been an avenue for you to reach out to, maybe a different audience than your music because the [TikTok] songs are pretty comical and fun.
CV: Thank you very much. I'm going for comical and fun. That's the goal.
CV: I don't know if there's any overlap. I don't think anyone goes from my TikTok shit, and goes, “I wonder what his normal music is like,” so I don't think there's any overlap, and I was expecting there to be some. I have gotten some cool opportunities from it... I'm actually going to be releasing one of the TikTok songs as a full song because kind of a cool opportunity happened that I can't go into, so it's been good for career stuff. But also, it's just a lot of fun because as soon as you take the pressure off a song to be emotional or interesting, it's more about having a fun bass line, and the words can be anything. It's been good practice to be creating and not have it be super intentional.
CF: I try to compose like little listening guides for my friends when I'm trying to get them into a new artist, and I'd be curious to hear what your listening guide would be for your own music. So what are five songs that you would give to somebody who's like, “I want to know what Carter Vail’s music is like!”
CV: See, I have such a hard time listening to my own music, so I don't really know what I've released. Anytime I hear it, I'm like, “Oh, why is that kick drum so loud?” I think probably “Melatonin” because that seems to be the one that people like the most. I really like “Rocket Guy,” and no one likes “Rocket Guy.”
CF: I like “Rocket Guy!”
CV: Ha! I think [“Rocket Guy”] has got such a goofy, like, weird bossa nova thing. And I think that's cool. I would also say “On/Off” because it's a more recent song, and I think it's lyrically kind of cool. “Space is Lonely, That's Okay.” And probably something off of Red Eyes. Oh, “Andrew.” “Andrew” was one of the first songs I wrote that I was like, “Oh, that feels really good.” So I think those.
CF: There's your listening guide!
CF: Most of the songs off of Red Eyes and Interstellar Tennis Championship are very coming of age. So how would you kind of differentiate between the two pieces of work? Like thematically and motif-wise?
CV: Red Eyes was more of a compilation of all the songs that I had written in college. Granted, I recorded it and produced them a lot later, but I felt like I needed to have a centralized album. So I took all the songs that still felt like a story with a through-line to them. [Red Eyes] wasn't a concept album at all, whereas Interstellar Tennis Championship, even if the through-line is kind of hard to pick out, is about a person being beamed up from Earth and competing in a tennis championship in foreign galaxies. So it's different, although the coming of age thing is a through-line through all of my work because I feel like I'm just out here coming of age, you know.
CF and GE nod, knowingly.
CV: I think that Interstellar Tennis Championship is a story about a character, and Red Eyes is just songs that I wrote about myself at different periods throughout college.
CF: I kind of gathered that with Interstellar, but I didn't know that about Red Eyes. It was just kind of, “These happen to work together?”
CF: You mentioned your parents a lot in your music, which I think is wonderful. It sounds like a very healthy relationship. What do they think of your music?
CV: They hate it.
CF and GE: !
CV: No, they're big fans! That's so funny. I'm impressed that you have picked up this kind of stuff from my music. I don't think people listen to stuff that intently, which is very cool that you did. I talk about my parents all the time. I think that one of the big hurdles that a lot of people go through, something that a lot of people do in the kind of place that I grew up in, is the “moving away from the parents.” The classic coming of age thing is [to be] alone and figure out how to be alone. I think I have a fucking awesome relationship with my parents. I'm super close with them, I'm very lucky. But I think it's just such an interesting part of life, not just separating from them, but separation in general. Be it a breakup or just finding yourself alone. There are two routes that you can take from that. One being, “I'm alone, and I'm okay with being alone,” or, “I'm alone, and I have no idea why this is happening.” I think that's fun to write about.
CF: Like in “Space is Lonely, That's OK!”
CV: Exactly. That's what I feel all good indie music is. It's saying that “Things are kind of fucked up, but I think we're gonna be alright.” And I think that's the best sentiment. There's this song by Bruce Springsteen called “Atlantic City,” and it's the ultimate “This isn't going well, but I think we're gonna be alright” song.
CF: We should put them on a t-shirt. As for your parents and friends...Do they ever have any special requests for you when it comes to your music? A song that they like best?
CV: I think the people that see me live usually ask for “Drive Home,” which I don't think is my best recorded song. But when we play with the band, it hits pretty hard.
CF: I have a deep appreciation for robust vocabularies, and the word bank in your songs are particularly rich. So what's your favorite word that you've used in one of your songs?
CV: I have two. But first, it's really funny that you say that because my brother's a little bit older than me and just a real intellect. After listening to a few of my songs, he said, “You know, you should really read more books.” That's the most brutal feedback I've ever gotten about anything. I think my two favorite words to use in songs are “cigarette” and “Cadillac.” Oh, they just sound great.
CF: Yeah, and they have the double letter situation going on! So they look nice too!
CV: Absolutely right! It's great and phonetically.
CF: On that same coin, what's your favorite line from one of your songs?
CV: It's probably from “Space is Lonely, That’s OK!” because I think that song is just really interesting lyrically, like, a little bit selfishly. “Later on, in your compartment, you draw the shades and sit in darkness, reading screens on aeronautics measure space and time.” I just think using “aeronautics” in a song was a fun, fun little thing.
CF: That's a good line.
GE: When you look at your different albums, there's a really large variety of themes and motifs. So can you tell us more about your sources of creative inspiration?
CV: I find that I get really emotionally invested in stuff that I just shouldn't. Well, I’m not sure. I get easily distraught from movies. I remember watching Booksmart, and I was torn up about that movie. A lot of times when I'm driving around, or if I'm walking, lines will come up, and I won't have a reason for that. Or I will have a story behind them. It'll just be a line that I'll be like, “I don't know what that's going to mean, but I like that.” It'll just evolve from there, and although I can't point to a specific thing that is inspiring, all of life is conspiring to make me come up with some bullshit lines.
CF: Well, this is a little fun fact. On the day I asked you to do this interview and I was telling Gabby that we were doing this, you posted on your story a picture of you training in a jiu jitsu gi. It just so happens that Gabby's a professional athlete.
CV: Really? Wow!
GE: So I was excited to see that, and I would love to know more about how you got into the sport.
CV: Oh my God. Wait, I need to hear about... What? So how long have you been doing it? You're a professional? That's fucking nuts.
GE: I've been competing since I was 13 years old. It's been like seven, coming up on eight years.
CV: You're NoGi or both?
GE: I do both. Funnily enough, I just love the gi. I'm a sucker for the gi. But most of my matches are nogi because that's where the matches are. So most of my matches are NoGi, but I just competed at pans. And now I'm hoping to get out there for Worlds. But we'll see how it goes because that's finals week.
CV: Dude, that is so sick. I'm so glad you told me. That's fucking awesome.
GE: I'm so glad to hear that you're in it… So how did you get into it?
CV: I'm blown away, that's really interesting. I've been doing it for three months. So I'm brand new, as green as they come. But I love it. It's so fun. I’ve got some awesome coaches. I just got my first stripe.
GE and CF: Congratulations!
CV: I'm feeling like a baby that just got a nice piece of candy or something. Because I work for myself, I have no end to my workday. So I'll wake up, go to sleep thinking about the shit I'm doing, like the mixes I have to do, and I found that doing jiu jitsu... for that hour-and-a-half, I don't think about anything except doing that, which is amazing. I needed something to get me out of music all the time. It was nice. I'm 6’4 and 220 pounds, so I'm a pretty big guy. Getting tied into knots by people that are literally half my size has been such an eye-opening experience! Also, everyone at the gym is so cool. The reason I got into it was because I was like, “I need something to do that's not just like weightlifting because I'm losing my mind here.”
GE: Do you have a preference for NoGi?
CV: I'm not proud of this reason. I like NoGi because it hurts my fingers. With the gi, I don't like the little bone spurs and stuff. I try to go every day. At the gym I go to, they alternate gi and NoGi every other day. So I'll go to the gi, but I always come away and my fingers hurt. So, yeah, I prefer NoGi.
GE: I always say that I like the pace of NoGi with the creativity of the gi because I'm a sucker for lapel guards. So yeah, that's kind of I'm always playing worm or anything like that. I'm sure it annoys my training partners plenty. But I do enjoy the pace of Nogi, and there is still creativity there with the leg locks and everything. It opens you up to a new rule set.
GE: Now we're actually going to move into our Absolutely Anything questions. So these are going to be more fun, unique questions.
CF: Okay, so first one, we're going to get into some hypotheticals. Somebody just made a playlist that features one of your songs.
CF: And your song is going to be placed between two great songs, which two great songs would you be most flattered by?
CV: Most flattered by? Well, I think that's an interesting question because if there were two songs that were mixed really well, I'd be like, “Oh, this is gonna be a problem because throw one of my songs betwixt two songs that are done really well might be an issue.” But I think anything by the National because I'm such a fanboy of the National and... Huh, hold on. Let's think...
CF: Yes! This is an important question.
CV: Vampire Weekend as well. I think I'm a big Vampire Weekend fan. Kind of the standard indie stuff.
CF: Speaking of placement with songs, you are geographically all over the place in your music. I feel like every time I listen to your songs I'm like, “Oh wait, that's another state, that's another city.” And are you aware of this?
CV: I am! I'm just blown away that you've listened to this stuff deep enough to know that!
CF: So going off of that, off the top of your head and as quickly as possible, name the states that you have not visited.
CV: Oh, a ton! Nevada. I've never been to Texas.
CV: I was supposed to go for South by Southwest, and then, yeah... I'm going to need to look at a map! Anything in the middle of the country. Minnesota. Nope. Missouri. I've been to everything in the northeast, for sure. Anything East Coast I've been to because I've driven from Maine to Florida... Fuck, I don't know the states, which is embarrassing. Ohio, I've never been to. A ton of them! Middle of the country. No idea. I know it's beautiful. Arizona. Not been. New Mexico. Ah!
CF: Well, you need to go visit these places, so you can name-drop more cities in your songs.
A Short and By No Means Comprehensive List of the Places
Mentioned in Carter Vail’s Songs
“Oh my darling Arizona.” - Milk Carton
“I think I’ll head on down to Reno.” - Silent Movies
“This isn’t like you, San Francisco.” - Space is Lonely, That’s OK!
“Don’t know where you’re going. California or Japan.” - Space is Lonely, That’s OK!
“Houston tells me how you’re feeling.” - Space is Lonely, That’s OK!
“Going back to Telluride…” - Computer Love Song
“Wake up, Virginia, is your daddy home?” - Drive Home
“Carolina treat you better…” - Velvet
*Note: Some of these may be used as proper noun names! Still counts!
CF: Considering your line in “Computer Love Song” (“You’re Gwyneth Paltrow, I'm Richie Tenenbaum”) and your penchant for bathrobes, I'm going to go out on a limb and say you're a fan of Wes Anderson.
CV: In love with him.
CF: I'm also a fan. Fun fact, I'm drinking from my little French Dispatch mug right now. I got to go to the premiere at the New York Film Festival and I have to say it's my favorite Wes Anderson movie.
CV: Really? It's got a great cast.
CF: Oh, yeah, but this story is so cool. It's like all the best features of Wes Anderson put into a movie.
CV: I’m such a fan of The Life Aquatic.
CF: I love that one. And that's one that I don't think people like as much.
CV: Yeah, it kind of meanders a lot. There's a lot of meandering in that one. I watch The Royal Tenenbaums pretty consistently because I kind of jack the whole fucking persona of Richie Tenenbaum-- I wear the headband all the time. And it wasn't intended to be ripped off of him. I wasn't thinking about that. But then I rewatched the movie, and I was like, “Well, fuck.” My guitar’s not up here, [but] I have a bunch of stickers of Richie Tenenbaum on my guitar now because I was like, “We're gonna send it! This is our thing now.” Yes, love, love, love, love.
CF: Well, my follow-up question was going to be, “What's your favorite Wes Anderson movie?” but it's safe to say Life Aquatic or Tenenbaums.
CV: A favorite right now is Darjeeling Limited. Yeah, that one's really good. Because that's the one I rewatched the most recently. Grand Budapest is amazing as well.
GE: Um, so you're not gonna believe this. But Wes Anderson totally just texted us. And he says that he wants to use one of your songs in his next movie. And he even wants you to decide what the scene should be like. His words, not ours.
CF: So what songs would you choose? And what would be like the ideal Wes Anderson scene? Oh, wait, Wes also just texted and said that we should clarify. You can either make up the scene or use a pre-existing one.
CV: Wow, that would be the best thing in the world! That would be sick. I would say that one of the best scenes in any Wes Anderson movie is… Well, there are two fantastic song moments. One of them is when Richie Tenenbaum is attempting to take his life, which is dark. They play “Needle in the Hay'' by Elliott Smith. That is one of the best musical moments in a movie I've ever seen. I remember seeing that and just being entirely blown away.
CV: The other [musical moment] is “Les Champs-Elysees” at the end of Darjeeling. Literally as the credits are rolling, they play this amazing French song. I think it would be so cool to have that spot, even though that song is fantastic. Probably “Tigers on Trains.”
CF: That's a good one! Well, Wes Anderson has a new movie that he's working on right now in Spain. So if you want to start thinking of musical influences for the soundtrack...
CV: Incredible! We'll have to coordinate that.
GE: Jumping around a little bit… This is very important. What is your zodiac sign?
CV: Oh, my zodiac sign? I am a Capricorn, Capricorn, Capricorn. Are y'all into the [zodiac stuff]?
GE: Yeah, yeah.
CF: I don't know... I know that I'm a Pisces, and that's about it. I feel like a scientist when I go about [this question], though. I'm always curious about how people feel about their zodiac sign and if they feel like it even applies to them. So based on whatever you know about Capricorns, do you feel like a “Capricorn?”
CV: My girlfriend is not “into” it, but she likes anything that's premonition-related or that stuff. She thinks that I'm the most Capricorn-Capricorn. That being said, I'm sure there are multiple definitions of what a “Capricorn-Capricorn” is. So, you know, I'm not sure. [When she read] the definition to me, I was like, “That does sound exactly like me.” So I think it could be accurate, but also, I'm not someone that particularly buys into any of it.
GE: Very cool.
CF to GE: So, um, okay, how do we feel about this last question?
GE to CF: Yeah. Okay, we're just gonna go into it. So my favorite song of yours is “Love-15,” which, as you know, is about puppets.
CV: Hell, yeah. Well done picking that up. That's dope.
CF: Yeah, okay. Well, let's see about that…
GE: We’re going to close off this interview not with a question, but with an introduction.
CF: We were saving this question to the end because we have to kind of read the vibes of the interview. We can’t bring this on just anyone.
GE: This is Kenny. He is our puppet. He doesn't like to hear that because we fully believe that he has taken on a personality of his own. But we've had him since freshman year. We knew each other for like two months, and I don't know what possessed us to go out and buy a puppet together. But puppets are very special to us because Kenny has brought us closer together. Okay. So yeah, we just love “Love-15,” and we wanted to close out this interview by saying goodbye via Kenny, and thank you so much!
CV: On the puppet thing, that's hilarious because I was assuming one of you brought the puppet from the past. But like you guys buying a puppet together? That's cool like that you invested in this puppet. If you were like, “We've known each other for two months. I gotta show you my puppet!” And that's the end of me knowing them. But that's awesome. I love collaboration.
CF: Well, thank you so much for being game for this interview multiple times. And for being so much fun to interview with!
CV: Oh, no problem. Thanks so much for listening to the music. I really appreciate that. And for wanting to talk to me. That's super cool. I had a great time!
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