About four weeks ago I learned that National Public Radio darling Sharon Van Etten was going to be playing at The Egg in Albany. That same night I discovered that she was opening for Conor Oberst and tickets were already sold out, an epic bummer as her newest album, Tramp, is one of my favorites so far this year.
I kept a vigilant eye on ticket prices for the next two weeks. As the concert got closer, the avaricious StubHub chumps finally gave in and offered tickets at a reasonable price. I bought tickets immediately and I consider myself very lucky to have seen her and Conor live at one of the coolest local venues.
A week or so prior to the show I contacted Ms. Van Etten via her website asking her for an interview opportunity before to the concert. I expected a polite decline, particulary considering the timeframe. Instead, she offered to do an interview via e-mail because she was going to be busy while in Albany. And she signed the email “heart, sharon.” Adorable. I jumped at said opportunity.
And so, the Interview.
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The Self-Hating Hipster: The early to mid-90s was a stronger musical era than it is usually given credit for. What artists did you admire growing up?
Sharon Van Etten: PJ Harvey, Bettie Serveert, Elastica, Sonic Youth, Proclaimers, Nine Inch Nails, Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield…
SHH: What music did you discover while studying at Middle Tennessee State University? Is that where you first picked up on folk?
SVE: Mineral, Gloria Record, Sunny Day Real Estate, Zao, From Ashes Rise, Grandaddy, Richard Buckner, Azure Ray, Drive By Truckers, Glossary, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, Tom Lomacchio, Kill Devil Hills, Asschapel, Mogwai, Currituck County, Loretta Lynn, Big Star… The list goes on and on!
I grew up listening to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Melanie among other 60s music my parents grew up listening to.
SHH: How would you describe your time interning at BaDaBing Records? Did you learn a lot about the industry? Did they have any idea that you were writing your own material all the while?
SVE: When I was an intern at BaDaBing I started putting together mail orders and then I started researching blogs that would like our bands. Then I started doing tour press and slowly became an employee.
BaDaBing has a very grassroots, DIY background. Really genuine people with a true passion for music. I learned a lot about the people behind the industry and learned to not be so scared of it.
Ben Goldberg, the owner, didn’t know that I played music at first, but when he found out he was very supportive and would even come to my shows.
SHH: What made you decide to settle in Brooklyn?
SVE: I needed to live somewhere I felt motivated. I spent a lot of the time in the south and in my parents’ basement, where my hopes were slipping, so I needed a good kick in the ass where there was a music scene happening.
SHH: What artists, new or old, do you think are kindred spirits? Who is someone in particular that you would love to work with?
SVE: Jana Hunter from Lower Dens, PJ Harvey…
SHH: As a producer, The National’s Aaron Dessner must have challenged you from time to time. What was the best piece of advice that he gave you while recording Tramp?
SVE: Do whatever you want. Try anything.
SHH: Tramp is an awfully solid record for being a sort of piecemeal production. What was it like trying to tour, write and record while being produced by someone [Dessner] doing the same thing with his own band?
SVE: It was a bit disorienting at first, but it helped to have some time and space with and from the songs. Aaron and I would also return to the studio from tour with notes and go over them and have a “to do” list upon beginning again.
SHH: Although beautifully fragile at times, you exude more confidence in your voice and sound than ever before on Tramp. Are you finding yourself more at home in the studio and/or on stage?
SVE: The more I play and write and perform, the more confident I am. I am more secure with who I am and what I am doing.
SHH: Anyone who has ever been in love or has had their heart broken can relate to your lyrics, but how do you achieve the conversational aspect of your lyrics? There seems to be a dialogue with your listeners.
SVE: I hit record and sing stream-of-consciousness for 10-20 minutes. I sing as though I am telling myself what I am going through and upon listening back and editing, I try and convert lyrics to a more conversational style. That way it’s easier for the listener to relate.
SHH: Due to the highly intimate nature of some of your songs how much of your material remains tucked away in notebooks or quietly sung behind closed doors?
SVE: Most of it. When I begin to write it’s mostly for myself and it’s way too personal. I would say that only 5-10% of my songs end up being used because of the universality of my dialogue. I don’t want to alienate listeners with lyrics that are too personal.
SHH: Your sound has evolved a lot in the three short years since Because I Was in Love. “Warsaw” and “Serpents” show a new, pop/rock leaf on Tramp. What spurred you to pick up an electric guitar? Are we going to hear more electric Sharon in the future?
SVE: A friend gave me a guitar and I hadn’t used it until I got an amp. I have always had a hard time with anger management, so I decided to let some aggression out on an electric. It felt so good.
Yes. I am writing on electric guitar all the time.
SHH: You have described writing music as cathartic. Has penning songs on sorrow, self-doubt and anxiety helped to subvert some of those same emotional fetters?
SVE: Learning where my anxiety comes from and facing it head on has helped me to overcome.
SHH: You’ve written numerous love songs but you never seem to find much humor in love, even dark humor. Is there any chance of hearing the lighter side of our heaviest emotion from Ms. Van Etten?
SVE: At the moment, my lighter side is live, in between songs.
Aside: If you haven’t already, read my concert review. It totally affirms this point.
SHH: How was your first stint in Europe? How did the crowds differ from your American audiences?
SVE: It was good. People there are very sweet. The drives are really beautiful.
Some crowds were more polite and quiet than others, but audiences are all pretty similar. It doesn’t really matter what region you are in. It depends on the vibe of the night.
SHH: How have your adapted to headlining shows? What is your day-to-day tour life like?
SVE: Headlining is very strange and I feel a lot of pressure, but my band is so amazing and supportive I haven’t freaked out too much yet.
Every day we get up, drive 6-8 hours, unload all our gear into the venue, set up, soundcheck, eat dinner and play. I will go out and say “hi” to the crowd if my throat feels ok and then we will pack up all our gear again. Sometimes we get drinks at a local bar if we don’t have to get up too early the next day, but usually we have to get up early and so we go straight to bed. Then do it all over again.
SHH: This is probably the most personal question of the interview, but what is your favorite ice cream?
SVE: Peanut butter swirl, vanilla bean or mint cookies and cream. :)
SHH: If you had to pick one track out of your entire catalog, which do you think you are most proud of?
SVE: “All I Can.” It is the most developed melody I have ever written.
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“All I Can” truly is a gorgeous piece and was a pleasure to hear live. Below is a live version from a show in Philadelhpia earlier this year.