Sharon Van Etten is a special person. Genuine, passionate, humble and talented; she’s a rare combination of many great things. On this occasion, we sit down to talk upstairs in a cosy Paddington pub. It’s the last day in a week of European press ahead of her forthcoming record Tramp, to be released on the 7 February 2012 by Jagjaguwar.
I’ve been a fan of Sharon’s music for the past three years. Along with her self released home recordings CD, she has also put out two records – Because I Was In Love and the glorious Epic. The last time I saw her was in her natural habitat of Brooklyn last summer when Sharon and her bassist Doug took me to see their new rehearsal space. They’ve since moved in, and Sharon reports; “It’s awesome. It’s so great. We share with one other band – Plus Minus, but they’re only there two nights a week… and it’s set up to record. We can go whenever we want, basically”.
I ask her what she’s been up to since the summer. She excitedly answers “ I finished my record! And I’ve been getting a new band together. I just added a singer – Heather Woods Broderick.” Heather (sister of Bella Union’s Peter Broderick) is sitting across the room. “And I still have the same bass player, Doug Keith, but he’s going to be playing guitar. I just got a new drummer. But we haven’t practiced as a four piece yet, so I’m really excited. When we get back to the States we’re going to start rehearsing the songs.”
Sharon is (clearly and understandably) well loved in the musical community, and Brooklyn is known for its bands aplenty – so it’s no real surprise that such an impressive cast of musicians appear on her new record. The list includes: Julianna Barwick, Zach Condon (Beirut), Thomas Bartlett, Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) and Jenn Wasser (Wye Oak). The album was produced by Aaron Dessner, of The National.
I ask how she ended up with such a stellar credits list. She replies she came to record with these artists through “touring with them, working with them and meeting them through Aaron” and further explains; “It was a combination of his friends and my friends that play on it. It’s funny because the winter is a good time of year when people aren’t really touring, so a lot of my friends were home that weren’t home when I was working on Epic. So, I was really glad they were around. I had a lot more time to schedule other people coming in because it was over the course of the year as opposed to two weeks.”
The album was mostly recorded in Aaron’s back yard studio at his home in Ditmas Park. Sharon describes the space as small and mentions, prior to recording Tramp, it had only been used to record High Violet and the Red Hot Compilation. On working with Aaron, she enthuses: “He’s so awesome. He was everything I could have asked for in a producer. He wanted to work with me because he was a fan and he just wanted to make my songs sound as good as he could. He didn’t want to cover up my voice, he didn’t want to overplay. He challenged me a lot because he knows how to do instrumentation much better than me. I don’t know how to talk in terms of theory, I don’t know how to tell a horn player what to play, you know? And I’d say yes or no if something wasn’t working. It was definitely a learning process, I’m not used to that many people working on a record, and having that much time, and having everything at my fingertips at that moment.”
So what’s next? Sharon anticipates a lot of touring is on the cards. “Tour like nuts. I want to improve my live shows. I’m excited to tour with Shearwater and War on Drugs. Before, with Shearwater, I was their tour manager… but we’ve only gotten to play together once”. That one time happened to be supporting Beirut at The Forum in London. “That was the first time I met Shearwater. And after that I tour managed them, but now we get to tour together. I’m excited.”
Sharon has previously worked at Ba Da Bing, the New York label founded by Ben Goldberg who now acts as her manager. Between working at a label and tour managing Shearwater, Sharon has a fair amount of experience of being on the ‘other side’ of the music industry. She agrees: “Yeah! I want to learn all aspects, you know?! Because, it’s nice to learn how to do everything so you know how everything works. I want to be able to learn from that, and I want to be able to help my friends as well. Outside of playing music, one day, I’d like to have another job within the music industry; and I think learning how to do everything is important. Just so you don’t become a spoiled musician and demand things of other people and have no idea…”
Talking to Sharon, it’s easy to get a sense of how much she loves music. The first summer I met her, she wrote me a list of bands to listen to. Included in the list were Timber Timbre, Forest Fire and The Antlers. I tell her that every time we meet I feel like I should ask for a tip. She recommends Olga Bell, laughs and adds “now I want to rack my brain for you…”.
Upon Sharon’s recommendation, I went to see She Keeps Bees live at a pub in Hackney, at their first UK show, almost three years ago now. The duo, Jessica Larrabee and Andy LaPlant, also live in Brooklyn and are a terrific band. Sharon asks if they’re in town (they practically live in Europe these days). “I haven’t seen them in so long now. I miss them. Jessica is so awesome. You know, she was one of the first people that we, just for fun, sang on each others’ songs, played shows together and stuff. They lived in my old neighbourhood and I didn’t have many friends in my old neighbourhood. It was really nice to just hang out and play. She would just play me new songs she was working on. Although she was super shy. She probably still is…”
I’d say Jess is a charming brand of shy. She can silence a room with her phenomenal voice and the stage banter is hilarious, though sometimes unfairly self-depreciating. Sharon laughs: “Did she ever tell the story, when her mum came to visit and she wanted to go bra shopping?” Yes. I think when Jess gets nervous between songs, her instinct is to talk about underwear shopping. Sharon continues to laugh.
It’s always a joy talking about music with Sharon. On Tune-Yards she gushes “she’s SUCH a great performer” and when we get on to Beach House adds “I need to listen to Teen Dream more. I was obsessed with Gila. It was on repeat for me. It was the soundtrack of 2009.”
I confess that I didn’t actually prepare any questions and I can’t think of any more off the top of my head. Talk turns to the weekend, burgers and then cats. Sharon asks “You’re a cat person? You grew up with cats, right?”. This is correct. She continues: “It’s only been the last five years that I’ve known I’m a cat person. I like dogs, but I’ve never really been around them. My old roommate was a huge cat lover so that was the first time I lived with animals, outside of the goldfish or hermit crab.” Hermit crab strikes me as a strange pet, and I tell her I’m not into that. She springs to their defence – “oh they’re super harmless. They don’t move very fast”. I explain I just dislike their existence in general. Sharon laughs hard. “Their existence? What? What has a hermit crab ever done to YOU, Anika?!” It’s a fair question.
To sit down with Sharon is always such a delight. She’s sublimely talented; her latest album, Tramp, is arguably her best yet. It showcases her songwriting at its finest. Aaron’s production is perfect. Her beautiful voice is gloriously at the forefront of the album; a tremendous instrument she wields like a master. It is wonderful. But not only this, she is also a humble and passionate woman; genuinely grateful for those working around her and appreciative of her talented friends. The live show packs a real punch with the full band, and I can only anticipate it’s going to get stronger and stronger. Sharon Van Etten is something special and 2012 will certainly be her year.
Tramp is released on the 6 February through Jagjaguwar, and Sharon will be playing London’s Cargo on the 1 March.