Q&A: Sharon Van Etten

Secretly embraced by many, Brooklyn songwriter SHARON VAN ETTEN has always shown a liking for being personal. It’s a trait that’s outlined her catalog and her music – scolding the rasp in her voice and her simple yet poetic stylings to lay next to the sincerity embedded in indie rock and folk. With her new record, Tramp, receiving an abundance of love, we caught up with the New Jersey native to chat about the downpour of positivity she’s received, why music is a form of therapy to her and how she’s still figuring out this thing most label as “a career”.

You’ve been touring since the beginning of the month with no immediate end in sight; how do you keep sane over the long stretches of road?

I don’t (laughs). I lose my mind. I have a great band, a great crew of people here and we all kind of keep each other as sane as we can, but we definitely lose our minds.
Do you have some kind of knick-knack to remind you of home?

I have a couple favourite things like my favourite sweater, my favourite scarf and a book. I’m still kind of figuring out what that is, like I want to find the perfect candle that would remind me of home, but it keeps changing.
The touring of course is in support of Tramp which has received an overwhelming amount of positive reviews already. How are you handling the downpour of support?

I’m extremely happy that things are going so well and it’s very surreal how people have been taking it along with the response we’re getting with reviews of the record. I am just sticking my head in the sand really, with all the stress.
So you’re not going crazy searching for reviews all over the Internet?

You know, I do put photos up on the website while I’m on tour and I respond to people on Twitter, or if I feel like writing something funny or informative on Twitter I’ll use it, but I’m trying to lay a little low because the Internet does get overwhelming sometimes.

A lot of the reviews are poising Tramp to be a break-through album of sorts for you. What do you think has changed the most for you as an artist since your last album?

I feel like because of touring, having a band and growing up that my confidence level as a person and as a writer has changed. That’s what marked the change in the sound on this record, not to mention the people involved who helped me flesh out the songs. It was really just the support of everyone that helped me become more confident.

Speaking of the people that helped you, Aaron Dessner (The National) produced the album and you recorded it in his studio. How did you two connect?

I’ve known Aaron… well I was on tour with Megafaun opening up for them and they woke me up one morning to show me a video of Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner covering my song “Love More” and my friends encouraged me to reach out to him because I was about to go into the studio to record my last record Epic. I thought it’d be cool since they covered that song which was released as a single to be on that record. Of course they were working on their amazing record and they were crazy-busy, but Aaron and I kept in touch because he said that even though things were crazy right at the moment, they’d slow down by the end of the year and if I wanted to work on demos with him I should hook up with him because he has a studio.

So I started sending him demos and we met up and talked a few times about our philosophies on writing and recording and about where we come from and we got to know each other better and see we were really on the same level. He’s just a really genuine person and super disarming. By the time he added up maybe 30 demos that I gave him, he just kind of laughed and said “You already have a record, we don’t need to demo any more songs. So, do you want to record an album?”. So instead of just demoing songs we ended up recording Tramp.
Is that how you met the other artists featured on your album?

Well I met Jenn Wasner a while ago because we’d played shows together before and I was also her tour manager with Wye Oak when they were on tour with Shearwater. I opened for Beirut a few times but I worked at Ba Da Bing Records where I help managed them and put out a couple of their records, so I met Zach Condon that way. Most of the people were either my friends or his friends.
Your song “Love More” has really become a stand-out track; did you ever expect this particular song would resonate so much with fans?

I don’t know how that song reached so many people! I don’t know why that was the song so many people connected with, as I don’t think any of my other songs have reached people like that. One thing I’m trying to do better is being able to generalize from a personal experience, enough where more people can connect to it because I worry sometimes its too personal for people to relate to. I keep wondering what it was about that one because it’s very specific to something I went through, but… I don’t know? I don’t know (laughs). So that’s my answer!
Do you have a favourite cover version you’ve heard?

There was this one where a kid in school gathered a bunch of his band friends together and covered the song for his girlfriend as a surprise for her birthday.
Aww, that’s so cute!

Yeah, I get very teary eyed that someone would arrange something like that for somebody, it’s beautiful.

Your lyrics are moving and heartbreaking as well and are very personal but at the same time easy to relate to as a listener and extract as some form of therapy. Is writing a form of therapy for you?

Yeah, whenever I’m feeling something really intense, my therapy is to write or sing and most of the time I feel like if it’s too personal, I don’t want to share it because I feel like people can’t connect with it as much. My main concern is to help people and if I’m afraid that it won’t help people then I won’t share it. I originally start out a song to help myself and to get through something but if there is a line in there that people can take away from it, I’ll share it. Otherwise I feel like it’s selfish that I don’t want to.
Is it ever draining performing such raw music?

It can be draining for sure, because these are things that I’ve been through already and I kind of go back to that place while singing it, but it’s also really healing. I feel better every time I go through it and the people that are connecting… I’m hoping it’s helping them. But yeah, it’s a tough place to go back to for sure.
Not to make it sound as though you only sing sad songs, there are definitely more upbeat songs on this album.

Yeah, I think this record is a good example of me playing songs beyond the sad ones, like the song “We Are Fine” is a pretty optimistic one and “Serpents” is also good at being angry. I feel like for the first time I’m sharing songs with people that aren’t only sad.
Is that because you’ve become more confident as an artist?

I don’t know; confident as an artist but also more secure with who I am and letting myself go through the range of emotion. I think I was only sad before and now I’m letting myself feel other things.
The other notable difference on this album is that a lot more songs have more of a strong rock influence. Is this just a natural progression for you as a singer-songwriter?

I guess so. I started writing a lot on electric guitar and I was listening to more PJ Harvey, Pattie Smith and John Cale and I feel like I went from being solo on the first record to learning how to have a band on the second one. Now that I have a band, it’s become learning how to write with a band – or write for a band. I think it’s a natural progression, but I’m still figuring it out.

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