Sharon Van Etten is a musician from Brooklyn, New York. Her latest album Are We There is out May 2014. She was interviewed for The Lab by actress and model, Clémence Poésy.
CLÉMENCE POÉSY—Dear Sharon, I can ‘t tell you how much I wish we were doing this over coffee somewhere, an email seems like a weird way to try and learn more about someone.
SHARON VAN ETTEN—I know! I am sorry that we aren’t neighbors! But hopefully we can meet in London when I am there.
CP—My name is Clémence; I’m not very used to interviewing. I mostly act, I guess.
SVE—I saw the movie In Bruges. It was so good. I am a fan!
CP—Justin [Tyler Close], who runs The Lab Magazine, knows how much I love what you do and very kindly asked if I could come up with some questions for you.
SVE—What a sweet guy! He’s a matchmaker!
CP—I said yes very quickly and now I’m a little nervous and I hope they’ll be OK.
SVE—Don’t be nervous!
CP—Alright, let s do this! How are you?
SVE—I am good. I am crazy! My album comes out in less than two weeks and I am running around like a maniac.
CP—Where are you?
SVE—Well I just got back in town from Philadelphia for a radio convention where I performed on WXPN’s World Cafe. Now I am in New York and I leave on the 23rd for our first shows in Europe. Ah!
CP—Are you touring yet? How is it all going?
SVE—We had warm up shows in smaller towns and smaller venues just outside of New York last weekend and it went really well I think. I have two new band members, so we had a lot of nervous energy, but I think we benefited from it. Right now my band is still Heather Woods Broderick and Doug Keith (you would love their music) and Darren Jessee (of Ben Folds Five and Hotel Lights) and Brad Cook (from Megafaun). I’ve never toured as a five-piece before, but it’s so much fun to work on these new songs for the first time. Ah!
CP—Could the title of Are We There apply to feelings you get on the road?
SVE—Absolutely. The whole album was written over the past two years while on the road, touring Tramp. And the songs are all about the struggle of trying to have a home life, relationship – and also trying to work and the frustration that comes with trying to balance it all when it is virtually impossible…
CP—Do you find yourself waiting for venues you’ve loved or towns you’ve missed when you’re on tour?
SVE—Most of the places that I look forward to playing are the places where I have friends. The people make the place.
CP—What do you most miss about NYC, when you’re away?
SVE—Friends, family, food, home, not having a schedule. Having everything at my fingertips. Going to movies.
CP—Where or what is the “There” of the album’s title?
SVE—In a good place. On solid ground. At peace. Where I want to be… many things.
CP—How did you make this album?
SVE—I brought my touring band from Tramp (Doug Keith, Heather Woods Broderick, Zeke Hutchins) into the studio along with my friend Dave Hartley who played bass on epic and did a lot of live tracking. When the band couldn’t come in to the studio, I ran around playing lots of instruments as place holders (knowing that they could play my parts better).
CP—How different do you feel from the person who wrote Tramp? What did you want to try this time?
SVE—On Tramp I worked very closely with Aaron Dessner (of The National) and he taught me a lot about how to communicate in the studio and being open to collaboration and not shying away from production. But as I moved forward I realized that I felt insecure about my songs and why the album got the attention it did, mostly because of the cast of characters on the record as opposed to my song writing and singing. Even though the insecurity comes from within and I know that’s not really why people attached themselves more to Tramp, I wanted to do it myself. I feel like Aaron gave me a lot of tools and confidence to communicate with my band and it made me want to try something different sonically. I wanted to give the songs more space and not bury them in instrumentation. I really wanted to focus on the band and the space and the melodies.
CP—There s a poem I love which starts with a line that says “Go to your broken heart. If you think you don’t have one get one.” Is that where most songs come from do you think? Broken hearts?
SVE—Every time I write, it is for therapeutic purposes. I write when I am going through a really hard time. I hit record and sing stream of conscious. I usually let it out for about ten or twenty minutes and then wait a day or two then listen back a day or two later so I have some perspective on what I was going through. Nine times out of ten I don’t share those “songs” with anyone because they are too personal. The ones I choose to share are the ideas that are more relatable and universal so I don’t alienate the listener – and hopefully they can connect with it on their own personal level.
CP—Is it harder to write with a “mended” heart?
SVE—When I am happy and content, I feel like I am just living my life and experiencing it. I am usually on tour when I am in a good place and struggle with feeling at home when I am off the road. A lot of writing takes place when I am off the road or when I am missing home when I am on the road.
CP—Do you remember the first song you wrote?
SVE—The first song I ever wrote was when I was sixteen. It was cheesy as hell but it still makes me laugh. I remember one lyric, “Every time I look into your eyes, I want to rip them out and hang them in the sky.” Genius right? Ha!
CP—Do you find it hard to sing or listen to things you wrote and recorded in the past? Does it ever feel like you’d make them differently now?
SVE—Every album I have done is such a huge chapter in my life. When I listen to my first album Because I Was in Love I can hear how broken I was. I couldn’t record that now because I have grown so much, but I would never want to do it differently. I like hearing the progression, although at times it is hard for me to hear how broken I was back then. But I am happy to say that I am not anymore.
CP—Is there a song that has made you want to write songs? (Or are there too many to answer this question?)
SVE—There are artists and writers and people… Neil Young, The Kinks, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Anaïs Nin, Ray Bradbury, Richard Brautigan, Richard Bach, Joan Didion, my parents, my sisters, my brothers, my friends, my exes…
CP—Do you consider yourself a “feminist”? Is it a word you could stand by?
SVE—I am a feminist. And I think everyone should be. What it boils down to is equality and I am all for it. I know that there are automatically negative connotations with the word “feminism” but I feel like that is mostly because of the hardcore fems that make a point to be treated differently, and I think that misses the point. I also think it is an idea that is still developing for me as I grow up and work and see how it has affected my parents and my siblings, and seeing generation to generation how much things have changed, but also sometimes how little.
CP—One of the most beautiful thing about your music is how intimate it always feels… and I guess that’s the whole point of just a guitar and recording at home, but somehow you never seemed to have lost that sense of intimacy and purity when the albums have became more complex, when more people were involved. How do you manage that balance?
SVE—The songs still originate from my bedroom, for the most part, and start from a really intimate place. I feel as long as the melody is supported and not covered you can hear that intimacy.
CP—What have you learned from the people you’ve worked with?
SVE—The confidence to speak my mind about what I want – and knowing that everyone who is helping me with the songs only wants the very best for me; they just want to help. So that enables me to let go and be open and be vulnerable and try new things and not be so self-conscious. I think that is key with the way I prefer to work.
CP—What would you still like to learn?
SVE—I would love to go back to school. I am a dropout. I have always wanted to be a therapist, and if I ever get tired of this touring life I would really like to explore that.
CP—Do you draw?
SVE—Yes, but not well. I really enjoy contour drawings with an ink and pen when I have the time and the space to make a mess. It helps turn off the part of your brain that over-thinks things.
CP—What do you hope for?
SVE—I hope to one day find balance in my life.
CP—What motivates you to make music?
SVE—Healing myself, helping others heal, and helping others feel not so alone.
CP—Have you ever given up any hopes?
SVE—When I was a teenager I was on the path to being in musicals. I was in choir and plays and thought I wanted to be on Broadway. I was terrible at acting though. Never thought I would be performing my own songs…
CP—What makes you laugh?
SVE—I am a huge fan of stand-up comedy and skit comedies. I also love funny photos of animals, and people playing jokes on each other; YouTube parties with friends…
SVE—Old photo albums, foreign films, love songs, applause in a large crowd…
CP—What makes you hungry?
SVE—Smelling pretzel vendors on streets, long work days, being in the van for too long.
CP—What makes you smile?
SVE—A dad with their kid, a stranger helping someone, someone else smiling (it’s contagious!)
CP—What makes you nervous?
SVE—Aggressive drivers, just before a show, scary movies, too much coffee.
CP—What drives you mad?
SVE—Traffic, bad timing, when you see someone else making a mistake and they have to learn for themselves.
CP—When are you most at peace?
SVE—At the beach.
CP—What are you most scared of?
SVE—Never settling down.
CP—Who do you write for?
SVE—Myself first, then others.
CP—Are you good at goodbyes?
SVE—No. I am terrible. I say goodbye like a million times. I never know when to hang up the phone; I have to hug everyone before I leave a room. I always hated the thought of not saying goodbye to someone that I may not ever see again. In this world, you never know!
CP—I’m not very good at goodbyes either, but thank you so much for doing this.
SVE—You are such a sweetheart. I hope we cross paths in London – or wherever. You let me know.