Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten's work just keeps getting better and better. On Are We There, her followup to the rapturously reviewed 2012 album Tramp, she digs deeper than ever before, broadening her creative scope and her musical palette in ways that are simultaneously moving and enthralling.
In advance of her June 24 gig at the Bluebird Theater, Van Etten chatted with us about music as well as words, frequently infusing even the most serious topics with a sense of humor about herself and the world around her. Continue to get her takes on the importance of self-confidence, the heaviest song she's ever written, the ghost of John Lennon, what she means by calling herself a "one-hit wonder" and more.
Michael Roberts:What is the first instrument you gravitated toward?
Sharon Van Etten: When I was a kid, we moved into this house when I was probably like six years old -- an old Victorian house that I think my dad worked on. It came with a grand piano that was probably awfully out of tune. And my mom has this really funny story. When we first moved into the house, she couldn't find me. And I was lost and crying under the piano.
As I grew up, I ended up playing it and singing along. I just sang everywhere I went. I gravitated toward the piano. And those were the first lessons I ended up taking, too, when I was a little kid.
I understand that you played more than one instrument when you were a kid. What in addition to piano?
I was so lucky. I went to this elementary school in Nutley [New Jersey] that gave you free lessons in a public school. I took Suzuki violin. My mom laughs, because I'm just kind of a hobby girl. I like trying stuff out and then moving on. So I know how to do everything a little bit, but I'm not good at anything. [Laughs] So I took Suzuki violin and I took clarinet as well, and then gravitated toward choir as I got older.
A lot of kids chafe at taking lessons. Did you actually enjoy taking them?
It was so much fun. I was a pretty shy kid. It didn't really talk much, but I love music, and it was something I got from my parents. I loved listening to music and singing along on road trips. My dad's a vinyl collector, so I was pretty lucky in that way. I was never really good at communicating my emotions, and it was something at a young age I didn't really recognize. But it felt so good to play. I didn't know why, but it's because I wasn't a very talkative person. So that's how I let it out.
Did you have instructors who let you freely express yourself? Because a lot of people complain about teachers who only let them play the etudes in the music books.
When I first started, it was very much, "This is how you play." And I think it's good to learn the rules, so you know how to break them -- which I do all the time. But it wasn't until high school that I had a teacher -- his name was Mr. Lockhart, and he was the head of the choir program I was in, the madrigal singers. It was all accapella, all pretty old classical songs. But I remember I had to audition, and it was either show choir or madrigals. And show choir was like the musicals -- dancey show-tune kinds of things....
Not quite like Glee. You weren't going to be singing any Journey covers....
No, no, no! Pretty old school. But I remember I had to choose between being in the show-tunes choir or the madrigals, and Mr. Lockhart finally heard my voice solo -- not with other people. And he said to me, "You don't have a voice that blends. You have your own voice." Even with singing classical music, he saw that early on. He said, "You kind of sing your own songs." He was also my theory teacher. I took a music-theory class when I was in high school, just to learn about notes; I still don't really know keys very well. I'd break all the rules when I wrote pieces, and he just kind of laughed at me about it and said, "You just have your own voice. I like that you're learning all this, but you're going to be doing your own thing some day."
Here's the video for "Taking Chances," from the album "Are We There."
That's a really important thing for someone to say to you at that stage. Looking back on that, do you think it was exactly the right thing for someone to say to you right then?
Yeah. At the time, I remember kind of being bummed, because when you're in high school, you're finding yourself, but you also want to be a part of something. And for him to tell me that when I didn't really know how to write music yet, it was a mixed bag. But he was right. And he also didn't hold my hand. He's a dad, so he just kind of let me do what I was doing. He wrote me a letter of recommendation for the college I moved to Tennessee for, and he just said, "Do your own thing. You're a great singer, but you have your own voice." And I appreciated that. My mom's a high school teacher, and he still checks in on me. It's really sweet.
When you went to Tennessee to major in music, did you think about it in terms of being the kind of performer you are now? Or did you have a different idea?
At the time, I thought I was going to be an engineer or something. Any good parent is not going to tell their kid, "Yeah, go do music! Go be a songwriter! Go do that!" My parents have been really supportive of anything I wanted to do, but they also wanted me to have a backup plan, because they're smart people. So I originally went to school to be an engineer, and I went for a year and didn't get past the general studies. And I ended up getting a job at a venue and learned how to promote shows.
At least the backup plan was in the same category as what you actually wanted to do. Most people's backup is something like being a teacher or an accountant.
It's funny. As a kid, I was like, "How am I going to do music? Because I know what it's like." But that's what I gravitated toward. I'm an artsy kid. I'm a weirdo. I'm left. I was like the black sheep. I like to learn how to do stuff from every angle. At this point in my life, I've been a promoter, I've been a tour manager, I've been a manager, I've been a publicist. And still somehow I'm doing music, and I have no idea how I got here to be quite honest.
Continue for more of our interview with Sharon Van Etten, including additional photos and videos. You've talked about how during this period you were in a relationship that really undermined your confidence as a performer, and confidence is one of those qualities that I think is really underrated for a creative person. You need to have a strong sense of your abilities to be able to put yourself out there. How did you build that? And was it something you were able to do independently? Or did you need help from people around you to help build that confidence?
I think just as a person and growing up, it's hard to find yourself. And I'm still becoming myself. I think that's just what growing up is, as I'm learning. You stop caring what people think, and as long as you can be honest and true to yourself, you won't have any regrets in life.
So that being said, just as a person and not a performer talking to you right now, it's the people I've centered my life around, and who have always been around, have made me the person that I am. My family is amazing. I'm one of five kids, and my parents raised five kids and they still love me. I don't know why! I put them through hell, you know? And they're the most beautiful people in the world. I'm the product of two really good people.
That being said, the same goes for all of my friends. Through my weird phases, through shitty boyfriends, my friends have always had my back. And if you surround yourself with good people who let you be who you are, you're going to be all right. And I bring that to my music. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I'm always myself. Even through the hardships life brings people, I think if you have a good group of people around you, you're going to be good by default.
So for you, it was a combination of having the incredible support system you just described and coming to a place where you were able to say to yourself, "I'm not going to let the naysayers stop me"?
Definitely. When you're living life to its fullest, you're going to deal with a lot of grief. And you just have to move on. You have to grow. If you live in the past, if you let negative people effect you, then they win. I play the "glad" game. When bad things happen, I think there's still a brighter side.
When you write a great song, is that a confidence builder, too? Even if it's a sad song, can it make you feel positive and upbeat about what you're doing?
It's my outlet, it's my catharsis. I've never been good at communicating my emotions. I always just write to feel better, and even when it's a heavy song, performing it makes me feel I'm exorcising those demons. Then I can compartmentalize it and put it away -- call it an album and then I can move on. And it feels really healing to perform them, too.
For me, one of the things that's so memorable about your music in general, and it's definitely a big part of the new album, is the sweep. It feels that you as a listener get swept up in the song. "You Know Me Well" has a swell to it, almost like a slowly gathering wave that draws the listener toward you. Is that something you do consciously? Is it something you can do technically? Or is the process as mysterious to you as it is to the listener?
By nature, I like things to happen organically. I like things to feel a natural build. And I'm also open to other people's ideas. When I wrote "You Know Me Well," I just remember that, just for fun, I was trying out the organ in our practice space. It's nice to actually be home and have it set up and just play to play. It's such a rarity when you're traveling a lot. I play the organ, I came up with the melody and I heard this beat -- and I just tracked it on my little handheld recorder and sent it to the band and asked what they thought. And they helped it grow.
It was a collaboration with the band, and I wanted it to be a band-centric record. I'd been touring with the band for the past two years and I felt like they really understood me. They got my language, they heard me writing the songs, they got my process. So it was an open collaboration with the band. I wanted everyone to hear the band. I didn't want to bury it sonically. I wanted everyone to hear that this is the organ, this is the drums, this is my voice, this is Heather [Woods Broderick]'s voice, this is the bass coming in.
Here's a live version of "You Know Me Well," from the album "Are We There:"
When you were at the nascent stage of "You Know Me Well," could you hear what it would sound like when the band would play it, because you've worked together for a couple of years? Or was it a surprise what it sounded like after everyone got their hands on it?
The only thing I knew was that it would be great, but I had no idea what it was going to sound like, and that's the fun part of figuring it out together.
Was the version we hear very different from the first version?
No. It just grew. The core of it was still organ, drums and vocals. But what the band brought to the record I couldn't have done myself.
Continue for more of our interview with Sharon Van Etten, including additional photos and videos. Another song on the record that swept me up was "You Love Is Killing Me." But once I got sucked into this incredibly emotional music, I started hearing lyrics about broken legs and burnt skin and cut tongues -- and it was kind of too late to get out at that point.
Here's a live version of "Your Love is Killing Me," from the album "Are We There:"
Do you like doing that to people with your music? Drawing them in and then going, "Surprise"?
I don't think it's any surprise that I write heavy stuff to anyone who's listened to my music. I will acknowledge that this is probably the heaviest record I've ever written. I am obsessed with melody. That's the one thing as I writer that I feel I've gotten better at, and I like that they're not simple. That song is so driven. It had to be like that. It's like one of those sings where, "This is what it is, and I'm just going to go with that." But it's the heaviest song I've ever written.
I wrote the drum part, which my drummer, Zeke [Hutchins], made better. I was performing it solo before I recorded it. I toured as a drummer when I was doing it, when I toured with Nick Cave. So we did it together as a duo, and that song was originally just guitar and drums and vocal. But it wanted to be bigger and I knew that. I could just feel it. Even after listening to it, I have to press stop and take a big sigh, because that's a heavy one to sing, a heavy one to play and a heavy song to listen to. I know that.
For me, it was heavy in a really good way....
I understand that some of the instruments on the new album were played by John Lennon and Patti Smith. Is that right?
The piano I did my ballads on, like "I Love You But I'm Lost," Stewart Lerman, who worked on the record with me, we worked out of his personal studio in Jersey for most of the record. I'd say 99 percent of the record was tracked there. But for the piano ballads, we needed to find a piano that was a grand piano, so we could isolate the sound and mix it properly. I'm one of those players where I have to play and sing at the same time or it's not going to sound natural.
Here's a live version of "I Love You But I'm Lost," from the album "Are We There:"
Stewart has worked in studios all over New York since the '70s, and his catalog is all across the board, all different genres. He's not a genre-specific producer, which is amazing and what I wanted. And he got me into Electric Lady studios to play the piano that was played on [the Patti Smith album] Horses. And I don't think Patti played it, but she probably leaned on it! But it was used on the album, and there's definitely an energy in that room. All the art, it was Jimi Hendrix's artwork around the space. There's definitely some ghosts there, for sure, and it was really emotional to play. Especially like four people in the control room and I'm playing live. That's all live.
But Stewart had made some calls about finding me a piano like that, and way toward the end of that process, a friend called him back and said, "Hey man, do you still need a piano?" Because he had a space below our studio in Jersey that's usually a live stage, where people like the Rolling Stones will set up to practice, but also have a full light show, so it's like a sound stage where they perform. They were housing a lot of the instruments from the Record Plant, and they asked if they still wanted to borrow it -- and it was the piano that was played on John Lennon's Imagine. So you'll hear that on some of the songs. We were like, "Now we have John Lennon's piano! We have to use it!"
It's not an easy feat to get a grand piano up a flight of stairs. But when you hear it, it's the lowest piano, really dark but clear. We added that to "You Know Me Well" and a couple of other songs. It's a really soulful piano and I added it to almost every song I could. And I love that the special instruments were pianos, because I haven't played for so long.
Continue for more of our interview with Sharon Van Etten, including an additional photo and video. You talked about ghosts in the room. Some people think objects have a memory, in a sense -- that they absorb the energy from people who use or touch them. Do you feel that way? Or is it more the idea that these people had contact with the instruments?
The main thing I can say about that is, I didn't even have to play the piano before I got teary. There is an energy, for sure. Just like when I walk around New York. I know the history and I know who's been here. New York can be overwhelming, but I love New York because of its history. I'm a sentimental person and I take everything personally. I feel everything. I'm a very emotional person, very in touch with my heart. That doesn't go over my head.
I know our time is short, but I wanted to ask you about a line from the song "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" that goes "People say I'm a one-hit wonder." I can't imagine anyone ever saying that to you....
Here's the video for "Every Time the Sun Comes Up," from the album "Are We There:"
Has anyone ever said you're a one-hit wonder?
No, and it's funny. I was making a joke about smoking pot. [Laughs]
Oh, that kind of hit.
Yeah. I'm a real lightweight. I can't really smoke very much, because sometimes I get weird. But I also like jokes and double entendres. The whole album is kind of about career versus relationships. But the record is also about how people responded to the last one [Tramp], because of who I worked with on it -- being produced by the guy from The National [Aaron Dessner].
I had to prove it to myself that I could do it, and it wasn't because of the stars attached to the record. I think this one's better, and I think it's more myself. So when I say "one-hit wonder," it's not just about me being a terrible stoner. It's about this one's going to be better -- and what are you going to do about it? [Laughs] But no one's ever told me that.
In terms of you being a terrible stoner, it all depends on how you look at it. If you're a lightweight, everything would go that much further, which is really economical. So maybe you're the best stoner ever.
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[Laughs] I know, right! I won't take up anybody else's stuff.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.