In Conversation: Sharon Van Etten

Discussing the remarkable ‘Are We There’…

We quite liked Sharon Van Etten’s new album, ‘Are We There’. Here’s a 9/10-rated review. Indeed, we liked it so much, we called the New Jersey artist up to have a little natter about it. And some other stuff, too. Like The Boss, obviously.

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‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’

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We’re quite the fans of ‘Are We There’. Have you felt an upward momentum, off the back of the album’s release and reception?

I think that, this time, I’m more aware of what’s happening, that things are growing. Myself, I’m a lot more confident than I was a year or so ago. I feel like I’m able to be more engaged with audiences now – and my audiences have become more rowdy, which is unusual in a way, because of the music I do. I’m still figuring it out, y’know.

On the last record I was touring as a four-piece, but this time there’s five of us. We’re still very dynamic and engage with the audience, but I don’t know whether I’m projecting anything differently to before. There’s definitely something happening, and maybe I do get a kick out of it, I can’t tell. I am having more fun this time around, that’s for sure.

Lyrically, the album is pretty open – much like its predecessors. I’m wondering how the catharsis process works for you. Once you’ve boxed these emotions up, is that it? When you play them live, is it like reading from lines? Or do they stay close to you?

Well, I find myself in some pretty dark places, and I write just to feel better. I don’t share everything with people, through my songs. Some stuff is way too personal. When I do decide to share something, when I set about properly working on it, it’s because there’s some universal idea to it. But when I perform them live, all of the songs are still personal to me. They’re all a part of me.

You know, I think of songs like old pictures that you might have had taken with an old friend. You might not see that friend for a long time, but you see the picture and you’re right back in that moment. It might be five, maybe 10 years later, but you might see the photo and get a little bit of a pain. But for the most part you don’t – although you definitely remember. So I feel the emotions in the songs, even if they’re years old. They meant something to me then, and they do now, which is a good thing.

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I don’t want to be really negative all of the time, and even though there’s pain in these songs, there’s a lot of love there, too…

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Love songs tend to fall into two distinct categories: they’re for love, or against it, embracing the pleasure or the agony. Yet you seem to exist between these points. I hesitate to call it a grey area, but you manage to articulate real pain while presenting a sense of optimism with it.

Well, I don’t want to be really negative all of the time, and even though there’s pain in these songs, there’s a lot of love there, too. People ask me if I think about my listeners when I write my songs, and I’m like, ‘Well, I do share things that I hope people can relate to.’ But I’m always thinking, when sharing the songs, about the person that the song is actually about. Because, that’ll be someone who I love, and these songs are about real people, and real experiences that we shared.

The songs come from a true place, and they’re painful. I don’t want to blame anyone, just as much as I don’t want to be angry. But it is easy to go there, when you’re in that place. Anger is one thing that you have to rein in – not in a centred kind of way, but in terms of having the right awareness. You don’t want the song to be angry. It can be sad, but it’s not anyone’s fault.

You say that there are things you don’t share. Presumably those are the beginnings of songs touching on themes too personal to you, which miss that sort of universality.

Yeah. If I’m having a really hard time getting where I need to on a song, and I feel that it’s going to alienate the listener, then why would I share that? I want to connect with people. Personal stories can be shared – but if I’m just feeling bad, inside, that’s not going to help anybody. I am still learning how to be personal but be direct, and to sing from my heart about these experiences while appreciating that it should be articulated in a way that people can relate to.

You self-produced the new album. What was that like, not having that objective presence there, as a sounding board for the process?

I went into the studio with every song written, apart from one, ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’, which I did write in the studio. But we used Stewart Lerman’s studio, and he advised me from the top. He asked me what I wanted to achieve. I had the songs, I had the band, I had the time and I had this studio space where I felt comfortable and could be myself. I didn’t feel it was too fancy. I laid it all out there to him, and he said: ‘I’m not going to be there with you all the time in the studio, but I want to help you.’ He wanted to make sure that I got what I wanted out of the studio.

So, he took me into his personal studio, in New Jersey, and helped me when I was on the other side of the glass – he’d remind me of all the things I’d told him that I wanted. Because I was really close to my band, he was the outside person, and kept us on that path we’d set out on at the beginning. Without Stewart there, I think I would have banged my head against the wall more. He cut to the chase a lot. Having those conversations, I realised what each song wanted to be, what the cores were.

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‘Taking Chances’

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So if you were recording in New Jersey, how far was that from where you grew up?

It was really nice recording back in New Jersey. The commute to the studio was no more than 40 minutes. I’d take the train to the bus station – and I guess from there, to my parents’ house, it would have only been another 20 minutes. It was a great studio, a great place to work.

We’ve just had the American Dream issue here at Clash, where we covered ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ (here!). Growing up in New Jersey, is Bruce Springsteen basically a saint to you?

He is really amazing. He wrote all these anthemic songs. I used to play ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ on vinyl – my sister found me in the basement, putting on my dad’s record, to listen to that song. It reminds me of being a kid. But Bruce is such a hard worker. Even if you’re not a fan, there’s no reason to not have respect for him.

In terms of the period between albums – ‘Tramp’ came out in 2012 – what do you think you learned? From just doing your own thing, and from touring with someone like Nick Cave?

I’ve learned a lot along the way – and you hope that you do. I’ve made four records now, and I’ve definitely learned to surround myself with people who support me, and to never feel that I have to compromise who I am because of the people around me. You might meet people who you think you’re supposed to be friends with, but they’re not meant to be within your circle.

Through the many phases of my music, I’m trying these things – I never want to just do the same thing. And as far as what I learned on the Nick Cave tour, I definitely felt supported by those guys.

I was with someone at the time of those Nick Cave dates (in 2013), and he was upset with me taking them, because I’d promised I’d be off. Instead of him being supportive of me, because it was something that I really wanted to do, and meant a lot to me, he got really upset. He’d make me cry before every show of that tour. And Nick came up to me and asked, ‘What the hell is going on here? What is happening?’ I told him, and I asked him about him and his wife. I asked if they had fights, because he toured so much. ‘Oh, we fight,’ he told me, ‘but never about work.’

That meant a lot to me. Warren (Ellis) was really sweet, too. He’s buds with my friend, Shilpa Ray, who was also on that tour – we were both backing singers. He took us under his wing, like we were his daughters. The whole band looked after us, and gave us lots of advice. I feel really lucky that I had that opportunity, and I’m glad I did it. We’re all equals, really.

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I’ve learned to surround myself with people who support me, and to never feel that I have to compromise who I am…

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Taking your music to the larger, festival-sized stages, has that been an easy process? It seems to me that these are quite impersonal spaces, where maybe your music mightn’t wholly connect?

One of the last festivals we played was Primavera (review), and that was really fun. But I still think that the music I play, it’s a hard sell at a festival – it’s hard to connect with people. At a festival, for me, it’s about partying, and drinking, and dancing. I lucked out with my Primavera audience, as they were great. But I know it won’t be like that every time. I definitely struggle with outdoor events. I don’t offer a straight-up rock show.

Speaking of festivals, you’re at Way Out West in Sweden in August. You’re playing the same day as OutKast, which is amazing. But I know how these things work. You’re probably going to have to leave before they’re even on, right?

Oh man, if I can stay there, I will. I’m not sure where I’m at the next day. That’d be a bummer. But you only get a small amount of time when touring, when playing these things – you see the world through a van window.

Have you been to Sweden before?

I haven’t been, actually. I’m looking forward to it – apart from the fact that I hear it’s really expensive. But my mum’s mother, my grandmother, was Swedish, so there is some family history there. I’ll have to ask my mum if there’s any old Swedish money she’s holding on to.

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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Dusdin Condren

‘Are We There’ is out now on Jagjaguwar, and reviewed here. It’s one of Clash’s top seven albums of 2014 so far, too – read that piece here

Sharon Van Etten online. She plays Way Out West, held in Gothenburg, on August 7th-9th. Details here

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