Posted June 18, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Sharon Van Etten: Feeling pretty lucky

Sharon Van Etten photo by Dusdin Condren
Sharon Van Etten photo by Dusdin Condren

A beautiful album with dark songs about a relationship gone wrong, Are We There is one of the best-reviewed albums of the year—not that Sharon Van Etten pays any attention to that. The indie rocker, who sounds a bit like a cross between Cat Power and PJ Harvey, says she’s oblivious to critical acclaim. We phoned her at her Brooklyn home to talk about the new album and summer tour.

Your music can be very intricate and quiet. What’s it like performing the songs at indie rock clubs? Do people shut up and listen?
Yeah, I think the kind of music I play isn’t party music. It’s not dance music. For the most part, we’re headlining the shows. Festivals are hard because that’s when people want to party and hang out. I’m not surprising anyone by the type of music that I play. If you want to come to the show and party, you can still hang out and have a good time. I don’t think people are ready to go nuts.

Would you ever want to play theaters are you happy playing dive bars and indie rock clubs?
Honestly, I’ve been trying on purpose to play clubs that I would want to go to and stay with promoters who have supported me. I don’t want to make a leap to bigger venues. If I’m not comfortable there, it doesn’t make sense to me. I played some theaters that were nice but being seated seems really constrained. And in bigger places that are really cavernous, it’s hard for me to connect with people. I’m still figuring it out.

I think Nick Cave tends to play theaters. What was it like opening for him last year?
I was lucky enough to have his audience and they didn’t sit down. His kind of music draws people out of their seats. I don’t think that’s my type of thing. I don’t play like that.

Your song “Your Love is Killing Me” has shades of Nick Cave. Would you consider him an influence in some way?He’s probably one of many artists that I listen to that has inspired me. Nick Cave and PJ Harvey go hand in hand. I listen to lots of different music. In some ways, I find it hard to find an identity because I want to try all these different things and I am influenced by all these different things.

I think as human beings, we absorb a lot around us and we don’t even know how much it affects from day to day. I grew up listening to Jethro Tull. I’m sure I have some of those sensibilities that I’m not aware of.

Have you used the flute?
Actually, there is flute on “Nothing Will Change,” but I don’t know how to play flute.

The song’s lyrics chronicle a relationship gone bad. How much of your personal experience went into the tune?
All of my personal experience went into the record. It’s like that for every song I’ve ever written. I only write from personal experience and it’s stream of consciousness. It’s all my therapy. It’s coming from a very, very real and very dark place. I don’t have a persona. It’s my name. I remember when my friends would ask me what I would call my band. I would say I didn’t have a band. I’m not going to come up with something clever. It’s just me up there with a guitar and I’m singing about my life. How can I come up with a name for that other than my name? It’s all me. At some point I’ll be done talking about me and my life, but I don’t know how to do that yet.

Talk about the album’s title Are We There. You seem to have forgotten the question mark. What’s implied by the title?
Every single record, I have some little joke here and there. I like that aspect. I like the lighter side of me. I don’t know if people always see that. I like double entendre. I like sneaky jokes. Epic is a lower case “e.” For Are We There, it’s a joke about being on the road. It’s a question I ask myself all the time:  where I am personally and in my relationship and in my career. I think it’s a very mindful question to ask. I didn’t use a question mark on purpose so it would draw more attention to it and people would think about it more.

Is it a breakup album?
That wasn’t my intention. I’m just writing to write all the time. I was in a relationship for 10 years. It just documents the last two years. The record is about loving someone so deeply and it’s about how that’s not all that there is. It’s not that simple.

It’s a rather lush production. Talk about the instrumentation on the album.
Honestly, I wanted it to feel like a band record. I wanted it to show the weirder side of me. Some of the electronic aspects are the result of me playing around with an Omnichord. I wanted it to be open and for my band mates to be open and free. That’s the core of the record — everyone just hanging out and being free in the context of these really heavy songs.

Where did you record?
Most of the record was at Weehawken at Stewart Lerman’s [Hobo Sound] studio. We just recorded some of the piano ballads at Electric Lady Studios. The piano at Stewart’s studio was great but we couldn’t isolate the sound of piano for me to be able to sing and play at the same time. Every time I try to track piano and add my vocal, some of the heart was taken out of the performance. Stewart got me into the Electric Lady room because he’s worked there before. Everything else was at Hobo. It’s a great studio. It’s humble. Stewart helped me look at a bunch. He used to have a bunch of amazing gear but now it’s the bare minimum. You’re not overwhelmed by equipment. It’s like, “Oh this is the only guitar and it’s amazing and this is the only amp and it’s beautiful.” He had exactly what you needed. It felt like a beach house walking in. I felt like I was at home right away.

What did you play?
I played guitar, bass, drums, piano, organ, some percussion. And I sang some of the harmonies. Heather [Woods Broderick] sang a lot of the harmonies and played most of the Wurlitzer.

I like the fact that “Our Love” has a mix of synths and organic instrumentation.
The Omnichord was this ’80s synthesizer based off an autoharp. It has beats built into it but it’s super lo-fi. When you hear the lo-fi Casio-type notes, it’s the Onmichord. And the same goes for the electronic flourishes. People have told me, “Dude, you want all high tech.” But it’s not high tech. On “Our Love,” my friend Mickey Free added more bass and some of the sub. But the core is this ’80s synthesizer that I play live all the time. My band mate Heather gave it to me when she was learning the songs to Tramp. We had this song called “Magic Chords” that I wrote on a full organ. I didn’t know how to play lit live. You can’t tour with an organ. It’s a lot of maintenance. She gave me the Omnichord and told me it’s easier to play. I brought it home and wrote half the record on it.

You have such a distinctive voice. Was that the case from the beginning or has it become more pronounced over time?
I feel like with any job or skill, you have to work at it. I didn’t realize what I was doing. I just always sang. In a way, I feel like I’m still trying to find my voice. I’m sure I would cringe if I heard the 12-year-old Sharon sing a song.

If you do anything long enough, you’ll get better or figure it out. I’m still figuring it out.

For years, you had people telling you your songs weren’t good enough. What convinced you that they were?
Well, obviously my friends encouraging me. When I started playing and people came up to tell me how much it meant to them. Silencing a really rowdy bar with a solo show on a Friday night. My friends would tell me that people were crying during the show. I thought it was just for me but obviously it’s not.

The word “folk” is often used to describe your music. Is that accurate?
I mean, I think it’s folk music in that it’s for the people. If someone described it as folk, it would put other people off. If you’re thinking of genre, my first record is more folk, my second record is less folk and this album is less folk. But in terms of universality and timelessness and storytelling ability, I hope to have some of that still but not in a classic sense.

You gravitated toward music when you were still in grade school. What was it that made you want to sing?
Honestly, my family is such music lovers. I grew up listing to vinyl records and singing in the car and going to concerts. They encouraged me to take lessons. I took dance lessons. Everything involving music I just knew felt good. I sang all the time. They’ve been really encouraging. I don’t know. It’s been a weird path.

Are We There is one of the year’s best reviewed albums. That must be gratifying.
I feel pretty lucky to be able to do what I’m doing. As far as critical response, I don’t even know what that means. I don’t even know how to react. We’ve just done a ten-day tour of Europe and so nothing feels like reality right now. My band is awesome and I believe in these songs. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together and we’re just starting so I don’t know what any of it means yet.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].