“We found it on Zillow, just like everyone else did during the pandemic,” musician Vanessa Carlton says of her charming federal post-and-beam home. She and her husband, fellow musician John McCauley, even bought the Rhode Island home—built in the early 1800s—without ever seeing it in person. “We did a FaceTime walk-through,” Carlton says. “I know, it’s crazy.” And yet, the home the couple shares with their seven-year-old daughter Sidney has led to their “next life” in the Ocean State.
The blind devotion to an age-old dwelling is a little more understandable given that Carlton and McCauley, whose renovation projects have grown larger over the years, are enamored with old dwellings. “People associate so many headaches with historic homes,” Carlton says, “but we want those huge wide wood plank floors that you can’t find anymore, the artisan work that went into these mantels, and the really divided light windows with the old glass that bends [sunrays] just like that.”
When the trio arrived, they found a resident family of “intense, amazing turkeys” on the one-acre property, which borders natural wetlands. (“This house belongs to them, make no mistake!” Carlton says of their bird neighbors, who are known to sleep on the roof.) As for the house itself, “I saw enormous potential,” Carlton reflects. †[But], to be honest, it felt a bit like a funeral home. There was a kind of austerity in everything. You felt like you were walking into a movie set, and that’s not how we were going to live in this house.” Soon, Carlton and her husband hired ESHI Builders to do a thoughtful renovation.
As for the decor, the first thing the singer chose for the house, perfectly sums up the spirit that the couple had in mind. “I’m a wallpaper freak,” admits Carlton. She chose House of Hackney’s pink Dinosauria design before even hiring Kate Gray from Brooklyn-based interior design firm Hamilton Gray.
If Carlton’s strength was in defining exactly how she wants to feel in space, Gray’s was creating a composition to evoke those feelings and solve problems. The musician first met the interior designer through an artistic friend, but the pairing felt karmically good when she discovered Gray was a native Rhode Islander. As for the designer, she immediately felt her client’s vivid imagination and collaborative energy. “I could see it would be a really fun process,” Gray recalls.
Carlton herself had many references, because she makes ‘ridiculous’ mood boards and mines Pinterest for old magazine clips. But Gray enjoyed putting her client on designers like Rosie Li and finding important new pieces that Carlton could obsess over (like The Inside’s flower bed). The designer helped distil not only Carlton’s ideas, but also her deep stash of vintage finds and antique furniture. “It’s a beloved build-up of our precious things over time,” the musician notes. She adds, “Welcome to Vanessa and John’s flea market!”
The vast majority of the furniture is pieces that Carlton has carried throughout her life with McCauley, which Gray had to puzzle together. “I love it when I walk into a house and I can feel” [its] history because I know how much the items mean to the owners,” says Carlton. Unsurprisingly, Carlton’s home is full of nostalgic personal touches, such as artwork created by her grandfather, a vintage copper horse sculpture identical to her best friend’s, and an “incredible” Yamaha piano that was custom-built for her to play at the 2003 Grammy awards.
The latter is clearly present in the living room, which is unmistakably the soul of the house. It is where the couple write music, listen to records and eat meals. Although they have adapted it to their modern existence, Carlton says she feels a colonial energy when the sun goes down and they light the many candles in the house. “Not everything has to be electric, you know? Trying to keep that low glow is key to a home like this.
That romantic idea is probably also a holdover from Carlton’s time in England, where he worked on pictures of Georgian farms whose moody paints have stayed with her forever. Here, fragrant paint colors like Farrow & Ball’s Mole’s Breath and Down Pipe and Benjamin Moore’s Wrought Iron set the tone. In addition to being drawn to old English homes, Carlton says her homes always need something akin to The Shire. “I don’t think that’s an official aesthetic, but Lord of the Rings is my happy place.” For her, that ethereal magic comes from the trees whose wood forms the broad floorboards. “I can feel those trees in the floors and the size of the mantles – the living room mantle is so high it really makes me feel like a hobbit!”
Somewhat surprisingly, it took just five months to create this final chapter of the legendary house. The Carlton collections, thus curated, feel right at home in the more than 200-year-old structure. “One of the most beautiful things about a house like this is that you can make it so warm, comfortable, and cozy,” Carlton says. “And that…is the magic for me.”