Sharon Van Etten on confidence, ghosts and being the worst (or maybe best) stoner ever
Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten's work just keeps getting better and better. On Are We There, her followup to the rapturously reviewed 2012 album Tramp, she digs deeper than ever before, broadening her creative scope and her musical palette in ways that are simultaneously moving and enthralling.
Photo by Dusdin Condren Sharon Van Etten. More photos plus two videos below.
In advance of her June 24 gig at the Bluebird Theater, Van Etten chatted with us about music as well as words, frequently infusing even the most serious topics with a sense of humor about herself and the world around her. Continue to get her takes on the importance of self-confidence, the heaviest song she's ever written, the ghost of John Lennon, what she means by calling herself a "one-hit wonder" and more.
Michael Roberts:What is the first instrument you gravitated toward?
Sharon Van Etten: When I was a kid, we moved into this house when I was probably like six years old -- an old Victorian house that I think my dad worked on. It came with a grand piano that was probably awfully out of tune. And my mom has this really funny story. When we first moved into the house, she couldn't find me. And I was lost and crying under the piano.
As I grew up, I ended up playing it and singing along. I just sang everywhere I went. I gravitated toward the piano. And those were the first lessons I ended up taking, too, when I was a little kid.
Photo by Dusdin Condren
I understand that you played more than one instrument when you were a kid. What in addition to piano?
I was so lucky. I went to this elementary school in Nutley [New Jersey] that gave you free lessons in a public school. I took Suzuki violin. My mom laughs, because I'm just kind of a hobby girl. I like trying stuff out and then moving on. So I know how to do everything a little bit, but I'm not good at anything. [Laughs] So I took Suzuki violin and I took clarinet as well, and then gravitated toward choir as I got older.
A lot of kids chafe at taking lessons. Did you actually enjoy taking them?
It was so much fun. I was a pretty shy kid. It didn't really talk much, but I love music, and it was something I got from my parents. I loved listening to music and singing along on road trips. My dad's a vinyl collector, so I was pretty lucky in that way. I was never really good at communicating my emotions, and it was something at a young age I didn't really recognize. But it felt so good to play. I didn't know why, but it's because I wasn't a very talkative person. So that's how I let it out.
Did you have instructors who let you freely express yourself? Because a lot of people complain about teachers who only let them play the etudes in the music books.
When I first started, it was very much, "This is how you play." And I think it's good to learn the rules, so you know how to break them -- which I do all the time. But it wasn't until high school that I had a teacher -- his name was Mr. Lockhart, and he was the head of the choir program I was in, the madrigal singers. It was all accapella, all pretty old classical songs. But I remember I had to audition, and it was either show choir or madrigals. And show choir was like the musicals -- dancey show-tune kinds of things....
Not quite like Glee. You weren't going to be singing any Journey covers....
No, no, no! Pretty old school. But I remember I had to choose between being in the show-tunes choir or the madrigals, and Mr. Lockhart finally heard my voice solo -- not with other people. And he said to me, "You don't have a voice that blends. You have your own voice." Even with singing classical music, he saw that early on. He said, "You kind of sing your own songs." He was also my theory teacher. I took a music-theory class when I was in high school, just to learn about notes; I still don't really know keys very well. I'd break all the rules when I wrote pieces, and he just kind of laughed at me about it and said, "You just have your own voice. I like that you're learning all this, but you're going to be doing your own thing some day."
Here's the video for "Taking Chances," from the album "Are We There."
That's a really important thing for someone to say to you at that stage. Looking back on that, do you think it was exactly the right thing for someone to say to you right then?
Yeah. At the time, I remember kind of being bummed, because when you're in high school, you're finding yourself, but you also want to be a part of something. And for him to tell me that when I didn't really know how to write music yet, it was a mixed bag. But he was right. And he also didn't hold my hand. He's a dad, so he just kind of let me do what I was doing. He wrote me a letter of recommendation for the college I moved to Tennessee for, and he just said, "Do your own thing. You're a great singer, but you have your own voice." And I appreciated that. My mom's a high school teacher, and he still checks in on me. It's really sweet.
When you went to Tennessee to major in music, did you think about it in terms of being the kind of performer you are now? Or did you have a different idea?
At the time, I thought I was going to be an engineer or something. Any good parent is not going to tell their kid, "Yeah, go do music! Go be a songwriter! Go do that!" My parents have been really supportive of anything I wanted to do, but they also wanted me to have a backup plan, because they're smart people. So I originally went to school to be an engineer, and I went for a year and didn't get past the general studies. And I ended up getting a job at a venue and learned how to promote shows.
At least the backup plan was in the same category as what you actually wanted to do. Most people's backup is something like being a teacher or an accountant.
It's funny. As a kid, I was like, "How am I going to do music? Because I know what it's like." But that's what I gravitated toward. I'm an artsy kid. I'm a weirdo. I'm left. I was like the black sheep. I like to learn how to do stuff from every angle. At this point in my life, I've been a promoter, I've been a tour manager, I've been a manager, I've been a publicist. And still somehow I'm doing music, and I have no idea how I got here to be quite honest.
Continue for more of our interview with Sharon Van Etten, including additional photos and videos.