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Epic Revelations: An Interview with Sharon Van Etten

Anthony Lombardi

Sharon Van Etten wrestles with excitement and restraint as she unveils to PopMatters revelations concerning her newly found confidence; the advantages of working with collaborators as opposed to working solo; her rise in the indie rock world; and, not least, her upcoming record.

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 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.

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