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 Instead, the strength of her output has far superseded her recently prolific nature, a sure rarity in our contemporary music climate.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…
Is writing ever mechanical?
Is writing ever mechanical? I know a lot of writers work in different ways — some of them set aside time to write and are really regimental about it, and some of them can’t write if they know they have to. What’s it like for you?
Sharon: It’s a little bit of both, I guess, but I think it’s good to play and sing just to play and sing without the pressure of having to write, you know — it’s just exercising. Whether I use it for anything, I don’t care. Sometimes I hear a melody and I’m like, “oh, I have to do this now!” And usually my friends hate me for it. [laughs] I’ll be in the middle of a conversation and I’ll be like, “oh, I have to leave…” But other times, I just feel like, “I’m going to play and sing.” Technically, I should be singing everyday just to warm up, you know, whatever that is. I’m really bad at a structured lifestyle.
So am I.
[laughs] But I’m trying really hard! Now I have my first practice space with my band, and they’re more organized than me! I have my bass player calling me, like, “when do you want to practice?” And I’m, like, “I dunno…when do you want to practice?” Like, they’re doing the scheduling for me. I need to be told what to do and then I’ll do it, but other than that I’ll just fly by the seam of my pants.
Let’s talk about your work with the National. When word hit the streets that you were recording with Aaron [Dessner, the National’s guitarist], there was a pretty big wave in the indie music press and, personally, I was really excited.
I was freaking out! I was on tour with Megafaun, and Brad woke me up to show me a video on his phone of Bon Iver and the National covering my song, and I flipped out! I flipped out. Because when I got back from tour, I was going to start working on a new record. So, I wrote them all, and I just said, “hey, I saw the video, thank you, that was so amazing, I woke up crying,” blah blah blah, and, “I dunno what your plans are this time of year, but I’m going to be working on a new record, would you be interested in hearing some demos and maybe playing on it or whatever if you want?” And they were really flattered, but they’d either said they’d be touring out of the country or they’d be working on their own record or whatever. But they said, “we have a studio in Ditmas Park [Brooklyn], if you want to work out new songs for the next record, we could go over stuff and help you if you want.”
Has recording with one of the most acclaimed bands in the world inspired you to push yourself at all?
The day after I get back from a two and a half month tour, I’m going straight into the studio and doing 10 hour days…
Recording for 10 hours straight?
[sigh] Yeah. It’s just, you know, I have a job I’m not getting paid for yet, but these are people that I really want to work with…you know, if I stop, who knows if I’ll start again. So, it’s like, “keep going! Don’t breathe yet!” He’s [Aaron] been really amazing, super mellow — I have ideas, he has ideas. He works differently than Brian [McTear] — from epic, the producer on that — he’d ask, “okay, what are the bare essentials we need here?” And so we’d get the skeleton ready for every song, and then go back, and ask, “what do we need to add?” Whereas it’s kind of backwards with Aaron, it’s like, “let’s just do as much as we can, then take it down and try to sift through it.” So, it’s kind of a backwards approach, what we’re doing now, which is different for me, but since I’m new to this studio thing, it’s nice to see both sides, you know…
Well, that must be an enormous honor, having two of today’s biggest artists cover your song…
Yeah, I just freaked out. At first, I was just like, how the hell do you guys even know who I am? How is this possible? But, whatever. I’m not going to question it.
No! Don’t you dare. [laughs] So, the backstory to your songs has been a pretty big part of the marketing of your records — it’s mentioned in just about every press release and one sheet and has been regurgitated pretty heavily by the blogs. Has that caused you to reevaluated your experiences at all?
Well, you know, I feel like it makes me boil down what’s really important about the songs, and it’s all about healing and therapy for me. I wouldn’t have gotten out of that dark place if I hadn’t written all these songs. So, you know, I’ll let them write whatever they want about it, as long as it’s true.
Do you look back on your experiences differently now?
Yeah, totally. There are songs that I wrote two years ago that I’m only beginning to understand now. Because I write them in such a subconscious way most of the time, like I don’t even fully understand what I’m feeling when I write, you know? I go back and edit it to where I can express it to someone in a general way, where it’s not like, “oh my God, this is a really intense experience that she went through, and I don’t even know how to react to it.” It’s like, no, I try to write about my experiences where people can really feel it for themselves — not because I went through it, but because we can relate to each other. I don’t want to alienate people with my music just because of something horrible I went through.
I think the best music, as far as sad music goes anyhow, is comforting instead of alienating. I think it takes a certain degree of restraint to achieve that.
Well, I hope I can do that someday. [laughs]
Pretty sure you’re doing it now.
Well, thank you.
Do you feel like the experiences of working in the record industry prior to recording as an artist effected you in any way that you may otherwise not have been impacted by?
Definitely. It made me realize what a network of friends the music industry I want to be a part of is. I don’t want to work with someone I don’t know; I don’t want to work with someone I don’t respect; I don’t want to work with someone who isn’t honest and transparent. It is as simple as that, you know? You have an alliance of people who help each other in a dying industry. It’s really important to keep that. That’s one thing I learned: it doesn’t have to be an ugly machine. It is a group of friends who really believe in these bands. That was the most important thing. Second of all, I didn’t know about blogs before I started working for a label — which was four years ago now, maybe five years ago? I’m kind of a hermit, so I don’t know what goes on. So, I learned about that. I learned that nobody really knows what they’re doing either, in the constant changing world of the internet, with music. No one knows what’s going on, everyone’s trying to figure it out and what to do next, how to change. It’s okay not to know.
It seems like a me-first environment. You’re kind of lucky, in a way, that you weren’t aware of the blogs. It’s become an environment where it’s more important who documents something first than about finding actual quality music. I don’t feel like your records gained their exposure because of blog buzz, though…
Yeah, I think it’s been about playing and touring…
Word of mouth…
Yeah. It goes back to being about having an alliance of friends. Whether it be with your job or your band or your friends or whatever — it’s a family of people. There’s not many people that I know that aren’t already friends or collaborators… they’re great people, they’re great musicians, and they supported me for a really long time, and I’ll always support them. When I first started playing in New York, no one even knew how to pronounce my name, nevermind having ever heard of me. When I first started playing, I had a solid group of three or four bands that would play with me once every few weeks, and we’d play together, and we’d promote it just through our friends, and eventually their friends would tell their friends, and their friends would tell their friends. We’d have a set of 40 or 50 people, so that when a friend from out of town came to play a show, we’d be able to have a band, put on a show, and make it worth their 10 bucks. That still happens, you know? With all of this disposable music, and people just putting a song out to be downloaded for free — there’s nothing wrong with it, but it just feeds the machine too.
Right. When do you expect the recordings you’re working on now to be released? What’s on the immediate horizon for you, aside from a plethora of touring?
Depending on how much we can get done, it can be out either summer or fall… but I think timing-wise, it makes more sense to have an album out in fall. Just so I can take the summer off and teach the new songs to the band and have a better live show with the new songs, and then have a tour again in the fall. Probably do festivals over the summer, and aim to have the record out in fall. That’s my safe bet. Although there are people whispering in my ear, “you should release it in the summer!” But, there’s so many festivals and not as many tours, it just makes more sense to put it out in the fall, and then it also gives epic a full year to be out, because it’s only been out since October. I’m in no rush, I want to do it right. I don’t want to rush it just because everyone else thinks I should have it out. I want to do things my way.