Sharon Van Etten | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Sharon Van Etten

Nov 17, 2010 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“I have a lot of songs that I want to record, and I want to keep as busy as possible,” says Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten, whose sophomore LP epic is earning universal praise from critics. With two albums released since 2009, and a third planned for 2011, Van Etten might be making up for lost time. The New Jersey native, who began writing songs in high school, took a career detour when she attended college in Tennessee to study music and recording. She dropped out of school after only a year and became involved in a destructive long-term relationship that undermined her confidence in songwriting and prevented her from performing. “There were some days where it was so bad that I never thought I’d be able to get out of that situation at all,” she says.

After five years, Van Etten did get out and moved back home to New Jersey. She began recording songs in her parents’ basement, landed an internship at Ba Da Bing Records, and, independent of her job there, found support from some noteworthy indie musicians. Kyp Malone became a mentor to her, she sang on The Antlers’ critically acclaimed album Hospice, and her song “Love More,” the closing track on epic, was covered by Justin Vernon and The National. These days, Van Etten can look back on her tumultuous days in Tennessee with some levity. “Jersey girl moving to Tennessee in itself is like a sitcom waiting to happen,” she jokes.

Still, it’s a period in her life that has informed her captivatingly intimate songwriting. Van Etten’s first album, 2009’s Because I Was in Love, is a somber, mostly voice-and-acoustic-guitar collection that reflects on her troubled relationship in Tennessee. epic, released on Ba Da Bing last month, is in some ways an extension of Because I Was in Love thematically, but musically it’s more assertive and diverse, with Van Etten fronting a band and, at times, rocking. Her aching falsetto from the first record remains just as commanding on epic, but it’s complemented by a wider palette of vocal colors.

Van Etten spoke with Under the Radar last month, discussing her latest record, her background, her reversal of fortune upon moving back to the Tri-State area, and why she was asked to submit an audition reel for the highly coveted role of Lisbeth in David Fincher’s English-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Epic is an interesting title for an album of seven songs and just over 30 minutes. What inspired the title?

It sounds really silly, but I’m really big on puns. The album, it came about in a way where the demos that I had, most of those songs are super slow, like really sad, me kinda wine-drunk in my basement. And when I sent the demos to Brian McTear, who produced the record, he envisioned it as this band thing, and he kept e-mailing me like, “What do you want the arrangements to be?” And I just had no idea. Every now and then, I was just like, “Maybe drums on this song.” I know the harmonies for all the songs, but other than harmonies, I’m not really good at arranging. So it turned into something a lot bigger than I thought it would be. But the joke was, if someone was hearing me for the first time, they’re not going to feel like it’s a big deal, but to me it was a really big deal. So I called it epic but with a lowercase “e,” to kind of make a joke about how it’s really big but it’s not that big. It’s a big change for me, but if it’s your first experience, you’re not even gonna know. [Laughs.] I don’t know, it’s a joke that, I think, nobody thinks is funny, but I liked the fact that it’s a lowercase “e,” and that it got approved, and it’s really this kind of tiny record in an epic way to me. And it kind of marks the change of me having a band, and I’m really excited about it. But it’s all lowercase.

Do the songs on epic represent a distinct period in your life or your writing, or do you see them as a continuation of the songs on Because I Was in Love?

I guess it’s a little bit of both. I feel like the album Because I Was in Love was a lot more timid and shy and unsure about everything. Some of [the epic] songs I wrote around the same period, maybe just after those songs, but I was a lot more comfortable with who I was, and I was a lot more at peace with what happened. I feel a lot stronger about what happened. I feel like things came across as more confident than the old record.

In some of the reviews and articles I’ve read on you, the writers have assumed that you’ve been in some bad relationships. Is that a fair conclusion to draw?

Happily, there is specifically one that lasted a really long time. It was a five-year relationship with someone that never supported me musically, and I didn’t play out for pretty much the five years that I was with him. I was in Tennessee, and then I moved from Tennessee back up east and north, back north and east [laughs], and finally became a little more assure of myself and started playing out again. But it took me a really long time to do that.

Did that relationship take you to Tennessee?

No, I moved to Tennessee originally to go to school for recording. But I dropped out after a year because I didn’t like having to go to school for stuff like that. I got a job at a venue and started learning about more music that way, because I didn’t really know much about the indie scene at all. But we got a lot of touring bands through, and that’s how I ended up meeting that guy, in Tennessee.

What was the school you attended?

MTSU, for Middle Tennessee State.

And what was the venue?

It was called the Red Rose, but it’s closed.

So, even though you were in school for only a year, you ended up staying for five?

Yeah. [Laughs.] Because of the job and because of the guy, but then I didn’t have either of those and decided to leave.

He was a local?

Yeah, he grew up in Tennessee.

Do songs from both albums address that relationship?

I would say the first one is pretty much all about dealing with that and what came from it. The new one is more about dealing with that but also trying to start dating again, and living in New York and trying to figure out who I am, because of that relationship. It’s a little more general than the last record. The last record is more specifically just him, and then the new one is about a lot of things.

When I first heard “Don’t Do It,” I thought it might be about suicide or heroin addiction. Was the song inspired by anything as grave as that?

Yeah, it’s about a lot of that. Let’s see. It is about suicide, it is about addiction. It’s about people Sorry, I’m still learning how to talk about it. When I first wrote it, it was more about specifically seeing somebody that It initially started as me starting to see somebodywe didn’t hang out very muchand trying to be cool about it, just being really simple and not seeing each other very much. But then, as I started writing it, I started going back. “Don’t do it” was the line that kept spinning in my head when I thought that I didn’t want to see this person. But the more that I wrote it, the more I realized it was in hindsight to my past relationship, where it was abusive, and seeing someone that has addictions and wanting to give up on life. And I just made the comparison of an addiction, and someone that didn’t want to live, to how I felt about the relationship I was starting to be in.

I read that you grew up singing in choirs. Were those church choirs?

They started out as church choirs. My mom brought me to church every Sunday, and, I’m not a very religious person, but that was the one plus to going. I really liked the feeling of a lot of people singing together. The reverberations felt really amazing at a young age, and I didn’t really understand it yet. But then, when I was in sixth grade, my music teacher asked me to be part of choir called The Mini Singers. It was a bunch of kids singing pop songs. I really, really liked that. It was the first time I learned how to sing harmonies. And then, when I went to high school, I joined The Magicals, and I did a lot of classical pieces. And that’s how I learned how to write harmony.

When you were singing pop songs, did you have a favorite at the time?

We sang “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” I remember that being a really uplifting song, which turned into my graduation song that year. [Laughs.] But the stuff I ended up liking the most was the Magicals stuff, because we’d do a Billy Joel song, “And So It Goes,” but it was really slow and really beautiful. And I was an alto, and I thought the altos had the best lines.

Did you go through a rebellious period?

Yeah, of course. In high school, I was a good kid. The only times I got in trouble were saying no to going to church, and then smoking cigarettes. I didn’t really drink or anything in high school, and I was always late for curfew, but I was pretty good. I guess my rebellious stage was dropping out of school. I was the only one to do that in my family, and move in with a guy before I’m married. Just choosing the path less traveled was very worrisome to my parents. Also, when I was in Tennessee, I didn’t see my family for five years because they didn’t approve of my lifestyle, so that was pretty rebellious too. When I finally left [Tennessee], we reconnected, and we’re on really good terms now, and they’re really supportive.

Wow, that must have been very tough for you.

Yeah, it was a really intense time. I look back, and I can’t believe the life that I had there. There were some days where it was so bad that I never thought I’d be able to get out of that situation at all.

And you performed in musicals too when you were in school?

Yeah, I did Fiddler on the Roof and Camelot and Hello, Dolly!. The only speaking role I ever had was in West Side Story, which was my favorite. And I got to be Anybodies, the girl that wanted to be part of the gang. That was a good one.

Have you done any acting since your school days?

No, I’m not really good at it, but I had a lot of fun doing it. I used to dream of being on Broadway. That was my original goal. But I’m just not a good actor and I’m a very clumsy dancer, and I don’t think it would go over very well. [Laughs.]

But you were asked to submit a reel for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? How did that come about?

Yeah. [Laughs.] I’m friends with Carter from a site called Rollo & Grady, and he played my music for this woman named Darcy [Halsey], who’s a casting [assistant] for the movie. She really liked my music, and she saw some kind of article where I was wearing a bathrobe, smoking a cigarette and looking dead-on to the camera, like tough-faced.

Isn’t that your publicity shot?

Yeah, it’s one of them. I never thought they’d use it, because I thought it was a really bold photo, and I don’t think it’s a good representation of me. But people really like the photo, and I guess it sums up how I feel about the record. She saw the photo and she’s like, “I read a few stories about your relationship, and I just feel like you’d be a perfect candidate for submitting an audition, and I wrote her back thanking her, and I said, “You know, I’m not a very good actor.” But she’s like, “Well, just for fun, send something in. You never know.” So, I figured, “What the hell? When am I gonna get an opportunity like that?” I didn’t get it, obviously, but I thought it was funny that someone thought that I could do it.

When did you first start writing songs?

I started writing songs, I guess, in high school when I was learning how to play guitar. They were very sappy, and I didn’t really have a sense of lyricsI’m still figuring out lyrics to this daybut I started writing in high school.

Have any of those songs survived?

No. [Laughs.] I look back on some of themI don’t have most of them, I didn’t record anything thenbut there were lyrics like “I wanna rip your eyes out and hang them in the sky,” like that kind of stuff. [Laughs.] But they’re funny to look back on.

Who were your heroes when you started writing?

I really liked Portishead, and I really liked Ani DiFranco. She became a little too preachy toward the end there, but some of her early recordings, she’s an amazing guitar player. My older brother played guitar too, and he kept telling me that girls can’t play guitar. And then my friend gave me an Ani record, one of her first ones, and that’s when I realized, “My brother’s wrong! Girls can so play guitar! Blah Blah Blah!” So, I learned how to play guitar because of her.

And you knew Kyp Malone from before you pursued music professionally?

It was a funny way how we met. I just started hanging out in New York after I moved back in with my parents in New Jersey, so I was going to New York to see shows. And I went to see a band called Celebration play at Bowery Ballroom, and I didn’t really know before, but I saw Kyp playing solo at Bowery, and he looked so familiar. And I looked at the bill, because sometimes you only really know the headliner, and then you look at the bill, and you’re like, “Who’s this person?” And he looked so familiar, and when I saw his last name, I realized that it was the older brother of one of my best friends from high school. His little brother Colin was one of the people, when I was in high school, that encouraged me to play guitar. His brother was the first person to even make me play out. I played a talent show when I was in high school.

I introduced myself to Kyp at the show, and I just said, “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but I went to high school with your brother, blah, blah, blah.” He was surrounded by a lot of people, so I said hi and bye real quick and then walked away to get a drink at the bar. But after he got to say hi to everybody, he came up to me, and we talked for a bit, and I gave him one of my handmade cds that I was working on at my parents’ house, and it turns out his daughter lives in Jersey, and he came to visit a lot, whenever he wasn’t touring. So, whenever he was in Jersey, we hung out, and he has been so encouraging and so supportive. He took me to venues around Brooklyn and introduced me to people and other bands, and helped me get shows in New York before I even knew what the Brooklyn scene was like at all.

How did “Love More” come to the attention of Justin Vernon and The National? Did you know those guys as well?

[Laughs.] No. I’m still not exactly sure how it happened. I hear bits and pieces from mutual friends, and it’s kind of comforting how small the world is and how supportive the music scene really is, when sometimes it can feel so distant and foreign and you don’t even know who you’re connecting with. But I did that song, and I went on tour with a band called Megafaun, and I gave them a recording of the song. And the guys in Megafaun used to be in a band with Justin. And they played him my record, and he really liked it, and he even wrote me to tell me that. And then, for The National, Aaron and Bryce, the twins in the band, their sister Jessica used to book at this venue called Sycamore, and she booked me a show there a couple years ago, and we kind of kept in touch. She was a fan, and I bump into her every now and then. And I guess she played Aaron and Bryce my record, and they really liked it. So I guess when The National and Bon Iver did that show together, they talked about covering that song and did it, but I didn’t know that they covered it. I was on tour with Megafaun one day, and they woke me up to show me this lo-fi video on their phone of them covering my song, and I just woke up crying. I was like, “Really?” It touched me physically to see that that song got so far for just being a single at the time.

That is so cool. How did you get to know Peter Silberman?

[Laughs.] Well, back when MySpace was really cool, I did a lot of digging just to hear new music and what was going on, and they had a cover on their site, a My Bloody Valentine cover, that Peter did. And it was so beautiful, I just felt the need to write him and tell him that I really liked what he was doing. And I saw that he was in Brooklyn, and I asked him if he was playing anytime soon, and The Antlers had a residency at this place called Rehab in the city, and they invited me to come. I came to the show, and we met and hung out for a bit. They’re the nicest guys in the world. And I gave them a cd when I went. A couple weeks later, they all came out to my show, and then after they saw me play, they asked if I would sing on their record, and we’ve just been friends ever since.

Was that your first album that you gave them?

Actually, it was my home recordings that I didn’t put out.

Do you still work for Ba Da Bing?

I actually just quit. It was so hard to do ‘cause I love everybody there. Going from touring to working full-time started getting too much for me. I drop by the office still and I still field emails. I’m actually going there after this interview. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

When did you start there?

About three years ago. My friend Alicia from Tennessee, she was the only other employee there when I started, and she gave me an internship when I moved to New York. And then she moved back to New Orleans, and I ended up getting her job. So I went from internship to part-time to full-time within a couple years. I started off doing mail orders and errands and stuff like that, and I just kind of fell into it. I’m not very good at it. [Laughs.] But Ben [Goldberg, Ba Da Bing founder] says that I am. He didn’t fire me, so that’s a good sign, I think.

Did working there give you any kind of insights on your own career path?

When I started working there, I still didn’t know my place musically, but I wanted to learn how to do it right, myself. I was even too shy to tell him I played music, really. I didn’t know how big the blog world was, at all. I was in this bubble of handing people my cds and playing local shows, and saying yes to every show, and not really thinking about getting listings or anything like that. So, working with my friend and getting advice from Ben, down the road I realized there’s so much that I had no idea about. And also the writing letters in every packet and making it really, really personal was always very important to me. So I learned to kind of bring it all together. But the Internet is still a little bit beyond me. I don’t know how people keep up with all these social networks, but I learned from that job that that’s a huge part of it now.

And you’re planning to have another album out early next year?

Yeah, actually I start recording on Thursday with Aaron from The National. They have a studio in Brooklyn, and I sent him my demos a while ago. I initially asked him to be on this record. I have a lot of songs that I want to record, and I want to keep as busy as possible. So I’m excited about it.

How were you able to separate the batch of songs for epic from the ones that you’re gonna start recording this week?

Basically, I went in there with a whole bunch more songs, not sure how much I would get done in that time period. But the ones that I felt were the most solid and that we could plunk out in a few days, we started with those, and I thought they made sense together, also having a nice range from upbeat to really slow. I wanted a mix on it. I didn’t want it to be all rock or super mellow. ‘Cause I felt that was a fault with my old record, was that everything was so sad and slow, which I love, but I realized that can be daunting to people, and so I picked songs that I thought were a good mix of what I’ve been doing. But now I have all these other songs that could have been on it if I’d had enough time. Now I have a lot more time to spend on a record, so I’m gonna use the songs that I can actually sit with and flesh out more, and collaborate with other people and have a lot more time to get people in on the record.

Sharon Van Etten currently is on a national tour supporting Junip. She will tour Japan in December, the U.S. in January, and open for The National in Europe beginning in February.

12/03/10 - Nara, Japan - Nara Café Sample

12/04/10 - Kyoto, Japan - Kyoto Urbanguild

12/05/10 - Fukui, Japan - Turuga Pinon-Pinon

12/07/10 - Aichi, Japan - Nagoya JD Japon

12/08/10 - Kanagowa, Japan - Kamakura Café Goatee

12/09/10 - Tokyo, Japan - Shibuya, 7th Floor

12/11/10 - Nagano, Japan - Matsumoto Cafe

12/12/10 - Tokyo, Japan - FoundLand

01/08/11 - New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom

01/19/11 - New Haven, CT - BAR

01/20/11 - Philadelphia, PA - Johnny Brenda’s

01/21/11 - Columbus, OH - Wexner Performance Space at OSU

01/22/11 - Nashville, TN - The 5 Spot

01/23/11 - Asheville, NC - TBD

02/15/11 - Belgium, Brussels - Forest National w/The National

02/22/11 - Poland, Krakow - Studio w/The National

02/24/11 - Poland, Warsaw - Stodola w/The National

02/25/11 - Germany, Berlin - C-Halle w/The National

02/26/11 - Denmark, Aarhus - SCC w/The National

02/28/11 - Sweden, Lund - Färs & Frosta w/The National

03/01/11 - Sweden, Stockholm - Cirkus w/The National

03/03/11 - Finland, Helsinki - The House of Culture w/The National

03/04/11 - Finland, Helsinki - The House of Culture w/The National

03/10/11 - Baltimore, MD - Metro Gallery

03/11/11 - Raleigh, NC - Kings Barcade

03/12/11 - Atlanta, GA - 529

03/17/11 - Austin, TX - SXSW

03/18/11 - Austin, TX - SXSW

03/19/11 - Austin, TX - SXSW

03/22/11 - Tucson, AZ - Solar Culture ^

03/23/11 - Phoenix, AZ - Rhythm Room ^

03/24/11 - San Diego, CA - Soda Bar ^

03/25/11 - Los Angeles, CA - The Satellite ^

03/26/11 - Costa Mesa, CA - Detroit Bar ^

03/27/11 - San Francisco, CA - Bottom of the Hill ^

03/29/11 - Vancouver, BC - Media Club ^

03/30/11 - Portland, OR - Doug Fir ^

04/01/11 - Boise, ID - Neurolux ^

04/02/11 - Salt Lake City, UT - State Room ^

04/03/11 - Denver, CO - Walnut Room ^

04/04/11 - Omaha, NE - Slowdown ^

04/06/11 - Minneapolis, MN - Cedar Cultural Center ^

04/07/11 - Milwaukee, WI - Pabst Theater ^

04/08/11 - Madison, WI - University of Wisconsin ^

04/09/11 - Chicago, IL - Lincoln Hall ^

04/10/11 - Cleveland, OH - Beachland Tavern ^

04/12/11 - Toronto, ON - Drake Hotel ^

04/13/11 - Montreal, QC - Casa Del Popolo ^

04/14/11 - Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall ^

04/17/11 - Washington, DC - Red Palace ^

^ with Little Scream


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November 17th 2010

Awesome interview! Love Van Etten. Check out my review of ‘epic’ and her recent Minneapolis show here:

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