Sharon Van Etten‘s work has always been super personal and provides an experience that can really be summed up best as emotionally harrowing. Since her debut in 2009, the Brooklyn singer has been candid about the fact that her songs are a form of therapy for her. Her latest album, Are We There, is just her embracing the honest vulnerability of therapy more than ever.
Sharon Van Etten‘s work has always been super personal and provides an experience that can really be summed up best as emotionally harrowing. Since her debut in 2009, the Brooklyn singer has been candid about the fact that her songs are a form of therapy for her. Her latest album, Are We There, is just her embracing the honest vulnerability of therapy more than ever. As you dive into the record and hear lines like “burn my skin so I can’t feel you,” you can instantly tell this is the true representation of someone’s heartbreak and one you won’t easily forget.
This Friday night, Sharon Van Etten will bring her therapy to The Jefferson Theater to give the people of central Virginia a chance to see one of the best musicians of the year. While on the road in between shows, the deeply personal singer was gracious enough to talk to me about her lyrics, how the songs go live, and even self-producing her own record.
As someone who listens to your music, I think I have a natural idea of you being this super intense person, but are you like that in real life?
I’m intense, but I’m mostly weird, goofy, and kind of a tomboy. I’m still serious and introverted, but I’m also a total spazz. I think some people when I meet them are a little careful. But then they meet me and they can finally let go and say, “Thank God, she’s not this super depressed person.” Most of the bands I’ve toured with I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with them, or people that understand that music isn’t the only part of yourself, it’s just one part of yourself. I’m lucky.
So you never put any stock into keeping yourself shrouded in mystery like other artists do from time to time?
I think it’s too late for that. I started writing music for my own well-being and it became this thing, but I only write when I’m in a dark place as a form of therapy and that’s a part of who I am. I am under my own name so it is about being myself. It’s also about connecting with people and helping people not feel so alone. So I think to have some kind of mystery around me would be just false, you know?
These songs were written as a form of therapy so how does that go when you’re playing them on stage in front of a packed house?
The first couple of songs in a show, I’m a little shaky and it’s emotional for sure. We usually start with the song “Afraid Of Nothing,” and it gets me super teary-eyed because I feel it all even though I’m past that moment. Then I look up and see these people listening and hanging on to every word. I wrote these songs when I was fairly broken so to look up and to see these people connecting, which in itself is pretty emotional. But at the end of the day, it’s really cathartic and healing to be able to compartmentalize those moments of my own, re-live them now, and see how far I’ve come.
What’s the vibe you get from the crowd? I just can’t imagine anyone dancing to “Your Love Is Killing Me.”
You’d be surprised! It’s hilarious. The audiences are so different from city to city. We played in a Detroit suburb–Ferndale, Michigan–recently. The crowd was so rowdy. A fight broke out, there was some guy screaming out requests, and someone ended up throwing a beer at him. People are dancing and having fun, but it also was this high energy though, and mostly fun.
Then we played in Columbus. It was a really quiet and respectful audience in between songs as I bantered back and forth, but I would look up during songs and people are totally dancing to “Your Love Is Killing Me.” Not full on dancing, but that kind of swaying your arms over your heard, college dancing. It’s fun to see that because of course I wouldn’t think anyone would want to dance to my music. But it happens. For sure.
I heard you gave “Your Love Is Killing Me” the nickname “The Beast” for how tiring it is live. Is that still the case?
I think as a band we keep getting better and better, but yeah, it’s still tiring. That song is one of those that just builds and builds and builds and builds. I don’t really have a break in singing and it just gets more and more intense. You don’t want to pull the reins on it either; you just want to let it take you. I mean this positively, it’s still a beast because it’s just that type of song. It’s just exhausting when we’re done with it.
Talk to me about “Afraid Of Nothing” because it opens the album up just perfectly.
It’s an understated song. I feel like it does prepare you for the heaviness that’s about to happen, but there’s still a little bit of light in there. But that’s a song that’s definitely demonstrating restraint. It was really hard picking the first song, but when I came to “Afraid Of Nothing,” it made the most sense. I talked to a few people about what the first song is supposed to do for a record. For some people, it’s supposed to be immediate and in your face and “this is who I am and I don’t care!” Then there’s others who think that there’s this slow build, slowly letting people into the record, letting them think for themselves, and letting there be a development. You know, really focusing on sequence and not just slapping people across the face immediately. I feel like it’s a song that did both well, but on top of that, it set up the theme of the record which is just spending a big part of your life with somebody, the ups and downs of that, and the hopes you have for it.
Besides the two we’ve discussed, what are some other songs that were really cathartic for you or important to get out?
I think “Tarifa” is one of those songs that’s understated and has a classic sound to it. It’s my most romantic song. It shows people that through all of this, there were some really beautiful moments. I had a beautiful moment with somebody through all the darkness and I don’t want to forget it. Also, “I Love You But I’m Lost.” That’s another cathartic song for me to sing because it’s not me being sad or mad. It’s acknowledging that there’s love there. It acknowledges that you don’t know what to do sometimes. It also just feels really good to sing. It’s just a really cathartic melody and progression.
They’re both real love songs, but I think there are so many different categories for love songs. I don’t think this is a break-up album because they’re not all break-up songs. Over the course of two years, it’s a documentation of what I was going through. It’s easy to sit down and just write songs when you’re mad. It’s easy to sit down and write songs – well, actually it’s not easy for me to sit down and write songs when I’m totally in love. Everyone has different ways of writing and I write when I’m having a hard time communicating, and it’s usually when I’m in the middle of something or when I’m just going through a dark time. It’s just that dark times are usually matters of the heart for me. I can’t really speak for anyone else on that.
Do you think self-producing this record allowed you to go deeper lyrically than you have before?
Well, I write the same way, honestly, that I have since I started. I feel like I’m just improving the way I write really. I didn’t know I was going to be producing my own record when I was writing. Like I said, I was writing these songs over the last two years and then I had a collection of songs. I decided I was in a good place to go to a studio and that’s when it came up. I think it’s fairly clear I don’t censor myself and I try not to cater to other people. In the past, I didn’t censor myself with other producers and they were friends of mine who held my hand, but I wasn’t about to do that on this record.
How nervous were you about producing your own record once the time came though? It’s not an easy thing to just jump into.
Thank God I only like working with people that I like and trust. I wouldn’t have produced it myself if I didn’t have a band that I believed in and that understood me–because you are in a very vulnerable position. In your mind, you hear the songs already and you trust everyone in the room to flesh the songs out for you. They knew me well enough to do that, to listen to me, to take constructive criticism, and to work with all of that. I wouldn’t work any other way. It was a challenge for sure. The tagline of my life is that I’m not a natural born leader. I’m learning to work with other people. I’ve never had a band until the last few years so it’s a new experience for me still, but I love everybody that I work with and I’m very lucky to have that. Most people don’t.
After self-producing this one, do you think you’ll keep doing it in the future?
I have no idea. I know I’ll always have a hand in it, but I’m not going to say I’m going to produce my records for the rest of my life. That’s just being short-sighted. Everyone I’ve worked with in the past helped me interpret my songs in way that I couldn’t do on my own and I’m not going to close myself off to that possibility in the future. But, more importantly, I’ve definitely learned to just let things happen naturally. I let opportunities present themselves, and if someone that I would want to work with open themselves up to me, I’m not going to shut them down just because I’ve produced forty records by myself.
Did you go to anyone for advice before you began the process?
Oh, all the time. My friends, my family. Before I even chose a studio, I reached out to Stewart Lerman who ended up working with me on the record and lending me his studio. I met him doing hired gun work which was back-up singing for a Boardwalk Empire compilation. I really loved his energy and he’s worked in and out of studios since the 70s. I was kind of freaking out looking at studios and I was hitting my head against the wall. Every studio I went to was either too fancy and I felt too intimidated or too indie rock and already had this sound going. I was nervous because I didn’t really have my own sound yet. I’m still finding my sound.
So I reached out to him and said I want to produce my record, I already have my songs, and I already have my band. I’m just trying to find a studio I feel comfortable in and do what I want to do with someone who’s not trying to put their stamp on it. He was so amazing and he helped me look around at a few studios while he was being super modest about his own space. After I looked at all these other studios that were great, but just not for me in that moment, he showed me his studio, Hobo Sound, in Weehawken, New Jersey. It was vibe. I never felt that comfortable in a studio before. Whether or not I produce my own records going forward, I will definitely record there again, and I already have! I just finished a Karen Dalton song for a compilation that will be coming out soon and a song for a Donovan record as well. Both of those will be out within a year I think. Just anytime I can work there I will, because I had such a great time. Stewart Lerman and his assistant James Frazee are really, really great people and I’ll be back.
To wrap up – what do you like to do to pass time on the road in order to keep sane?
I like to Google restaurants! I really enjoy that since we’re going all over the place. I’m in the van right now and I have my knitting in front of me. I have a bag full of groceries and garbage. I have a couple of books that I picked up here and there and then I have my recorder that I have my demos on that I listen to and try and work on lyrics. It’s a little scattered, but I like having little tasks here and there, as well as catch up on Twitter and Instagram. It’s not as bad as you would think.
Sharon Van Etten is at The Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville this Friday night along with Tiny Ruins, with doors opening at 8 PM. For information on where to buy tickets, click here.