[Photo by DUSDEN CONDREN]
BY PELLE GUNTHER Sharon Van Etten is the latest sad-eyed folkstress to set the twilight reeling in indie-town. With her shattered-glass songs and that tiny wind chime of a voice, Van Etten has captivated a growing legion of sympathetic sad-sacks and garnered pretty much across the board critical acclaim. Her latest album, epic, turned up on quite a few Best Of 2010 lists, including NPR’s, and for good reason. Although she easily falls in with other singer songwriter sorceress types, like Cat Power or Jenny Owens Young, Van Etten’s emotion-steeped delivery and beautiful, haunted melodies are entirely unique and utterly entrancing. She is currently working on a new album (with a full band backing her) slated for release later this year, and she is about to embark on a tour with the National starting in February. Van Etten plays Johnny Brenda’s tonight with Julianna Barwick and Strand of Oaks.
PHAWKER: How would you describe the music you write?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Umm, well, I used to be more singer-songwriter, but my new record is more full band. But it’s all about relationships, heartbreak and healing. That kind of stuff.
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Well there’s a lot of influences between my friends, fans and the bands that I got to tour with…Megafaun, Bon Iver, War On Drugs, Lower Dens, Meg Baird, The National…lots and lots of bands.
PHAWKER: Everybody around you I guess?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: (Laughs) Everything. Everything I listen to, all of my friends…everything changes the way I write.
PHAWKER: What bands are you listening to at the moment?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Well Lower Dens is definitely one of my favorite records this year…Lower Dens and Megafaun are the two of the bands that I’ve been listening to the most lately.
PHAWKER: Well on to your music I suppose, it’s so full of heartbreak, longing, loss and devastation. Do you ever feel that it reveals too much of your personal life?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Well my main goal with writing and playing for people has been to connect with people on a personal level. Sometimes I know my stuff may be too honest for some people. I try to write in a way that its not too specific to myself so that people can relate to it. It’s hard to find sad music and I’m trying to write in a way where its relate-able to people…where they don’t feel alone and they feel OK with just letting themselves be sad.
PHAWKER: Do you feel it’s somehow medicinal for you too, that by writing these things and singing these songs it helps you get over these bad experiences?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Definitely, I started writing so that I could heal. I was really depressed and before I started playing for other people I wrote just so I could learn how to deal with my emotions because I wasn’t dealing with it in a positive way.
PHAWKER: When your write a song, do you tend to write lyrics or instrumentals first?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: I usually have a very simple guitar part so that I have more room to sing interesting melodies. When there isn’t too much going on with the guitar it definitely leaves more freedom. I have a vague idea with simple strumming on guitar purposefully so that the melodies are more interesting. Once I have the melody from just messing around then I’ll just do stream of consciousness for a while until I can identify the emotion that fits the melody. Its kind of backwards writing I guess.
PHAWKER: If you had to choose, would you have music without words, or words without music?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: For me I think music without words. It’s something more universal that you don’t necessarily need language to convey. I just got back from Japan and most people didn’t understand what I was singing, but they could still relate to it, and they still got the gist of my emotions. That leads me to believe that its OK if something got lost in translation, because the melodies still go with the lyrics.
PHAWKER: Where are you from?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: I grew up in New Jersey, but I moved to Tennessee for five years and then moved back to New Jersey, and I only moved to New York four years ago.
PHAWKER: Has living in New York had a positive impact on your music and your career?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Definitely. I’ve been playing a lot and meeting people who also do music and are succeeding and productive and doing lots of things musically. It’s really expensive to live in New York so you have to work hard to stay here but theres so much going on that you can’t help but be inspired by all these people who are creating all these wonderful things. It’s a kick in the ass but it’s a necessary kick in the ass.
PHAWKER: (Laughs) You landed an internship working at Ba Da Bing? Which has, safe to say, has grown into something more than an internship. Did working at the label affect your decision about pursuing a musical career?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: No it was very nurturing… they were very supportive of what I was doing so I got to return to a job every time [I came back from tour]. I went from intern to part time, to full time publicist. I would still have a job when I came back no matter how long I was gone. They have a really intimate relationship with all their artists, so it gave me hope that its not completely gross and all business in the music world, that there are really honest, humble and genuine people in the world who really care about the people they work with and Ba Da Bing is one of those labels.
PHAWKER: When you started writing songs, did you ever think it would get to this point?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: No I never really thought they would become anything, I did it for me, but when my friends started responding to my music in a way that was really healing to them I realized that I could help other people too, and that it wouldn’t be the most selfish thing to pursue music as a musician.
PHAWKER: Your songs are so full of raw emotion, how do you summon up those feelings during performances?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Well those feelings are still very real to me you know? I was honest when I wrote them, so whenever I perform I just go back to that place.
PHAWKER: Your success in the musical realm has allowed you to tour with some very talented acts like The Antlers, Rain Machine, Megafaun, Great Lake Swimmers. Do you feel that touring with these bands has affected your music or performances?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Definitely, Peter from The Antlers was one of the first people who asked me to collaborate. And seeing as he did such an amazing job producing his last record which was all done in his bedroom, it really opened my eyes to how accessible things can be if you just open your mind and work with people and learn from them, there’s a lot to see out there.
PHAWKER: The experience of touring must have been kind of like walking into a different world. What is life like on the road?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Wake up, drive eight hours, set up, sound check, play show, eat, wake up, drive eight hours…
SHARON VAN ETTEN: [Laughs] Everyday, everyday, everyday. But you get to meet great people and you get to see great bands that you like every single night if you’re lucky enough to tour with a band like Megafaun or The Antlers. I’ve been lucky enough to really love the bands that I’ve been paired with, which is like the light at the end of the tunnel. And you meet some really, really great people in every city, and you get to see the country…a little bit, at least passing by. But touring is fun; I just have to learn to exercise on the road, because I eat terribly.
PHAWKER: Is it strange coming back home after a tour?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Yeah especially after japan because I didn’t really speak complete sentences for two weeks and I ate with chopsticks every day and had fish with every meal. And it’s a 14-hour time difference so I’m still adjusting. I’ve only been home like 20 hours now.
PHAWKER: Oh? Welcome back.
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Thanks! Its just hard, after having your life planned out every day, to finally be back and not really have to do that much, you’re just like “OK, what should I be doing now? I’m freaking out because I don’t have a schedule.”