Blindsided By Love: Sharon Van Etten Interviewed

After escaping an abusive relationship and earning a slew of high-profile supporters for her bare-all songwriting, Sharon Van Etten endured two years of homelessness while making her new album, Tramp. She speaks to Cian Traynor about toughening up and learning to camouflage heartache

It started with ornate CD-R packages assembled from wrapping paper, black gaffer tape and brown paper bags, accompanied with a handwritten note inviting the listener to stay in touch. These were Sharon Van Etten’s 2008 home recordings, the result of MySpace users demanding a way of buying her efforts as a confessional songwriter with an acoustic guitar. The wrought vulnerability and crackling tape-hiss created a captivating intimacy but, at the time, listeners would have been oblivious to the back story: Jersey girl moves to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to study sound recording, then drops out and hooks up with a controlling musician who dismisses her attempts at songwriting. The next five years suck Van Etten into an unhealthy cycle: the relationship becomes turbulent, she disconnects from her family and only plays music in secret. Eventually she leaves in the middle of the night, returning to her parents in Clinton, New Jersey, where she documents the experience and gives her music a chance to breathe.

In time, Van Etten considered pursuing music full-time in New York but feared being overwhelmed. "Do it – you’re young now," a therapist urged her. "Don’t have any regrets. If it doesn’t work out, you can always move somewhere else." And she was right. As soon as Van Etten moved to Brooklyn, connections sprouted effortlessly, support slots turned into friendships and the momentum accelerated.

When I interviewed her in 2009, Van Etten seemed like a starlet in the making: that searing voice, disarming openness and a presence that had dozens of eyes along Hackney’s Broadway Market trailing behind her. She had just released Because I Was In Love, which built on the strengths of her demos, and the next year Epic saw Van Etten assembling a band to craft a bolder, more muscular sound. Epic‘s ‘Love More’, later covered by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner, became a pivotal moment that drew a wider audience and led to Dessner producing her latest album, Tramp.

Buoyed by a strong supporting cast (members of The National, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, Beirut and Julianna Barwick), its intricate production provides the perfect platform for Van Etten’s ruminations on taking chances, quelling panic attacks and exorcising demons from the past. Sitting in an Italian restaurant in central London, hair tied back and hands wrapped around a glass of wine, Van Etten talks the Quietus through her quickening ascent and growth as a songwriter.

When we spoke in 2009, your career seemed like a series of lucky breaks and serendipitous encounters – and it’s kept going that way. You’ve built up this amazing network of connections with so many musicians: Kyp Malone, Espers, The Antlers, The National, Beirut, The Walkmen, Bon Iver…

Sharon Van Etten: I know, I know. [giggles] It’s a trip. I can’t even explain it to you. I don’t know how it’s happened. I don’t know how long my music will last or how long people will like it but I’ll just keep doing it as long as they listen.

But aside from the music, there’s obviously some quality of your personality that people warm to. They tend to take you under their wing. I remember Eric from Great Lake Swimmers saying you were like a little sister to him on tour.

SVE: I feel like I have a lot of older brothers in the world, looking out for me. Do you know the radio station WFMU? There’s this DJ there, Jeffrey Davison, who has a show called ‘Shrunken Planet’. He was one of the first people to play my music on the radio. We became friends and he invites me over to his house to have dinner with him and his wife, and he plays me records he feels will inspire me. Right before I left for tour – and this is a man in his fifties – he said, "I don’t know what it is about you, but everyone just wants to take care of you." I’ve no idea what it is either but it’s nice to know I have them looking out for me.

But what’s it like when you’ve already been admiring those people from afar?

SVE: Even though in some ways it feels really validating to have support from people whose records I owned, it honestly feels like more of a family or a community. Music isn’t about what level you’re at. Status is something you put on somebody else. So meeting people like Aaron and Justin, they’re the most genuine, grounded, giving people I’ve ever met – they just want to help anyone that touches their life at all. That’s how they treat everyone they know… Agh, I’m gonna get all choked up about it!

You’ve taken to the art of keeping your songwriting more general. Originally, your ex in Murfreesboro would criticise you for putting too much of yourself in the songs. Do you think, in a roundabout way, you’ve arrived at the same conclusion?

SVE: Yeah, but also I feel like I wouldn’t have any of these songs if I hadn’t had him. [laughs] In some ways I wouldn’t be as confident of that idea if we hadn’t talked about it all the time. But I think being personal is important too, because it’s real and it’s honest and it’s conversational. The emotion you put into it, from your own experience, is usually what draws people in initially. Even when the story’s not mine, it feels like it is when I sing about it. It’s learning how to draw that line a little bit, but still putting yourself in there. I feel like if I write from too personal a place, people are going to have a hard time connecting with it. I want to learn to do it on a more universal level.

But that was the beauty of your early stuff: the intimacy. The music was on a much smaller scale, but the listener was right there beside you feeling this burning, raw emotion.

SVE: That was bleak! I mean I’m really proud of that stuff but I listen to it now and it’s just so bleak. I love it but I was very broken. I think in general I learn more about myself as I look back on things. Sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective: where I am now versus where I was then. Sometimes I think a song means one thing and then it develops over the years; sometimes it stays the same.

When someone’s going out with you, should they accept that they could end up in a song?

SVE: Well, it’s funny because I’ve been on and off with the same person for about seven years. Since last July we’ve been really great. And he knows… He knows some songs, like ‘Give Out’, are about him. He was the first person I dated when I moved to New York; well ,before that, actually. He was the first person to ever listen to me play. I remember he was a bartender at one of my first shows. It was a room full of people talking and he was the only one listening. So he knows exactly what that one’s about. We decided I just wouldn’t tell him about the other songs that are about him.

Whenever I’m staying in someone else’s place, I can never fully relax. What’s it like trying to write an album when you’re crashing on sofas?

SVE: Awkward! When I really felt like I was invading someone’s space or putting someone out – that’s when I would sublet instead of couch-surf; when I actually just needed my own space. At some point I had like 10 pairs of keys in my bag. I would try to rotate among friends and not stay for more than a few days at a time, but there comes a point when you know it’s time to go. You just have to be aware. I was worried it would make the album sound a little schizophrenic, only because I was writing and recording in so many different places and mindsets. But I think in a way it ended up being a strength of the record because it’s so versatile. It changes a lot.

How did the process compare to Epic?

SVE: It was more of a challenge. Epic was done in two or three weeks but it was non-stop, blocked-off time. Then I had a month off and started touring. But Tramp was over the course of a year – two years if you include the writing of it – while touring constantly. All my off-time was spent recording. I was singing every day, even when I was sick, when I was losing my voice, when I was homeless, when I was tired – all those things you can usually recover from if you schedule things properly. [laughs] Aaron saw the best of me and the worst of me. I’d bring songs to him and we’d flesh them out together and bounce ideas off each other. Opening myself up to somebody else’s opinions and working off someone else’s ideas was very new.

John Cale’s Fear: apart from the cover, what is it about that album that spoke to you?

SVE: With John Cale in general, every record he does sounds different – yet when you hear his voice, there’s no question who it is. I don’t think I sound like him and I don’t think this record sounds like him, but he inspired me to take chances production-wise and to always let your voice be the main thing. I’m not a strong guitar player and although my lyrics are confessional and autobiographical, I don’t think they’re my strength either. I think it’s my vocals. And for him too, I think. It’s what identifies him: his delivery and how raw he keeps it. It’s pretty much there all the time. I wanted to keep that. No matter what was around me, I wanted the vocal to stand on its own. But Fear was in constant rotation the last few years when I was working on [Tramp], both writing and recording. He has a full band sound but you can still hear every instrument separately. He’s able to shift from being really delicate and vulnerable to an in-your-face rock song, letting himself go from end to end like that.

Here’s something I wanted to show you [takes out Sharon’s Home Recordings CD-R]

SVE: Oh my gosh! I can’t believe that.

What do you think when you see this now? What does it remind you of?

SVE: It reminds me of my basement. I miss this so much. This was probably when I was still with my parents. Oh my gosh! This was when I was in Bushwick. When is this from?

It would have been around May 2008.

SVE: Woah. How do you still have this?

Well, I wasn’t going to throw it away.

SVE: That’s amazing. I still remember cutting this out – the paper bags! [laughs] The type-written lyrics. Wow. Thank you for still caring. I really appreciate it.

I remember writing to you back then and you said you were learning how to leave the house and hold your head up. Since you didn’t have any encouragement in Murfreesboro, what kept you going?

SVE: I didn’t write so much in Tennessee. I would secretly do it. but it was more when I left and moved back with my parents. As soon as I left Tennessee, everything started happening. My family, my friends and everyone I met after that encouraged me, and that’s what kept me going: people telling me it helped them.

When fans share stories and impressions of your music, what kind of thing resonates?

SVE: Just people that let themselves be emotional, connecting with something, whether it’s letting yourself be sad or happy, or just to feel anything at all. That’s why I write. People come up to me sometimes so overcome with emotion that they can’t even say anything. That means the most.

Didn’t you do that with Julie Andrews?

SVE: Oh my god! I was at the dentist’s office, checking out and making another appointment, when I notice there’s this woman in there talking to a secretary. I just whispered to her afterwards, "Was that Julie Andrews?" and she said yes. I got so emotional because I grew up listening to her. She has such a beautiful voice and on top of all that, knowing she’s had problems… I don’t even know what came over me! I normally don’t talk to people but I went up to her and said, "I just have to say I love you. You’re amazing. I’m sure you hear this all the time." She thanked me and when I told her I was a singer too, she said: "Oh really? Where do you perform?" I just got super emotional, told her, "I’m playing Bowery Ballroom!" and started bawling. I apologised and left; I was so overwhelmed.

Given the trajectory you’ve been on, is there still somewhere you’re aiming for? Somewhere you’d rather be?

SVE: I don’t know. I just want to keep playing and writing. Obviously I’d like to connect with as many people as possible; I want to grow with my band and figure out how to write better.

So if it stays exactly like it is at the moment, would you be content?

SVE: [smiling] I’d be content. Things are good.

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