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Sharon Van Etten and the immense emotional weight behind her craft

19 May 2014, 14:00

It is perhaps a given that artists create from their core. The question of to what end they create, however, is an old and invariably complicated one.

The answer often suggested is that artists possess, along with a talent for something, a desire to truly experience their emotions, and an understanding of the fact that the ability to translate emotion into something tangible can be a kind of personal therapy. It is well-documented that Sharon Van Etten, who I meet on the brink of releasing her fourth full-length album, Are We There, has just such a salubrious relationship with her music.

“Everybody needs some kind of outlet,” she tells me over a drink in London. “If your heart’s not in the best place, at least you can be busy and focus on something positive. My music is very therapeutic to me, so if I’m going through something I just sing. I’ve always struggled with communicating my emotions to people, so whenever I’m trying to work something out, I write.

“I used to be medicated for anxiety and I really wanted to understand what was going on. I’ve been off medicine for years now, and although it sounds cheesy, writing and singing has been really healing for me.”

I ask if, after years of writing, the practice has become an integral part of her personal equilibrium, and she nods. “I need to do this in order to feel alright. If I’m too busy and I don’t have time to sing it affects me in a very negative way.”

“I write all the time, but most of it’s trash,” she continues. “Usually it’s just for me. I’ll hit record for like ten, twenty minutes, then stop it, wait a day or two, and then listen back to hear what it was I was going through. I have hundreds of tracks that hopefully nobody will ever hear! But it’s just something you need to get out - like some kind of digital journal. My mom said that everybody has a secret they’ll take to their grave, and yeah; you need to have at least one mystery.”

It’s not uncommon for artists to work as a form of personal therapy. However, if artists created simply for the personal sorting, shaping and molding of emotions into something manageable; for catharsis; for the mere recording of periods of pain or joy or inner equilibrium, it would surely be enough to simply do so at the privacy of one’s bedroom or desk or studio, and leave it tucked into one’s private archives? Given that it is rare that an artist will never publish anything, it is often the answer to the question of why they do so that makes each one unique, and it’s here that Sharon’s almost philanthropic attitude to her music comes across.

"...I don’t want people to feel bad for me. I’m not a victim - I want people to be able to take away something personal and relate it to their lives."

“As I said, most of it’s just for me,” she says, “but if I ever come across something that’s universal I’ll use it. My only filter when I go through my demos is ‘is it universal enough that people will be able to relate to it in their own way?’. If it’s too personal, if it’s too specific, then people aren’t going to be able to have their own experience with it; they’re just going to start feeling bad for me - and I don’t want people to feel bad for me. I’m not a victim - I want people to be able to take away something personal and relate it to their lives. I don’t want them to listen to it and just feel pity for me.”

Sharon Van Etten

Even if the stories that Sharon has chosen to share are ones she believes listeners will be able to find comfort in, they are far from reserved, or even ambiguous. Some of her most intimate relationships and experiences have been documented across her four LPs; a trend that she believes is becoming more potent as she closes the book on her past and looks towards the future.

“It’s still very autobiographical,” she says of her lyrics. “The main difference between this and my previous records is that most of those songs were me reflecting on the past, and me paralleling previous relationships with what was going on with me at the time. This album is everything that’s going on with me right now; everything that’s happened in the last year or two. It’s everything that I’ve experienced; from my career becoming more full-time and the effects of it on my day-to-day life; and I’m still going through it! It’s made this the most present of all the records.”

I couldn’t argue; Are We There is a fully-grown record oozing soul - in both senses - and I suggest to Sharon that it has a self-awareness and therefore maturity that hadn’t yet fully developed on the first three. “I’ve grown up a lot,” she agrees. “I’m more confident in who I am. A lot of the songs still come from a really hard place but at the same time…” - she pauses. “My relationships over the last two years, that inspired this record, have helped me become more confident and know what I need to do.

“The whole record’s basically about career versus relationships, and in the end I chose having a career, because apparently those are my only two choices. So I moved into West Village, into my own place, and I’m getting a new band together. The core of the record is still my band that I’ve toured with for the last few years. Now that we’re done with the record it’s just been me settling into a new apartment, where I’m focusing on work instead of on a relationship, and just trying to figure out what I need in my life.”

As it turns out, I am talking to Sharon shortly after the tumultuous negotiation of a significant crossroads in her life. “The relationship that’s been ongoing for ten years - the guy I wrote ‘Give Out’ about - it’s just ended,” she says quietly. “It was a hard decision to make - the career versus the relationship - but it’s definitely something that I knew was healthier for me to do. He decided he couldn’t be with someone that was gone as much as I am…”. She takes a deep breath; “this literally just happened.”

“I’m just learning how to talk about it,” she continues, “and he encouraged me not to censor myself. We have a lot of love for each other. He’s supported me for a really long time, through big ups and downs, and he knows that I need to do this - but can you imagine being with someone who’s gone for nine months out of the year? That brings up a lot of insecurities in a relationship.”

"I watched the Rumors documentary and saw Stevie Nicks almost lose it over not ever having had a child… I think about those things. "

There’s a bitter humour to the moment, and we discuss what her honesty about these intimate details of her life has meant to her fans; “Well great - now I’m alone and everyone else is fine!” she exclaims with a wry smile. “I have my band!

“I mean… I laugh, but it’s hard. I don’t know if I’ll regret it years from now, making this decision.”

It’s clear the toll Sharon’s commitment to her art has taken on her life, and considering, as she says, that Are We There is largely about career-versus-relationships, it’s a battle that is still raging for her. “I don’t know how long I can do this for,” she muses, “and I know I’m really lucky to get to do it, you know? There’s always going to be a trade-off. You choose a relationship and then you regret not having a career. I watched the Rumors documentary and saw Stevie Nicks almost lose it over not ever having had a child… I think about those things. But I wouldn’t be OK if I wasn’t doing this.

It would be understandable for anybody to resent work that had consumed them to this extent, especially this point in their life, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. “I’m proud of the songs,” she says emphatically. “I’m proud of us for being able to be adults and saying ‘this isn’t working for either of us.’ I’m proud of the band, and I’m proud of me. This is the most of me I’ve been able to portray on an album since my home recordings.

I ask how sustainable Sharon thinks this bare-all method of creation is. “I’m still figuring it out,” she replies. “I don’t want to tell the same story. I’ve thought about, you know, taking a year off and reading a bunch of books, and then every song being about my take on each book. I’ve thought about taking time off and going back to school to pursue therapy and see if I’d be a good therapist, because in a way I feel like that’s what I’m doing for people, except that I’m not actually getting to talk to as many people as I’d like to.”

Suddenly a great intensity flickers into life as she continues; “I just want to help people feel connected to something; people who don’t know how to communicate their emotions or who feel like they’re not understood. Hell, I was a ‘90s kid, so I was into alternative and grunge and emo and math rock, you know, so when someone calls me emo in a derogatory sense I’m just like, hell yeah I’m emo - I’m an emotional person, dammit! Why don’t you acknowledge the sad side of yourself too? You pretend you’re confident and happy all the time - you’re a liar! No - we all go through shit. Cry! Let yourself cry, let yourself hurt, let yourself talk about it. Let people know every side of yourself; nobody’s perfect. Even a successful person has their own dark side, you know? It’s OK! Someone calls me emo… I’m fine with that.”

The great recent changes in Sharon’s life have not been solely interpersonal. As her career has intensified, it has also become more her own ship to steer; a stark contrast to her earlier days. “I’d have days where over the course of eight hours I’d sit at home and wait for phone calls,” she says of her early experiences with the industry, “instead of what we’re finally doing now which is spreading it out and having a life. We’re only doing things we care about now, but I’m still learning how to do this.”

I remark that it must often be a very challenging thing to keep afloat, and she replies affirmatively: “I’m slowly figuring out the balance, and trying to take care of myself better. I feel like between touring and recording I haven’t really had a breath. We finished touring in July, we were recording in August, and we only finished the record in January, and then the press started February-March, so… it’s been pretty intense. But good, and I think we’re in a good place.”

In fact, Sharon speaks fondly of New York, albeit with allowances for the stresses of big city life. The new album’s closing track, ‘Every Time the Sun Comes Up’, paints a bleary picture of life in the city amongst her peers, but her new life in Greenwich Village is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not entirely full-on. “It’s where Dylan and all the songwriters in the ‘60s used to live; near Cafe Wha? and Washington Square Park; but I’m actually not really part of a music scene there,” she says. “I mean, there’s a great music store called the Music Inn two doors down, but mostly it’s restaurants and movie theaters and comedy clubs, which are totally my thing too. It’s nice, in a way, not to be ‘in it’ when I’m around it all the time. I’m really close to a train though, and most of my friends live in Williamsburg - where rent has surpassed Manhattan! I couldn’t find a studio apartment for less than $2,000.”

"You need things to change for there to be growth."

I remark that it’s very much the same story in East London - once one of London’s poorest, toughest areas, and now continually rising higher and higher out of the price range of those who rejuvenated it. “Hackney is probably kinda like my old neighborhood, Bushwick [in Brooklyn],” Sharon replies. “When I lived there like nine years ago there would be prostitutes outside, someone was shot in front of my building - lots of sketchiness when I was there, basically - but now the rent has doubled.”

“The thing is,” she continues, “it’s always been like that. I mean, you need things to change for there to be growth. When I moved to New York most of my friends who had lived there for a really long time told me, y’know, ‘New York is dead’ and it’s just like ‘why do you still live here then, smart-ass? What are you doing here?’

“People are always like ‘move to Detroit, that’s where it’s happening,’” she laughs. “I mean, I understand the mentality of wanting to live somewhere where you have time and space and are saving money because it’s affordable to live, but at the same time, you need to struggle a little bit! It can’t be too easy to live somewhere because then you won’t get anything done. I do love it, though. Sometimes it’s overwhelming because it’s overcrowded, and it is incredibly loud - like, the loudest city I’ve ever been in. I don’t even go out on weekends anymore!”

The new setting, and new lifestyle, has allowed Sharon to throw herself into her work, however. As we discuss the increased presence of piano and organ on her new record, she grows animated; “I got a piano in my new apartment! It was between a desk and a piano, but I figured a piano is my desk, you know? I just got a small scale one - a Melodigrand. I found one on Google for like 500 bucks! I grew up playing a little bit, but when we’d have a week or two between tours recently we had this practice space that we only shared with one or two other bands, and it was the first time I’d really had access to one. We could be in there 24/7 and we wouldn’t have to put our gear away because there was enough space to leave it set up. I’d go in and there’d be enough space for a drum kit, a bass set up, guitars, organ… and I could just be as loud as I wanted to without the insecurity that someone was listening. So, I got to play piano and organ! It definitely changed the way I sang, and made me play in keys I wouldn’t normally sing in. I plugged the organ into my pedals how I’d normally set up my guitars, and I just turned up the crunch and reverb that I’d have on my guitar and I got this lovely, gnarly, sound.”

However, as she has already hinted at, the intensity with which Sharon has been writing and recording, although fruitful, has meant her time away from it is spent in other ways. “When we were in the studio all the time and I was just banging my head against the wall, it was nice to get out of that and do anything other than music for a while. With all the heaviness going on in my life I like going to see comedy, watching movies, going to museums… just trying to do things that will clear my head, you know?

“Doing real-life stuff when I’m home - like helping plan my sister’s wedding in June - makes me feel a bit more grounded. I was gone so much in the last two years, it’s really nice to feel like I can be there for my family now.

“I’ve also been on a reading kick recently. When you live in the city, it’s constant sound and people. I don’t have a TV - I go home, I have a very quiet apartment, and I read. I’ve also really into comedy, because that takes me to another place too. I cry, and I laugh; I’m a very well-rounded person,” she chuckles. “I like food - I subscribe to Eater, and whenever I read about a restaurant I like, wherever it is in the world I’ll star it on my Google maps, so that when I travel I can find it.”

Sharon Van Etten

This brings us on to life on the road. The European press tour that Sharon is currently on will take her, from London, to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin and Madrid. I ask if she still enjoys the experience, and she remarks, albeit a little tiredly: “It is great. I mean, I love traveling, and it’s really great to hang with Heather [Woods Broderick, solo artist and Sharon’s bandmate] because she’s been out west in Oregon finishing a new record with her brother, Peter. Her stuff is so beautiful. She’s trying to figure out when she can do her music within our touring, so hopefully she’ll be able to figure that out. It’s good to hang out with her because I don’t have many girl-friends, you know? And Heather’s great - it’s the first time I’ve felt really connected to another singer, for my own songs, at least.”

Ex-bandmate Cat Martino eventually left Sharon’s band to tour with Sufjan Stevens and to “do her own thing”. Heather Woods Broderick was brought to Sharon’s attention through Aaron Dessner; “‘you need to know Heather’, he told me. I listened to her solo music and it was so beautiful. We met and got on really well and stayed in touch, and I eventually asked if she wanted to play music with me - and maybe come and find a place to stay for a while… She moved from Oregon to New York to play with me!”

At this point the music playing from the speakers above us kicks into Erasure’s “A Little Respect”, and Sharon calls across to the next table; “Hey Heather - can we cover this sometime?”.

After briefly singing along, we move tentatively on to where Sharon feels she may go in the near-future. “After this record’s done, I don’t know. I just want to do something different. I don’t want to put out the same record every time. Maybe I’ll play with other people, or maybe I’ll try a different career, I don’t know! I’m open to anything.”

Despite the imminent release of a hugely strong fourth album, it’s apparent that Sharon’s trajectory is far from clear or even linear. It’s no doubt, however, that with a body of such increasingly brave and beautiful work behind her, the future, whatever it may be, can only be dazzlingly bright.

Are We There is out on 27 May via Jagjaguwar
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