Despite the mounting praise that’s been heaped upon her latest album, epic, from a variety of sources—among them Pitchfork, Under the Radar, and here at PopMatters—Sharon Van Etten channels these recognitions into her work through a surge of bristling confidence rather than lazy complacency. While most artists would be content to rest on their laurels, milking the blogosphere’s lavish and ever-fleeting starry eyes for what it’s worth, the young Brooklyn-via-New Jersey songwriter has plowed forward with a string of high profile projects that would swallow a less capable musician’s discography. Instead, the strength of her output has far superseded her recently prolific nature, a sure rarity in our contemporary music climate. Relying on songwriting and structured melody amidst a scene obsessed with atmospherics, Van Etten makes distinct and obvious her prevalence among her peers.
Between swigs of whiskey under dimly lit lights at High Dive, an almost noirish bar huddled along 5th Avenue between tree-lined streets in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, a timid Sharon Van Etten divulges with sheepish pride about her growing success on the indie circuit over the past year or so. Between critically acclaimed LPs, a non-stop touring schedule that has earned her a fanbase to match her exceeding talent on record, and a freshly formed alliance and studio partnership with fellow Brooklynites the National, Van Etten has no shortage of topics to spiel about. In her down-to-earth, soft-spoken demeanor, she wrestles with excitement and restraint as she unveils to PopMatters revelations concerning her newly found, brimming confidence; the advantages of working with collaborators as opposed to working solo; her expedited ascension in the world of indie rock; and, not least, her upcoming record.
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Your last record, epic, seems like it was a lot more cathartic than your earlier work. I’m sure the earlier records were cathartic to write and record, but the last one feels more intense and sounds bolder. Was there any particular reason for that shift?
I’m sure it was just where I was at emotionally. That first record, I was so broken, you know, and I just wrote all these heartbroken songs. But then, two years passed, and by the time I got around to epic, I was a lot more confident and a lot more at peace with everything. I was still upset about things, but I had a stronger outlook, I think. I lived in New York—the first one was written in my parent’s basement, the second one was written in New York—so, I feel like it was a state of mind, too.
So, you feel like it was borne out of confidence?
I feel like, for any traumatic incident, there’s a series of stages that happens in its aftermath, and oftentimes it’s anger that tends to come later. I was thinking maybe that’s also why epic had more of a kick to it…
I don’t know if it was anger, because most of the songs I was writing about weren’t about that guy. I feel like I had closure on that—that first record, writing and releasing it, I was able to move on from there. Now most of these new songs, I may have written after, or during, that time I was going through it, but I went back to them from the new record, rewrote them in a way where I felt like I had a better perspective on things. So, I don’t think they’re angry, but like I said, I feel like they’re more confident, and because it’s such a major shift, it comes across as anger, but really it’s just having a stronger sense of self, and being able to say that things aren’t okay when they’re not, but I don’t think necessarily it’s anger.
Did you take a different approach to songwriting for epic than you had previously?
Yeah, on the first one I only had one other person working on the songs with me, and I basically wanted to keep them simple. Because I was solo and I didn’t want to produce something that I couldn’t recreate live, you know—I always thought that was kind of a cop-out. This one, I brought in a bunch of friends, and I presented them my songs, I had vague ideas but I was open to collaborating with people if they had ideas, and it just turned into something bigger than I initially intended it to.
So, for the earlier records, it was more a matter of recreating the songs live, whereas now you’re just naturally progressing past that?
Yeah, I wanted to build it, and it wasn’t something that I knew before it happened—I knew that I wanted more input on the new one, so I brought my friends in, and it was kind of an open environment.
Who else plays on epic?
Meg Baird from Espers. Dave Hartley from War on Drugs. Brian Christinzio from BC Camplight. Brian McTear, who produced the record. Jess and Andy from She Keeps Bees. Cat Martino, a friend of man who’s a songwriter in Park Slope [Brooklyn].
Going from just writing on your own to creating a record with that many people must have been a big change for you. Did you have to adjust the way you approached songs? What kind of effects did it have on you?
It was like “demo-itus”, where I was learning to let go of the demo and let it just be the demo. You go into a studio, it’s not necessarily you taking the demo and making it the same and just making it a little better—you’re going into the studio to redefine this demo. You try to capture a melody and a basic song and everything, but when you bring it into the studio it’s a whole new experience, and you can’t have these preconceived notions about what the song is gonna be. So, that was something that was really hard for me to let go of, but when I learned how to let go of it, and enjoy the experience and let my friends have the run of it, you know, I learned not to be sacred about stuff you record. I’d be like, insane about harmonies, okay? I probably have like, 10 harmonies for every song or something like that. [laughs] But then going through and being like, “wow, okay, this is way too drenched in harmonies”, and picking them out, and what needs to be there and what’s just fluff, you know. Basically things like that. Someone may sing something different than I do or play something differently than I intuitively wanted, you know, learning how to say that’s not what I want and move on from there and learn how to find a middle ground. That’s something I’m learning how to do because I was never in a band before.
Right, I can imagine how the whole dynamic is different. Those way early records, were those self-recorded, as well?
Well, I have an album of home recordings…
Yeah, I have that one—but, that was basically just demos, right? Because you recreated a lot of them on the second one…
Exactly. Which I didn’t even know I was going to do. But then people kept writing to me, “please, record these properly!” Really, like, sound nerds were like, “I can’t listen to this anymore!” So, I was like, “all right,” and I hooked up with Greg Weeks, and we recorded most of them just so that people could stand listening to them properly. But I still think some of the original demos of those songs, I think there was better performances of those songs, and I’m always going to be tied to those, you know. So, there’s the home recordings, then there was Because I Was in Love, then there was this one [epic].
Do you feel like your prolificacy has been effected by your success? It’s been pretty well documented, in the press at least, that you initially weren’t recording regularly because you didn’t have the confidence, but now you’ve just released both a full length and a single in the span of a year, and you’re already at work on a new album. Is that in any way tied to your recent success, or does it go back to confidence?
I think it’s partly confidence. Like, I always wrote, but I never shared it, so I have a lot of stuff—like the new album I’m working on right now, they’re all songs that I finally had the confidence to play for people. Like, “I don’t know, what do you think?” And they’d say, “yeah, they’re good, let’s work on it.” They’re like, “how many songs do you have?” I’ll show them my hard drive—and they’re not all good, but if I have someone to explore them with me, you know, it’s fun. I have, like, 300 ideas, just on my hard drive, that I’d play for people—just like, “what do you think of this? What do you think of that? Do you like this melody? Do you like this guitar part?” Taking bits and pieces, and asking, “what do you think?” I never had people to do that with before, so now my friends are helping me become more prolific, I guess, and giving me the confidence I need by encouraging me. I never had that before.
You’ve been touring pretty restlessly.
Yeah, I have.
Has that, in any way, effected the more fleshed out arrangements, as well? Have you learned anything on tour that you’re incorporating into your new songs? How has the increased level of touring changed your outlook?
Well, I’m learning, number one, how to tour with a band. I’ve been driving myself around for the last six year, and I never had a band, I never had someone who’d have my back, I’d never had someone who would share driving! [laughs] I never had someone there to cheer me up if I was having a bad show. It’s been great. Learning the flow of just going on tour—getting up, eating, coffee, driving, sound check, loading—and then, just doing it all over again, and realizing how I need to take care of myself, and realizing how to get along with everybody even when you’re in a shitty mood. Being able to think about, at the bare minimum, how can we keep these songs but represent them more? Like, okay, I can have a three-piece without a harmony—people aren’t going to be mad at me. After doing the album, being like, “oh my God, if I don’t have another singer with me at every show, people are going to hate me!” But no, it’s obviously just my own thing. I’m learning as a three-piece, it’s cool; as a four-piece, it’s more fun to sing with somebody. I’m learning more about writing. I don’t really have time to write while I’m on tour, but when I get back, you know…