Interview – Sharon Van Etten
– by Rachel Fox
Sharon Van Etten is trapped in a van on a perfectly beautiful autumn day, somewhere in Vermont. She is touring with her band in support of her latest album, Epic, the follow-up to her much-lauded debut Because I Was in Love.
Her first album was borne out of the embers of a destructive relationship that she stayed in for six years while living in Tennessee. Upon leaving, Van Etten returned home to her native New Jersey to re-group and re-ignite her passion for music and songwriting – something she was not “allowed” to pursue in her previous relationship. Her music is sparse, soulful, and stirring enough that artists like Bon Iver and The National have both collaborated with her and even covered her songs live.
Van Etten plays Venue in Vancouver Nov 11 with Junip.
Rachel Fox: I was reading about the Weathervane Project; it seems like such a great way for new, emerging artists to get exposure. Tell me how you became involved with it.
Sharon Van Etten: Oh, yeah! That was a really, really, really great project.
I had three friends from three different circles email to tell me to do it. I hadn’t yet met Brian McTear, the founder, but we were in touch within the hour of my getting these emails. The original person they asked cancelled last minute so I only had two weeks to get everything together. I sent him some demos and we talked about possibilities and the one we ended up picking was “Love More”, which originally was 11 minutes long!
He told me to bring some friends and we ended up hanging out for two days and we wrote, edited and collaborated. There were video crews, photographers, sound engineers. He ended partnering up with WXPN out of Philadelphia and they used the single to generate attention for other artists – so all of a sudden there’s footage and dialogue about the process. It’s really good for independent musicians and the community.
RF: You play the harmonium. Is that an Indian harmonium?
SVE: Yes it is.
RF: How did you get into harmonium?
SVE: It’s kind of random… I worked for this band called The Brunettes and they were about to go on tour and they had to move all of their stuff out of their apartment while they were gone and they asked if I could store some of their stuff. They said, “play whatever you want.” So the harmonium was in my house and I played it for a week straight and wrote three or four songs on it. I still don’t really know how to play it but came up with different textures and melodies.
All those instruments
RF: How many instruments do you play?
SVE: Guitar and voice are my main instruments but, um, I can play piano minimally and I can play clarinet very minimally and violin very minimally and bass guitar.
RF: You stayed in a relationship for six years with someone who you have not been personified as the most supportive of people. Clearly, a toxic relationship, and one many people can relate to – romantic or otherwise. What was it finally for you, that got you to change and take that risk to leave? What was your headspace?
SVE: Well, to be blunt, it went from emotional abuse to physical abuse really quickly. I realized that that was not something I could stay in. I don’t know … (pause) … it makes it a little more real, when they show that they don’t really love you.
RF: That aspect of your personal story – that you made a conscious decision to leave, pursue your dream, and are now experiencing success – is both a thrilling and empowering experience for your audience.
SVE: It’s a really intense thing, you know?
On one level I was really tentative about talking about it at all, but I realize that it’s not like a publicity tactic or whatever. It’s something that helps people understand my music more and relate to it more. Even though it was a little difficult to admit to myself I knew it was something that I had to talk about and I knew it would help me as well.
‘We have your back’
I don’t know if I’d be here if I didn’t write music. I basically wasn’t allowed to play it when I was in that relationship. I believed in love so much at that point and I really believed that that person loved me and one day I woke up and realized that he didn’t love me. Then I moved back home and moved in with my family and I realized what unconditional love was really like. It took me years to really understand the difference. “No questions asked, we have your back, we’ll take care of you.” They still have my back. I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing without my friends and family.
RF: How long did it take you to recover and get into a more positive headspace?
SVE: I feel like in a lot of ways I am still doing it… I really was afraid of people. I re-connected with people and made new friends that helped me open up again, but it took years.
I just feel like I’ve been really lucky. My friend used to say, “You set your sights to one star in a constellation and that’s where you hang your line,” and I feel like once I made the decision to leave Tennessee, all these positive things started happening. It took a lot of work, but I felt like if I was going to be true to myself things would just naturally happen. I’ve been really lucky. I’d say it took me about three years to really open up to people, talk to people, look them in the eye. Now I feel really secure with who I am and what I’m doing.
Self-therapy and confessional music
RF: The music that you make – is it who you are or just what you do?
SVE: I guess it’s what I’m feeling at the time. It’s like a self-therapy for me. Even when I go back and think that I was so covered in emotion I can’t really see what I was writing about, sometimes I’ll edit it but even if it’s not how I feel later, I leave it and just let it be what it was. It’s really just a stream of conscious way of communicating things that I don’t know how to do in normal conversation with people. It’s all me… it’s rare that I make a song just to make a song. Sometimes I try to generalize it so that people can’t relate too much to it but it’s pretty confessional music.
RF: What were you listening to as you were in the creative process and does what you’re listening to affect what you produce?
SVE: I think it does. The obvious one to me was that I was listening to a lot of ’90s music and Fleetwood Mac, another band that I listen to a lot – they’re one of my top ten favourite bands of all time. But at work I listen to other things that don’t affect me a lot, like Slayer.
RF: You listen to Slayer?
SVE: [Laughs] Yeah. Well, my boss is a huge metalhead and he got the new Slayer record this year and it’s really great. Maybe somewhere in there there’s a little metal but I haven’t fully explored it yet. Maybe that’s the next record.
Mick Fleetwood’s member
RF: That could be a very interesting project for you: deconstruct Slayer and reconstruct it with a harmonium. I think truly musical people hear music in a way that I do not… sort of like math, which my brain doesn’t totally understand.
SVE: Do you know Aidan Baker? Nadja? Super heavy, kinda drone. He does this really cool cover of Elliott Smith‘s “Needle in the Hay”, it’s loud and slow and noisy with hazy vocals over it. It kinda makes a lot of sense.
Metal isn’t something I listen to everyday but it sure is a release to listen to. It can be stress-relieving at the right moment. It’s different instruments, a different way of communicating.
RF: Somebody was trying to get me into Mastodon. [laughs] I don’t know if I can do that or not. Random fun fact because you mentioned Fleetwood Mac – you do know what the song/album Tusk was named after, right?
RF: Mick Fleetwood‘s penis.
SVE: No waaaay! I didn’t know that!
RF: Yeah, it’s true. “Tusk” is another name for his penis, apparently.
SVE: I have to tell my band members that! [Immediately, Sharon starts talking about Mick Fleetwood’s penis]. [Laughs] That’s so awesome!
RF: That’s my one fun, random fact. That’s power, in a band. “Listen mates. We’re naming the next album Tusk … after my dong.”
SVE: Who named the album?
RF: I’m guessing he did. He’s Mick Fleetwood! He said, “This is the deal!”
SVE: Wow. Wow. That is so badass. He doesn’t care! [laughs]
‘Really close’ to becoming a sommelier
RF: I read in your bio that you trained as, or were, a sommelier. Is that correct?
SVE: I wanted to be one but I never became one because I didn’t want to be a snob. But I came really close.
RF: To being a wine snob?
SVE: I got really into it. I remember there was one day a friend brought Yellowtail over and I was like, “I can’t believe you brought Yellowtail!” That’s when I got really mad at myself. I don’t want to poo-poo somebody else’s wine choice.
RF: As a not-quite wine snob with an educated palette, what’s your poison?
SVE: It depends. I really like Spanish reds, particularly from Rioja. It’s very consistent, a safe bet. It’s really hard to get a red from Rioja and have it not be good. Very medium-bodied but you can pair with almost anything.
RF: How well does it pair with your music?
SVE: Ha! I would say it can go with the “old-soul Sharon” or the new Sharon. But, I dunno … I think my music is more of a bourbon music than a red wine music.
Bourbon v red wine
RF: Good answer! I love that. I wasn’t going to ask you, but now that you’re said bourbon, let’s open it up…
SVE: Let’s go there!
RF: One word that gets thrown around a lot with your music a lot, and I don’t know if it’s an influence or not – “country.” When I hear the word “country” I go “Blech!” The only country I listen to is old stuff, Johnny or Miss Loretty or maybe “alt-country” like Wilco or The Old 97’s…
SVE: I’ve heard of the Old 97’s and a few of their songs, but not a lot.
RF: You may want to check it out. I dig it. Do you listen to “country” music?
SVE: Like you, I like the older country. A lot of the newer stuff is super-cheesy to me. I feel like alt-country really goes into the Americana category. I used to live in Tennessee so I have an appreciation for bluegrass and stuff that I didn’t even think I would ever like. Of course, there’s the Grand Ole Opry – I got to see Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Emmylou… Amy Grant, even. Being “Christian” [referring to her “genre” of music] she has really, really beautiful music and she wasn’t too preachy in the beginning…
RF: In the beginning… ha. That’s how they getcha!
SVE: Well, she had an affair with Vince Gill before he got the divorce.[laughs]
Mainstream v alt country
RF: When you talk about mainstream country vs. alt-country, really the difference (for me) has to do with the instruments used – like what you were talking about with Americana – ones that are more faithful to a region, perhaps. Are you interested in, or used, some of those lesser-known American folk instruments?
SVE: The problem is, I want to get out of the singer-songwriter box I was put in because of my last record. I can see why people would call me country, because I lived in Tennessee and then a song like “Save Yourself” comes out and it has pedal steel on it. As far as using other instrumentation, that’s kind of perpetuating that “folk corner” that I keep getting pushed into. I hesitate to go there, even though I would like to play banjo and I would like to learn how to play pedal steel, even though it’s probably one of the hardest instruments to learn how to play… It’s just one of those things, like I’m just going to get pushed into a corner and get labelled all the clichee things I am trying to get away from.
RF: That’s so interesting, and maybe an unfortunate reality in the music industry. Your fear is that once you’re labeled, you can’t get out of a box?
SVE: Comparisons [to other artists] are a really hard thing to get away from: Female. Sings. Plays guitar.
I feel like sometimes it can give people the wrong impression, especially since I was more folk, maybe more mellow on the last record. I’ve had a few people come up to me on this tour and say, “This is not folk music!” I don’t know what to say. It’s a hard thing.
RF: What you’re speaking to, and what I think I am hearing from you, is a response to lazy journalism.
SVE: [Laughs] Totally!
RF: That sucks. I think you should feel free to explore and not feel labeled, “the next ___.” You should tell your record company that.