By Micah McLain
Sharon Van Etten writes the kind of lyrics that make you wonder how she manages to play her songs live without breaking down. Tales of love, loss and heartbreak so excruciatingly poignant that they constantly catch you off guard with their brutal honesty and poetic truth. While her debut LP Because I Was In Love featured sparse arrangements consisting of Van Etten’s haunting voice and acoustic guitar, the new full-length Epic finds her expanding her sound with a full band to add even more strength and emotion to her music. We caught up with Van Etten as she was preparing to head out on a nationwide headlining tour with new band in tow.
The emotions and events of your love life obviously play a huge part in the creation of your music. How comfortable are you with exposing such personal events and intimate emotions?
I’m getting more comfortable with it. It’s really important for my music to remain personal. It is healing for me to write and sing.
Has the way that you approach your writing changed as you’ve gained exposure?
That’s hard to say. I feel maybe people are more inclined to relate to me because of how personal it is.
Describe the New York music scene and what it’s meant to you, both personally and professionally.
I always wanted to live in New York. Always. But it was really an intimidating idea to me. When I first left Tennessee I was terribly shy and dealing with social anxiety … but I forced myself to take trips to the city to see shows. I met some really amazing people that helped encourage me to move to Brooklyn. They showed me around, took me to shows, introduced me to bands, welcomed me. For as many different scenes that are going on in Brooklyn, they’re non-exclusive with open arms and really supportive of their peers. People are working really hard (‘cause you have to here) to do what they love.
How did you originally get involved with The Antlers?
I heard a song of theirs and wrote Peter [Silberman] directly. It was a MBV [My Bloody Valentine] cover. It blew my mind. I didn’t realize it was a cover until he told me. He responded so fast and was so kind. He invited me to his show, I went and we hit it off. Everyone in the band are sweethearts. I geeked out and gave him a CD and he came to my next show. Then he invited me to come to his (bedroom) studio and sing. And it wasn’t a come on! (ha – joke) His melodies really inspire me. And so do his puns.
You’ve performed with some great bands such as Megafaun, The Antlers, Great Lake Swimmers, Rain Machine, Meg Baird, etc.; what have you learned by being around such diverse artists?
That it takes practice. And you need patience. Touring can be really difficult at times, but just roll with the punches and try not to be too stressed out all the time. The people you get to spend time with in the van turn into your best friends for life (like summer camp). The touring band is a new connection for me. It’s a deep one. I am still understanding it.
How does your approach to your live show change based on venue size and your decision to go acoustic versus electric and solo versus full band?
On my last record, it was really important for me to be having a one on one conversation with the audience. With this new record, it is important that my band is having the conversation with me. They add more weight (where my space was before). I am hoping my songs can stand on their own, solo. And I hope the size of a venue will never matter. The electric guitar has given me more confidence and sounds a lot better with the new songs than my old classical guitar (which I miss very much). Every show I play is cathartic.
What are your favorite aspects of touring?
Seeing new places, meeting new people, eating new food, driving, playing, singing…
What’s your favorite city/venue to perform in?
That’s a tough one. I have a warm place in my heart for Zebulon in Brooklyn. They’ve been really supportive from the get-go. I love Schubas in Chicago. The staff is so nice and the sound is so good and the food is amazing.
Because I Was In Love was very minimal and direct, recorded mainly with acoustic guitar and the occasional addition of organ or cymbal. Epic is much fuller in comparison, with electric guitar, drums, piano, lap steel and backing vocals. Was this simply a natural progression in your music or the result of an intentional decision to expand your sound?
The songs I had been writing demanded more instrumentation. They were more direct and confident. I feel the instrumentation reflects the emotional weight very well.
How did you first become interested in creating music?
My parents were always very quick to support my interests … from playing me records, singing songs, playing piano, clarinet, violin in elementary school and giving me the Fisher-Price hand-held tape recorder that acted as my personal karaoke machine … even to this day they are supportive and come out to my shows when they can.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
Another tough one. Gillian Welch, Neil Young, Vashti Bunyan, Kyp Malone, Jana Hunter, Diane Cluck…
What bands/artists are your current favorites?
Meg Baird, She Keeps Bees, Lower Dens, Julianna Barwick, Zola Jesus, WOOM
Your “Van Etten” T-shirt [based on the old Van Halen logo] is awesome, who came up with that design?
Ha! Thanks! Well, at first the idea came about because a friend thought it would be funny if my new album cover was a Photo-Shopped version of Van Halen’s 1984 with my face on the angel, reconsidered it after a good laugh, acknowledging it would be a bit “over the top.” So we thought maybe we could be a little more free with the T-shirt design, since it’s just a t-shirt. So we found a logo that worked with my name and my friend Katherine Kim did an amazing job of designing the logo for me.
Sharon Van Etten plays 529 on September 14.