Thursday, July 10, 2014

Erica Rivera Interviews Sharon Van Etten

Q&A: Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten is the velvet hammer of indie folk music. Wrapped in melodic vulnerability, the 33-year-old’s songs explore the brutal truths of love, life-altering choices, and the search for home.

Born and raised in New Jersey by a computer programmer father and a history teacher mother, Van Etten moved to Tennessee for college, but dropped out after a year to work at a coffee and record shop. After leaving an abusive relationship, Van Etten returned to New Jersey and trained as a sommelier. By 2005, she’d saved enough money to relocate to Brooklyn and began performing the music she’d been working on for years.

Van Etten released the mournful and sparse “Because I Was in Love” in 2009 followed by “epic” one year later. Her third—and breakthrough—album, 2012’s “Tramp,” was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner and featured several big name cameos.

Van Etten’s latest album “Are We There” is a heart-wrenching testament to loving hard, letting go, and moving on. Lyrics like “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see” on “Your Love is Killing Me” are as painful as they are relatable.

Van Etten spoke to while wandering the streets of San Francisco.

Q: When you decided on the album title “Are We There” what destination did you have in mind? Was it geographical or something else?

A: It’s a lot of things. I’ve been asking myself that question. Other people have been asking themselves that question. I’m realizing that it’s everywhere as well as right here.

Q: Your songs contain so many private thoughts and emotions. Are there any parts of yourself that you leave out of the music? 

A: I still have a few secrets jokes in there, I guess. Everything I do is pretty personal. I’ve never been good at storytelling in songs. I don’t know how to separate myself from the song. It’s all pretty much all me.

Q: Many of your songs were born from an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted several years. How did writing about the relationship affect the relationship?

A: That’s a tough one. In hindsight, it made me realize that the person I was with may not have been as in touch emotionally as he could have been. On his side of things, I feel like it hurts him to hear these songs, but he should have known that that’s what I do. Wanting to pursue music definitely caused a riff.

Q: Do you feel like you have to choose between a career in music and a satisfying relationship?

A: I was in a situation where I had to. I think I could have both. I just have to be with somebody that’s more supportive.

Q: Some of your lyrics reference violence. Is that something you’ve experienced in your relationships?

A: I’ve been in a couple of toxic relationships and I’ve learned to parallel love with the ugly side of it. You can still love somebody and it can still hurt and they can still hurt you and it can be unhealthy, but if you’re blinded by love, it’s not going to change how you feel about somebody.

Q: There’s an air of mysticism in your music, especially in the tarot-themed video for “Taking Chances.” Where does that come from?

A: When I was putting the artwork together on this album, I saw this old photograph that my friend had sent me. She found it in a library book. It was a photograph of a woman looking in a mirror and she thought she kind of looked like me because she had a bowl cut like I used to have. I was going through a rough time and she wrote me a letter on the back of it. I hung it up on my wall for years and with the heat of the New York apartment, it slowly withered away. I asked a friend to scan it to preserve the photograph. As he scanned it, he realized he knew who the woman was. I thought it was an anonymous photo but it’s Agnes Varda [the only female director] from the French New Wave. I used that as the artwork on the inside of the album.

The other side of the story is I asked my friends Michael and Donald to work on a video for me. I sent them the song “Taking Chances” and they referenced an Agnes Varda film without knowing anything [about the photograph]. We used the tarot scene from the opening of her film “Cleo 5 to 7.”

My life is a series of coincidences and random acts. That is an example of the Universe laughing or giving me a wink.

Q: Speaking of photographs, who is in the photograph on the cover of the album?

A: That’s one of my best friends, Rebecca. She was the one who helped me out of the toxic relationship in Tennessee years ago. The last time I went to visit to Tennessee to get the rest of my stuff, she drove me to the airport. We’d had this tradition after work: we’d drive around, get a couple Cokes, listen to music, and take turns screaming out the window. It was one of our last times in Tennessee before we went our separate ways.

After that moment, she moved to Indiana, had kids, and got married. I pursued music. [The photograph] parallels the themes of the record: career versus relationship, home life versus traveling, trying to figure out where your home is. It was a moment when it all started coming together.

Q: You’ve hinted in other interviews that you might become a therapist someday. How has music been therapeutic for you?

A: Whenever I’m going through a dark time, I get a bottle of wine and play on my guitar or piano until I come up with a melody that I can make up words to. Once I find a little piece of melody with the chord progression that I’m playing, I’ll hit record and sing stream-of-consciousness. I’m not thinking about what it’s for or who it’s for; I just need to feel better. I won’t listen to it for a few days until I can get some perspective about what I was going through. I’ll listen back to it and analyze it. If it’s a universal idea, that’s when I shape it into a song. If it’s too personal, then it’s still nice to learn from it, but it’s not something I need to share with people.

Q: What happens to those tracks that you don’t share?

A: There’s a “Sharon Archives of Crap.” I’m like a music hoarder. I have back-up drives. If I’m ever feeling uninspired, I go back to the songs I never did anything with and see if my mind has changed on them. A lot of songs on “Tramp” I had had for years and I didn’t think anything of them, but Aaron Dessner convinced me to work on them.

Q: But you self-produced your latest album. Why was it important for you to do that?

A: I have a little bit of Middle Child Syndrome. After having people hold my hand along the way to help me work on the songs, it gave me the confidence to do it on my own. I would never take back working with anyone that I’ve worked with in the past, but at the same time, I had to prove it to myself that I could do it without the help of, like, an older brother.

Q: You told Rolling Stone that you want to stay small. Where do you envision yourself five or ten years down the road?

A: When people start playing music, some people are like, “I want to be a star! I want to play the biggest places in the world!” but the kind of music that I play is really intimate and personal. Even though I’ve been growing organically, I’m growing in a way where I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. If it keeps growing, I feel like my feet will come off the ground.

I want to stay myself because that’s the core of what I do and why people connect to my music. I want to play places where it doesn’t feel like this distant thing between me and the audience. I want to keep it real.

I don’t want that star thing. I don’t want to be big. People I work with probably worry about me when I say that, but I don’t know if I want to do this forever. I want a home life. I want a family. I want to do other things. I’ve proven to myself that I can do this and I feel like I’ve helped people, but I don’t need to keep doing it. I’ll always write, though. I just don’t know if I want to do this as work forever. 

Originally published on in July 2014.