Sharon Van Etten: Interview (Drowned in Sound)

Sharon Van Etten doesn’t need introductions around here. Drowned in Sound’s Album of 2012, the unabashedly breathtaking Tramp consecrated her as one of the all-time DiS favourites and best singer-songwriters out there. On her forthcoming Are We There (out May 26th) you’ll still find the elements that made her music so personal and distinctive from the very beginning, since her debut Because I Was in Love all the way up to the increasingly fleshed out sound of epic and Tramp: powerful, gut-wrenching vocals; direct, reflexive lyrics and those folk-inflected, wandering melodies, always ready to vent deep emotions and swamp yours before you even have the time to lower your guard.

Are We There is not a necessarily a question. It might be, but most importantly, it doesn’t want to say the last word about her music. Coming out of the Trampexperience, Sharon has indeed recuperated the sparser side of her songwriting (be prepared for the killer ballads!) but, as the first single ‘Taking Chances’ anticipated, she has been exploring new sounds as well.

When I meet her and her bandmate Heather Broderick for a late afternoon coffee, she reveals how walls of sound and big productions do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with gaining more confidence, as rock mythologies would have us believe. Are We There grew out of a different type of confidence: her decision to take control of production. “It’s about making choices”, she says while reaching for my lighter. The more we talk about ‘intensity’, ’emotions’ and ‘letting it all out’, the more I get lost in her infectious smile, and realise how cathartic her music must be for her.

DiS: Tramp must have been a beast of an album to follow. On top of being extremely well received everyone noted how your sound was getting more and more rich and confident. Did those perceptions influence your decisions when you started writing the new material?

SVE: I learned a lot working with Aaron [Dessner, from The National] on the last record. He was amazing and I’m really lucky that I had the opportunity to work with him, but one of the things that I learned from touring the album and talking to people was that I got insecure about all the names attached to the record. I started to feel that my actual songwriting was overshadowed by the people that played on the record. For this one I decided that I wanted to produce it myself, have my own band play on it and just be more in charge of it. I wanted to take the lead. I needed to prove to myself that I could do it. They were great and they made the songs what they became, but at the same time I ended up feeling down on myself about my writing and questioning why people liked it. I guess it’s more my own problem. [Laughs].

You felt more comfortable with this new one, then.

SVE: Definitely. It’s the first time that I’ve had a band. We toured for two years on Tramp together and I went into it much more comfortable because I knew that throughout the years they had heard these songs in every single form: writing them while we were soundchecking, having different versions of them, sending my friends the songs while I was still working on them to see what they thought and so on. It was much more like a group thing. I didn’t have to flush out every single demo and write every single part myself, I could give them the freedom to do what they wanted on it as well. Also we did more live tracking than ‘layer upon layer upon layer upon layer’, which I really didn’t get to do before.

Tramp was written over the course of a year while you were crashing at friends’ and writing about past emotional turmoil. Are these new songs coming from a better place in your life?

SVE: I would say that these songs are much more current than the other records. The songs on past releases were more reflective on what I had been through, paralleling relationships I was in back then. This one is very much more right now. It is about career versus relationship; other types of struggle. In a way it’s about me growing up and being more confident, honest and upfront. But it’s all pretty fresh too: going through these songs and even listening to them now I think it’s the most present I’ve ever been: talking about what’s happening now as opposed to the past.

Are We There is another incredibly intense record, but I personally think there’s more space for the listener this time around. Maybe it’s a combination of the variety of sounds you explore, but it feels more open, more spacious than before. Would you agree?

SVE: Definitely. Lyrically I feel like the songs are pretty straightforward and honest, I mean, they always are, it’s always autobiographical, but instrumentation-wise the space is very nice. Because it was live tracking it was also an exercise of restraint in not adding too many layers, I wanted the band to be heard, the single instruments to be heard, and not have this wall of sound. After experiencing that in the studio for Tramp I thought ‘that’s not who I am, that’s not what I naturally do.’ So it helped me pair it back a little bit, focus on the band setup and keep in mind how we were going to translate it live. I thought it was a good practice. You can hear things more, there’s a lot of space, they’re slower, they’re very bass and drum oriented. Keys are the main instruments as opposed to guitar in most of the songs. I think this also gives room for the vocals to come out more as well.

So did you find yourself writing on the piano more than before?

We were lucky enough to have this practice space… most spaces in New York are so small, you share them with so many people that you only have a day a week to practice, you have to put everything away then you go back in and you have to take out what you want to use to play. That wasn’t the case. We had this place where we used to practice as a band but also solo, on our own projects; three out of four of our members are songwriters! We would go in there on our own as well and it was very nice that we could leave all of our equipment pretty much set up. Well, it was the first time we had a piano set up, organ set up, drums, bass and so on. I had more access to keys than I’m normally used to have and I wrote a lot on them just ’cause I could get really loud. I could distort the organ and I ended up being obsessed with that sound for example. At least three of the songs on the record really depend on the growl of the organ.

What about the R&B-tinged grooves?

SVE: It just came out of nowhere! Between the organ and the drums I was just trying to learn how the bass could work, by keeping it simple, you know. I was listening to Sade and I think that might have slipped into my subconscious. That record Soldier of Love is incredible, I listened to that for a while. It just happened.

You also spent some time at the Electric Lady studios. How did that go?

SVE: Stewart [Lerman] held my hand through the producing role. We recorded at his main personal studio [in New Jersey] with his right-hand man engineer James Frazee. They have an upright piano in their space, which is really nice. I played a lot on the record with it, but some of the songs required me to be able to play and sing at the same time so we wanted these ballads to be big and open, just piano and vocals, playing it live and covering it so that we could isolate the sounds to mix better and balance. But because he does a lot of work outside and he’s been working in New York in studios since the 1970s, he knows his way around the city. He got me a day at Electric Lady where I did tracking of piano and vocal only. We did three or four songs in there, just me playing piano and singing live. Those songs are me performing live, really. I think it gives a nice breath to the record after some really intense songs. I mean, it’s still intense, but sonically it feels like a little bit of a breath. It’s the same piano that was played on Patti Smith’s Horses.


SVE: I know, I was freaking out. It took me a few goes around before I was ready and my palms weren’t sweating. Also I’m not a piano player, I like to play, but I don’t know what chords I’m playing. I had to practice a lot because it was pretty new for me to be playing and singing at the same time. It was beautiful, it’s a beautiful studio, there is definitely an energy there that you can’t… deny.

Going back to the very intense songs. ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’ is a lot to take in. It’s overwhelming in the best possible way. You sing , “Burn my skin so I can’t feel you”“Stab my eyes so I can’t see”. The way you describe the physical effects of love on your body reminded me of your home recording ‘I Can’t Breathe’.

SVE: Oh, wow, that’s old, that’s not even officially out anywhere. Well, they’re about the same person! [Laughs].

Oh, really?

SVE: He just gives me that feeling! ‘Your Love is Killing Me’… that one I call “The Beast”. Heather heard many versions of that song while we were on the road. It started with just me playing guitar, but I heard it in my head with a drumbeat that I wanted. I kind of knew sonically how I wanted it to be, but I didn’t know it would get to the point that it did. It got a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be. It’s one of the few guitar-driven songs on the record, you know? I wrote that song around a time where I had to make a choice. I had promised my boyfriend at the time that I was going to stay home after touring for like a year, but then during that time I got offered the support for the Nick Cave tour. It was that struggle… the whole record is basically about that struggle between relationship versus career and the struggle of having that balance between the two. It was a very hard decision to make and I ended up choosing the Nick Cave tour over staying home. It was a big transition for us at the time. We fought a lot starting then; it was the beginning of the end. That’s when I wrote it. The song is about when you love somebody so much and you can go through all this pain together and you can see what you’re doing to them, but you still make this other choice. You end up seeing this masochistic kind of love where you do realise what you’re doing to somebody: even if it’s not actually something you’re doing to them, you scan still see how they react to your own choices. Sometimes no matter what you do and no matter how communicative you are it can still really hurt. Even if you’re trying to be honest, you’re trying to be yourself and to do what you want to do, sometimes it’s just not enough.

If I’m not wrong it was around this time last year that you toured with Nick Cave? How was it?

SVE: Yes, it was March/April. It was really hard, you know. This was someone I was on and off for ten years. It’s an ongoing joke that I did not get Nick Cave’s music for a while, but then one day he gave me The Boatman’s Call and it changed my life, that was around the time we got back together again. We committed to each other during the onset of Tramp, so the journey of us deciding to have a serious relationship together while I was gone during the year was intense enough. But then when we hit the crossroad, when it came down to it, instead of supporting me he was thinking about himself and what he wanted instead of supporting me, and my career. That was the beginning of the end. He told me not to censor myself; so I’m not going to censor myself [Laughs].

The Boatman’s Call is also about troubled romance, parting ways… the whole PJ Harvey ‘drama’.

SVE: I know, right? He loves Nick Cave and I love PJ Harvey so it’s kind of funny that we came together over something that we cared about and we came apart after something that we cared about. It’s been an ongoing theme for the last year or two. The whole record is basically about that struggle.

But then Are We There ends with a song like ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ which seems to just accept what comes next. You’re gonna be asked every single time about those lyrics “I washed your dishes then I shit in your bathroom”. The song definitely shows another side of you.

SVE: [Laughs] I am so surprised people like that song so much! It was like a joke song. It was at the end of the day in the studio, we were all having a lot of fun, we had done two songs already and it was the choice of the night: finish up early or keep going. It was originally a demo that I wrote on the Omnichord that Heather gave me. I only had the chorus at the time and I called it my ‘Bruce Springsteen song’, because it reminded me of ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’, that kind of Phil Spector side that he has sometimes. I sent it around to everybody to see if they thought it was worth working on and everyone in the studio that day, my friends and my bandmates, were just like: “Let’s just do the basic tracking and you just do a scratch vocal”. The next few days I was gonna go in by myself because they had other stuff going on so they said “You can redo the vocal but at least you’d have everything tracked then”. So it was at that time of the night when we took a break, we drank a little, we smoked a little; we got pretty loose. The lyrics came to me on the fly. I had never done that in front of people before, so I ended up just going step by step through what happened in the day. We got a little silly, we broke glasses, we did air high fives all the time, the engineer’s name is Tricks so I was like “Do your tricks, Tricks, make me sound good!” and so on. Then you had to do your dishes in the bathroom: I thought it was funny that you could do somebody a favour by doing the dishes, but then, you know, you also were going to actually use the bathroom. All these things I didn’t think we’d keep, but when we went through them they said “No, don’t edit them, just keep them! It’s fun! It shows like a funny side of you, you’re not just this dark girl, you actually have a sense of humor, people should see that and it’s a nicer way to end the record with that rather than with a really heavy ballad, it gives everybody a break after they’ve gone with you through that journey”. Although it’s still kind of a dark song, it’s still one of the funny ones.

You said before that the moment you start writing really happy and funny songs we should start worrying about you.

SVE: Because my mom always asks “when are you going to write a happy song?” and for me writing all these sad songs is being able to compartmentalise and exorcise the demons. If I’m going through a bad time I can write about it, it’s released and then I feel better. It’s my therapy. If I am writing all these happy songs it would probably mean I’m not having that catharsis. Most struggles aren’t funny, most struggles aren’t happy. So it’s more of a joke to my mom. When she asks why I don’t write happy songs I say “I don’t know, I am pretty happy. It would be the opposite: If I wasn’t happy I would be writing all those happy songs”. I don’t know. That’s my logic!

Do you find it hard to transpose that catharsis in your live performances?

SVE: Totally. There are shows where I am singing with Heather and she can tell that I am certainly getting choked up, I look over with tears in my eyes and she tries not to cry. Because these are really personal songs and I feel those things, they’re still emotional to me. And I’m nervous to perform the new songs live, because it’s so new and it’s so fresh, it’s still stuff that I’m going through. But that’s what I write about, it’s real, it’s pretty autobiographical and it’s emotional. They get hard to play but it also feels very good to play; it’s still catharsis to me. I close my eyes and I know people are there because they relate to the songs, and that helps me through it. They’re pretty intense songs to sing, for my friends as well. There is some of the heaviest stuff I’ve ever done so far probably in this record.

Heather: Yeah, I know you better now and I was with you through that whole period… I can feel the words more.

SVE to Heather: Yes, it’s gonna be tough but it’s gonna be fun to figure out the songs live. The singing parts I get nervous about… If I get upset you’re gonna be able to hear it in my voice. That’s real too!

It’ll be intense, but it’ll be healing. Every time I go through songs and I get to perform them live, I feel like I get some closure or more perspective on them, I can separate myself from the album versions. I think more about what’s happened, it’s like a mirror to myself.

Even if your songs end up being very personal, you always said you wanted to embrace a universal perspective so that people could relate to your work. Has that negotiation changed with this new album in terms of writing?

SVE: The only way I can work through it’s still just hit ‘record’ and let it all out. I don’t have a story or anything like that. I’m just going through something and I’ll hit ‘record’ for ten or twenty minutes and go stream of consciousness and get it all out. I’ll listen back to it and most of it, 99% of it is way too personal, very specific and I know that it would alienate the listeners, they would know too much about me and they could not be able to connect to it in their own way. I listen to everything I do with that in mind, because yes, I do write for myself, but the songs that I end up picking for an album are the ones that I hope other people can relate to. If they’re too specific I feel it takes away from the listener. I think I’m getting better at it, but at the same time I’m still learning how to write. I still try to have different kinds of instrumentation and I want to do something different every time, because otherwise I feel like I’m putting out the same record.

You said you listened to Fear by John Cale a lot during the recording of Tramp. Before you mentioned Sade. Was there any other musical discovery during the recording of Are We There?

SVE: It was all over the place. I was listening to a lot to Johnny Jewel’s stuff with the Chromatics and Glass Candy, because after touring such an emotional record I just wanted to dance a little bit. I listened to the Air album Walkie Talkie. More electronic oriented stuff, R&B and old soul music as well.

There’s been an evolution in your artwork as well, from the line-drawings of the first record to the close-up on Tramp. What’s the story behind this one?

SVE: The girl on the record is one of my best friends in the world, Rebecca. She’s an amazing artist; she made the artwork of my first two records. She and her husband have a design company out of Indiana called Flatland Kitchen. They do poster work for me too when they have time. She was a dear friend of mine when I lived in Tennessee. When I was going through a hard time and I had to basically run away, she drove me to the airport: I just took a bag of clothes and my guitar… she’s the one who helped me get out of that bad situation. We stayed friends throughout the years. So when I moved back with my parents in Jersey I started going to community college and take photo classes. I started getting really into photography so I brought my camera down to Tennessee when I went to visit her before I moved to New York. We used to have an old ritual… we used to work together at a bookstore called Books-A-Million, when we got off work we would go and drive in the country, we would get some Diet Coke and a pack of cigarettes and blast music and just drive until we ran out of Diet Coke. This last time we did this we just screamed out of the window to let it out of the system. So I took a picture of her screaming out of the window while she was driving. It was one of my favourite photos of that time; it really represented this moment of transition, which, again, is one of the themes of the record, this time of transition and choices. That was the last time we saw each other before I moved to New York and she moved back home to Indiana, where her family was from. She met a boy and had two kids, I moved to New York and chose other things. She chose to have a family and I decided to go to New York to pursue this… “music career”.

Also this photograph is the first one that I mounted properly and it was the first gift I gave my boyfriend when we started dating ten years ago. We were on and off for a long time, but whenever I went over to his place I never saw it up anywhere: I just assumed he had thrown it away. But then, when I moved in with him a year ago and he was making room for me in his apartment, he pulled out this pile from underneath his bed and it was a pile of everything I had ever given him: every CD, every home recording, every postcard, every letter, and on the very bottom of the pile was this photograph covered in dust! It was really emotional, I didn’t know he was so sentimental and he kept everything, but at the same time it really was a sign of where we were in our relationship. Back then we weren’t really communicating, ’cause he has a really hard time dealing with his emotions and he tends to keep it all inside. So when he pulled it out from under the bed it was a sign of where we were at in our relationship. As soon as he showed it to me covered in dust, I knew it had to be the cover of the record. It’s kind of intense.

It is!

SVE: I don’t know if you saw the inside of the artwork yet.

No, not yet! What’s inside?

SVE: On the inside there is a photograph that looks like it’s been aged. It was a photograph that Rebecca found in a library book. She thought it looked like me and she wrote me a letter on the back of it when I was having a bad day. On the back of the photograph there was all this funny stuff to cheer me up. I asked my friend who scanned the photo for the album cover if he could scan that for me too and when he looked at it he was like: “I know who that woman is” and it turns out, after he did a reverse image search to double check, that it was the French director Agnès Varda. She was big in the French New Wave and the first female director during that time. We decided to have her in the artwork because again it connects with Rebecca and this time of transition. Without knowing any of this, my friends who did the video [for ‘Taking Chances’], when they sent me the idea for the video they referenced the opening scene of a movie that Varda directed, without knowing any of the back story or seeing any of the artwork!

That’s crazy!

Yeah. If you get to see the movie Cleo from 5 to 7 they reference the opening of that as the main idea for the video.

My last question is about your relationship with your growing fan base. People can get really emotional at your gigs.

SVE: I try to go out after every show and meet people because I think… the one reason I started making music was because I felt I could help people, they could relate to it and get something out of it for themselves. There was a point that I though it was all about me and I was being selfish, but it was speaking with them that I realised that they do relate to it. The most important thing to me is connecting with people and reminding myself that what I’m doing is not a selfish thing to do, because it’s helping people to connect. Hopefully it helps people go through things and process, and to know that it’s OK to feel… something. I meet people who tell me very personal stories; I cry with them, I hug them, that connection means a lot to me. The moment I lose that or I feel I don’t have that anymore is when I feel I will be done with music.


Published on Drowned in Sound


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