Sharon Van Etten Matters of the Heart
You expect every fibre of Sharon Van Etten’s being to be riddled with struggle. The visible exposition of her inner turmoil through her last two records, particularly her latest full- length, the wonderful Are We There, left us pondering the disposition of arguably one of the finest songwriting talents to emerge in recent times.
Etten’s majestic voice and evocative lyrical verse give her an unpretentious literary quality, and the musicians she’s been able to work with have lent a huge sense of craftsmanship to proceedings, not least Aaron Dessner from The National, who produced her stunning 2012 album Tramp. Yet a sense of unbridled longing remains.
It was somewhat surprising, then, that our conversation with Etten absolutely radiates positivity. There is clearly an innate understanding within Etten about how to project songs that offer catharsis, with the track Serpents and the utterly heartbreaking Your Love Is Killing Me being two personal favourites, but it’s refreshing to see so much buoyancy in her character. To see the catharsis working.
The quality of Are We There meant a number of songs never made the final cut. Her latest EP, I Don’t Want To Let You Down, is a continuation of the recordings from the last record and fits loosely into the bracket of relationship turmoil, but better than that, it once again showcases the wealth of songs the native New Jersey songwriter has at her disposal.
But it’s the flourishing relationship with her partner-in-crime Heather Woods Broderick and their dual harmonies which have elevated her live performances to a new plain. Our conversation precedes a sold-out gig at Bristol’s Trinity Centre, and devotion is etched on the eyes of audience members relating to the sentiments laid down so nakedly in her work. Luckily, our conversation is a little lighter.
What was the thinking behind releasing an EP shortly after Are We There?
We’d recorded so many songs for the album and I didn’t want to overwhelm people by having too long a record. Also some of the songs we recorded didn’t fit vibe-wise so we decided to throw them in the set to see if we wanted to re-record these songs, or if we liked how they were. The audiences just seemed to really like them and even requested them at some shows even though they weren’t even released.
After seeing you and Heather Woods Broderick perform together, it seemed you have a good understanding of how to project your songs live.
Heather is one of the most amazing singers I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never really been able to sing with anyone before. I met Heather through Aaron Dessner when we were working on Tramp together and he just kept planting seeds – “Have you heard Heather Woods Broderick? Her record blew my mind.” Heather told me she was coming to New York to visit sometime and we exchanged information and by that time I was getting a band together to tour Tramp, so I sent her the record and we hung out. She can hear harmonies well, she can play any kind of keys and she’s classically trained in piano. She’s like my other sister.
Does Brooklyn continue to inspire you or contribute to your music in any way?
I actually don’t live in Brooklyn anymore. I live in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. I’ve only lived there a little over a year now, but Brooklyn actually started getting so expensive and Manhattan prices are going down, so I thought I would do the uncool thing and move away from it all. When I moved to New York 10 years ago, Williamsburg was just starting to really blow up and there was an amazing community there, but since then everybody has started to spread out because when things get too popular or populated or expensive it defeats the point of it being an artist-led community. There’s still so much happening though – it’s New York. Civilisations rise and fall and rise again.
So many of your songs seem to be about the dynamic of connection, are relationship integral to your songwriting?
Most of the time when I write, it’s because I’m trying to get through something or understand something. I write a stream of consciousness whenever I’m going through a really hard time and of course it’s usually affairs of the heart, whether that be my partner or a friend or my past. I have a really hard time communicating with people so I keep my emotions inside, and they have to come out somehow.
Does baring your soul every time you go on stage like that prove difficult?
Depending on the day, it can be really emotional and it’s sometimes difficult, but other times it’s cathartic and it feels like a release. The band I’m playing with right now transcend those moments. It’s not re-living them, it’s getting past them. Being able to translate them live the way we have feels so good. There are days when I over-think it and listen to the lyrics and go into this wormhole and even while I’m singing it can get to me, but it’s felt so great recently that I’m strong. It’s not like I’m giving up my address or naming names though. The only personal thing is that these are real emotions that happened to me. They’re not even really stories. It’s not like you could read it and be like ‘that was the time she got a burger and threw it at Ben’ or whatever. I’m just not afraid to show that vulnerability without naming names.
Now you’ve had time to reflect on the impact of the last record, how do you feel about it?
I’m proud of that record and I’m even more proud of where we’ve come since that record, as a band and friends and me personally. I have a lot of hindsight and I’m a stronger person, friend, daughter and partner. We created something really beautiful and we’re ending this record cycle super positive, like blowing out Shepherds Bush Empire – in fact, all the shows have been awesome. I’m proud of what we accomplished together.
"I have a really hard time communicating with people, so I keep my emotions inside. And they have to come out somehow"
What was it like kicking around with Nick Cave when you supported him?
I feel so lucky. I couldn’t afford to bring my whole band as support so I only brought Zeke Hutchins, who was my drummer when I toured Tramp, and they took such good care of us. They let us put our gear on their bus and they helped us unload our gear every day, and their merch person sold our merch and their monitor guy did our sound. They are complete gentleman. Some people expected us to say that they fucked shit up and they were assholes, but they were true gentleman. It was an honour. They are still intimidating as hell, but really sweet guys. As I arrived at the venue in Houston for the first time to start the tour, someone came up to me, walked me on the stage and took me up to Nick Cave who was in a suit – as he is all the time. He came up to me kissed me on the cheek and said, “thank you for joining us.”
What’s next for you?
I’m trying to set up my new home studio so I can work on some new music. I might go back to school full-time so I can be challenged and read and learn things, write and be on a schedule and have a routine. I have to catch up on life so that I have something to write about.
I Don’t Want To Let You Down is released 9 June via Jagjaguwar