Vanessa Carlton was born in Milford, Pennsylvania to Ed Carlton, a pilot, and Heidi, a pianist and school music teacher. She has two younger siblings, a sister, Gwen, and a brother, Edmund. She is of half Russian and half Scandinavian ancestry.
Her interest in music began at an early age: after returning from Disneyland at the age of two, she played "It's a Small World" on the piano. Her mother then began to tutor her. Vanessa was introduced to classical music from a young age. By the age of 9, she had become passionate about ballet, and, as a result, around 1994, enrolled in the School of American Ballet, when she was 14. While at the school, she lived at the Lincoln Center in New York City. When she graduated, she put on vocal performances at nightclubs in the community, beginning to feel more comfortable and dynamic on the stage. The culminations of the fulfillment of her aspirations in this part of her life was when she joined A&M Records in 2001.
She began recording an album called Rinse. It was never released, but some of the songs were used for Be Not Nobody and one was used for the video game SpyHunter 2. Be Not Nobody debuted at number five on the Billboard 200. The song "A Thousand Miles" won a Grammy and hit number 6 on TOTP.
Vanessa later released Harmonium, Heroes and Thieves, and Rabbits on the Run. She will soon release another album, Euphoria.