Chosen One: Sharon Van Etten
Interview with Sharon Van Etten.
“If you work on anything long enough hopefully you’ll get better and I feel like we’re just growing.”
—Sharon Van Etten
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
When Jersey-native and New York-based songwriter Sharon Van Etten first announced the arrival of ‘Are We There’, Van Etten’s fourth full-length and follow-up to her 2011 seminal work ‘Tramp’, she had these words to share: “I really hope that when someone puts my record on that they hear me.” Of course, Van Etten’s wishes have clearly been fulfilled. If there’s one thing we can firmly establish by now it is this: Van Etten makes music from the real world; a world of real events and real people with real feelings. Subsequently, steeped in a sometimes harsh reality, Van Etten’s songs are imbued with fears, struggles and (often) much pain. Much like Chan Marshall’s pre ‘The Greatest’ recorded output, Van Etten bravely examines her own life’s immediate surroundings and relationships to share her most innermost confessions and feelings for us all to bear witness. Through Van Etten’s songs we too can find our own deepest feelings long hidden in the shadows of some forgotten, distant dream.
‘Are We There’ is Van Etten’s first self-produced album (The National’s Aaron Dessner produced its predecessor ‘Tramp’) and features a host of wonderful musicians, including: Torres’s Mackenzie Scott on vocals (who toured extensively supporting Van Etten); Heather Woods-Broderick (on strings and vocals); Mary Lattimore (harp) as well as Van Etten’s trusted and formidable rhythm section (Zeke Hutchins on drums and David Hartley on bass). The use of vocal harmonies (Van Etten, Scott and Woods-Broderick) is a pure joy to witness. The resultant musical arrangements are stunningly cohesive and yet genuinely innovative, providing for many moments of challenging and divine musicianship — at times wonderfully dense and strikingly tactile (‘Our Love’ or ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’) — other times remain starkly sparse (‘I Know’) but, importantly, such intricacies of musicianship and arrangements only ever serve the song.
“Everybody needs to feel” sings Van Etten on ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’. It’s a sentiment that best serves the phenomenal and beloved artist that is Sharon Van Etten and ‘Are We There’. It’s another step to becoming your own true self. It’s a destination no one is ever likely to realistically reach but striving for it is proving to be Van Etten (and her sacred songbook)’s true towering achievement.
For Sharon Van Etten’s upcoming US/European tour dates, click HERE.
‘Are We There’ is available now on Jagjaguwar.
Interview with Sharon Van Etten.
I love how this time around, the new album ‘Are We There’ is self-produced, in contrast to how ‘Tramp’ was made so closely with Aaron Dessner. This must have been a nice change for you to do it all on your own, so to speak?
Sharon Van Etten: Yeah, after touring that album, ‘Tramp’, I finally had a band that we were really comfortable together and I finally was able to bring people into the studio that I trusted – I had never had a band before – I felt finally I had a team to be able to do it myself, you know.
For the songs themselves, as you say, I’m sure each member has a special input into the songs as they’re being made?
SVE: Yeah exactly. I mean from travelling around, they’ve heard me work on them, they’ve heard different parts of like how I started it or how I changed something. I mean they’ve been privy to different points of view of the song, for sure whether it be in my personal life but also in the process.
There’s a lovely parallel between you– especially now when there is several to look back on – and The National. On the new album, you know immediately it’s your music and songs but at the same time there’s lovely new directions too.
SVE: You know I try to just be myself and let things happen. Nothing is intentional you know like sonically; it just takes on its own thing.
I love the production on ‘Are We There’.
SVE: I just felt really comfortable and I think that was a huge part of it. I had to let go and play a lot more than I had on past records and I tried other instruments and I was around people who were excited that I was trying new things. And I feel like the most confident I have ever been, you know just as a person not alone musically and being surrounded by people I’ve been with the last couple of years.
You have a real close-knit band backing you. Each member has their own projects and previous incarnations as well so it’s cool how everything feeds into the next album. So, the music grows just the way the friendships are all growing and you can sense this in the music.
SVE: Definitely. I mean touring isn’t easy and people are giving up their lives to do it or putting their lives on hold because they care about the music. And it’s an emotional thing to do; to leave home and trust these people and you’re like in a van for months at a time, knowing that life is going on without you. So, that’s a good person.
I’m sure you see the songs changing over time as you’re touring?
SVE: Yeah, I definitely feel like we grew together and I feel like the songs have changed, you know throughout years now, you know when you think about it when we started playing. Heather [Woods Broderick], Doug [Keith] and I have played together for two years and we’re band members now and that’s just been this year. If you work on anything long enough hopefully you’ll get better and I feel like we’re just growing.
‘Break Me’ is one particular highlight which reminds me of PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ record; it’s really great.
SVE: Aw thanks.
Being involved with every aspect and stage of the music, I wonder is there one particular aspect you like the most?
SVE: Well, I love performing even though it can be very emotional. And that’s something I’m still working on; the actual performance of these songs are really intense. But when I just feel like the band and I just connect and you don’t have to think about it, you know like we’re all in the moment, all the time and that feels really great. But touring life is hard and it’s something I really want to work on because it’s not something I’m comfortable with all the time.
Especially when the tour can be quite extensive, I’m sure you lose the concept of time at some point?
SVE: You definitely do and even though you go to different cities which is really great fun and you meet a lot of great people and perform to different types of audiences and you get to meet up with other bands along the way; it is time travel and when you come home, life goes on without you and the major trade-off is that I’ve missed friends pleasantries, I’ve missed someone’s death, you know there is a lot of things that you miss from not having a real life. But I’m very lucky to be doing what I’m doing and I wouldn’t take it back for the world but there is a trade-off.
Would you have a kind of ritual or routine when on tour, like reading or listening to certain records?
SVE: I try to read, I bring a book or two for the road. Sometimes it is easier and sometimes it’s really hard to try to read. I try to write, I listen to demos, I write lyrics, I listen to Spotify if I’m in a country that I can stream it in. I try to catch up with what’s going on in the real world, you know every day it changes [laughs].
What music are you listening to right now?
SVE: The War On Drugs record of course is on constant rotation and the Torres record is still so beautiful. One thing that I got lucky was that my bandmate Darren Jessee has just finished a new record for his solo project Hotel Lights, it’s a really beautiful record but won’t be out ‘till later this year. I was lucky enough to hear it when it just got mixed. His lyrics are so beautiful and the arrangements are really beautiful. And also, Heather Woods Broderick has a new record that I got to hear also. So another beautiful, sonically incredible record.
You got to work with Stewart Lerman on the new album which must have been a lovely experience for you.
SVE: Yeah, he is so great. I got to meet him doing work on ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and we got along so well that I thought I should reach out to him and get advice from him because I felt so comfortable around him. I was so nervous in those circumstances, I tried to just get advice from him and he ended up wanting to help me with the whole entire album.
For Sharon Van Etten’s upcoming US/Australian/European tour dates, click HERE.
‘Are We There’ is available now on Jagjaguwar.