Sharon Van Etten: "I get nervous sometimes that my songs are too personal"
Sharon Van Etten (due this Wednesday, March 28, at the Bluebird Theater) saw more sides of the music industry than most of her peers before embarking on her musical career. She moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as a teenager to go to school and became involved with Red Rose, a coffee-shop/music venue. Upon returning to the East Coast, she had a job as a publicist with the Ba Da Bing imprint. Given early encouragement by her friend Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Van Etten started writing and performing her own songs.
Van Etten's knack for introspective melodies, coupled with her soulful voice and confessional lyrics, struck a chord with audiences early on. Her fans came to include the National and Bon Iver (which covered her song "Love More"). Van Etten's most recent record, Tramp, released in February, finds the songwriter experimenting with broader dimensions of atmosphere and mood than she did on previous efforts. We recently spoke with Van Etten about her time in the music industry, her perspective on openness in songwriting, and the phrasings on "All I Can."
Westword: What kind of music did you get into when you lived in Tennessee that you hadn't really known about or delved into beforehand?
Sharon Van Etten: I was starting to listen to more country music like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. But then I worked at a venue, so there were a lot of touring bands that came through, like Appleseed Cast, Vida Blue, Richard Buckner, Cursive -- that kind of stuff that I didn't really know much of before. I was there basically from '99 to 2004 or 2005. It was a coffee shop that turned into more like a collective. It turned into a record store and screen-printing studio and restaurant. It was the only all-ages venue in a college town.
Some of your music on Epic is reminiscent of the minor chord progressions and textures people like Dean Wareham and Jeff Buckley might have used. Were those guys an inspiration or influence on your own music?
I'm definitely a Buckley fan. I more err on the side of Fleetwood Mac for that record. I don't really know Dean's stuff, but I like Galaxie , and I like Damon & Naomi, for sure.
Jenn Wasner performs a bit on Tramp. Why did you want to work with her? On what songs does she play?
She plays on a couple of songs that didn't make the record, but she sang on "Serpents." I think she has a really unique voice. She's a really strong and intuitive singer. Her voice has character; it's not like a trained voice. I didn't necessarily want to feature anybody, but I also didn't want someone to completely blend in there, either. She has a very specific voice and is strong on consonants, and she's really fun to sing with, and she's a fun person to be around -- all those things. We've played together in the past, and we get along really well.
You also recruited Julianna Barwick to perform on your album. How did you approach her to do so, and what is it about her own sonic vision, as it were, that made you want to collaborate with her?
She has a choir background, as well, and she's really good at harmonizing. She has an angelic voice that's still very much her own. With the strength she has in singing, bringing it to a couple of songs and letting her do her own thing.... She's a fun person to hang out with, too;she's a total goofball. We've toured together, and we get along, and I trust her intuitions.
How did you meet Kyp Malone, and why and how did he encourage you to play music as more than a hobby?
I went to go see a show in New York City while I was still living in New Jersey with my parents. He was opening for the band Celebration. I didn't know his music at all before that. But he looked really familiar, and when I saw his name, I realized he was my friend from high school's older brother that I had never met. I had just moved home. I was kind of a wreck at the time.
Anyway, I introduced myself to him after the show, and I had never seen him perform before. I didn't know what he did, but it was amazing. Turns out he still has family that lived out where I was living with my parents, and he said anytime he would visit, we should hang out. So whenever he went to visit his family in Jersey, we started hanging out.
He started telling me where to go to get shows. He brought me to shows and introduced me to bands, and he showed me places to hang out. He was just really encouraging, and I never had really had that. I had just moved out east again, so I had no idea what was going on in New York. So that was the start.
What important lessons did you learn from your involvement with a music venue, that you have brought with you as a performer in your own right, that you think most musicians should know?
There was a community of people helping there be a scene at all. You have to have a support system of people to help you and to help other people in order to sustain that. It was on a very small level, but you see how hard bands work coming through there and how much they appreciated getting a free meal somewhere.
Small promotional things. If you don't put up posters in enough time and actually make an effort to promote the show, no one is going to know. Trying to help other bands, but also trying to get bands that you like to play there. Wanting them to come back and treating them well -- very basic things. I learned a lot about being a musician myself and how to treat other people on the road, and how to take care of yourself on the road. Also what's to be expected by promoters on both sides.
You worked briefly as a publicist for Ba Da Bing. Is there anything you learned from working on that side of the music industry that you think would be important for other musicians to know?
I started as an intern, and I totally worked my way up. I realized it's really about trusting who you work with and only working with people that you trust and believe in. I learned a similar lesson to [what I learned through my experience] at the venue. Just trust who you work with and take care of the people around you. If you're doing something and you're putting your heart and soul into something, it's because you believe in it. It's all about being a good person, being friends and supporting the people around you. It's harder than people think.
In a February 2012 interview with Time Out New York, you mentioned how on "All I Can" that it wouldn't work if the breathing couldn't be heard due to the intense nature of the song. Why do you think being able to hear what some people might consider imperfections adds to the power of the recording?
It takes a lot. The phrases are really long. I feel like editing that out is a sign that it's trying to make it sparkly and seem perfect when I'm not perfect. I didn't want it to be a shiny record and given the choice of editing it out or not, we decided not to. The phrases are so long, I didn't have enough time to pull away from the mike to get a proper delivery. It's something most people wouldn't even notice, but it's something Aaron [Dessner] and I talked about for a really long time because it also probably...I also feel it gives a sense of urgency too. Hopefully without being over the top.
When you hear it isolated, it's really intense. I was kind of nervous about it at first. But with everything in there, it wasn't distracting, but it was still audible. I stand by that. Hopefully it's not a distraction to other people, but at the same time, it was a choice [to leave that in there].
In an August 2010 interview for About.com, you talked about how you had a sensitivity to whether or not you're being too personal with your lyrics. When do you feel like an artist can take that confessional aspect of songwriting too far, and is there an example that you can share of when you maybe felt you exposed too much? How do you come to terms with doing so when you have?
I don't know. It's tough. I think it's important for the songs to feel personal to somebody, where they can relate to it. I can't give you specific examples. But I think whenever people can't relate to something, where it's alienating and they can't connect with it on some level, I think that's a problem. I get nervous sometimes that my songs are too personal and that I didn't generalize enough. But it's also how I write. I try to stay away from it a little bit, but if you want to be personal and connect with people, you [have to draw on] personal experience. Hopefully it's not too much.
In an interview for Spinner for SXSW 2010, you listed OMD as a musical guilty pleasure. Why do you feel like they're a guilty pleasure for you, if you even do feel that way about any music?
They span so many kinds of music. If anyone thinks of their actual hits, their dance numbers or whatever, they're kind of fun and innocent, and it makes you forget about everything kind of music. I'm into all sides of their music -- their early stuff to later stuff. I think their later stuff is partly a guilty pleasure more so than their earlier stuff.
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