US - New York - Full Moon 199 - 11/28/12
Sharon Van Etten
An interview with...
Like summer camp - an interview with Sharon Van Etten
"She is the music you have
always wanted to hear but could never find" - okay, that's just
something someone wrote
on a YouTube channel about Sharon Van Etten, but there's no denying that
2012 has been a great year for the beautiful American singer/songwriter.
In February she released
her third album, the Aaron-Dessner-produced Tramp via Jagjaguwar,
and since then, she has seen critics rave about the record, had fellow
musicians like J. Mascis
and even Lou Reed fall in love with her (music), has shared the stage
with many musical legends at this summer's "Big Star Third" events in
London and Barcelona, had
Bon Iver cover one of her songs, and by now even her grueling touring
schedule seems to pay off: recently, Sharon and her fantastic band -
Doug Keith on guitar and bass,
Zeke Hutchins on the drums and Heather Woods Broderick on just every
instrument you can possibly imagine - finished off a US tour at the
venerable Town Hall in New York
City and when she returns to Europe in December, she'll play the similar
sized Shepherd's Bush Empire in London.
So in just a few short years, the 31-year old went from being a shy,
insecure young lady, writing sad and fragile indie-folk songs in her
parents' New Jersey basement
to distance herself from a somewhat destructive relationship with her
ex-boyfriend (which resulted in her 2009 debut Because In Was In
Love), to being a celebrated
presence on the indie rock scene, who's breathy voice matches her
wonderfully plaintive songs perfectly. Yet, as she explained to us when
we met up with her this summer
in Cologne, Germany, her success is the result of hard work, rather than
Luna Kafé: Are you surprised that your third album
is making a much bigger impact than the previous two, Because I Was
In Love (200) and Epic
(2010)? In other words: Do you really consider it to be that much
Sharon: "I think I'm just growing as a writer. I've been touring
for five years now and I feel that with every record my audience is
growing and there are a lot
of things going into that. I toured my first record on a small scale.
Like, I played in Köln four or five years ago, with the Great Lake
Swimmers. That was a small
tour, well, it was a big deal that I got to open up for them, but I
didn't do much touring back then. For the second record, my audience
built up more - and I could see
that. It's more of a grass roots thing, as far as the live shows are
concerned. Also, I had distribution and I had a publicist, which I
didn't have before. Now for the
third record, that's more band orientated, I think it's more appealing
for the listener to have a band, but also I toured like crazy and my new
label has more reach. I
have representation over here, which I didn't have before outside of
distribution. People also know the name of the label more and they have
some clout, you know, because
people respect them and they know who they are - but it's still not
Luna Kafé: But are you okay with that or are there
times when you come to a small-ish place like tonight's venue and think:
"After all these years
I would have hoped for something bigger?"
Sharon: "Oh, not at all! I think touring is the most important
thing an artist can do and I don't ever want to become known for no
reason, because someone is playing
out my record or someone is recording on my record. I have a lot of dues
to pay! This is only my second time in Köln, so I don't expect to
have a huge crowd (laughs).
I think it's important for it to grow and I think in order for it to do
that naturally, touring constantly and meeting people and doing
interviews is important."
Luna Kafé: With all the touring already behind you
and still ahead of you this year: How do you make touring fun, or at
Sharon: "It's all about the people I get to travel with. Playing
the songs live is fun, but tiring sometimes, but my band is really fun
to be around and most of
the audiences that we play in front of are really sweet and they respond
to it. You realize that half of the time for a show to be really good,
it's not just how you
play, it's how the audience reacts to you. You never know sometimes, but
we all have fun together. It's like summer camp!"
Luna Kafé: What would you say makes you the happiest
as a musician right now?
Sharon: "Well... just getting to play with my band, these guys
are really great! I've never been able to play with other people before
and I'm looking forward to
getting home and writing with them. It probably won't happen before next
year, but we are already talking about writing a record together, which
I've never done before.
Usually I have an idea and I flesh it out myself and then other people
learn the song. So I'm excited to have an idea and then bring it to them
and we can work on it
together. Growing with each other is going to be really exciting."
Luna Kafé: You obviously put a lot of yourself into
your songs. Do you ever think while writing your lyrics, that you'll
have to sing them for a year,
kind of reliving them on a nightly basis?
Sharon: "When I write a song, I don't think about what it's gonna
be for. When I first sit down and write it's just for me to get through
something. I never plan
on it being a song for other people. I just start it for me as a
therapeutic thing and most of the time those songs don't see the light
of day. It's usually when I feel
that, even though it may be a personal song, if there's a positive
message in there somewhere that I want to share it with people, because
I think it'll help other people.
When I try to turn it into a proper song for other people to hear, it's
not selfish anymore, otherwise I think it is (laughs)! I play and
perform with the mind that hopefully
people feel you. And if you don't put yourself into it, then people are
not going to feel that, you know. When I play, I try to go back to those
moments when I wrote the
song, and what I was going through and hopefully people can feel that
Luna Kafé: So it's all about feeling then?
Luna Kafé: There was something that Robin Gibb once
said, and it was that he didn't consider himself to be singer who sings
with his voice, but one
who sings with his heart. Could you subscribe to that idea?
Sharon: "Yeah, like when you sing with feeling! But there are
people who are head, who think about things too much and some who are
heart, and I'm more of an emotional
person, I'd say, than an analytical thinker. I go by feeling a lot of
the times and I think that's how I sing as well!"
Luna Kafé: You say melody usually comes first,
however, it seems that with every new record you're getting more into
the arrangement and production
side of things. Is that just your way of moving on, or do you feel that
you can let go some of the responsibility, after you had everything
under your own control on the
first or even first couple of albums?
Sharon: "I think it's both of those things. The more I'm
comfortable in my own skin, comfortable with my writing, comfortable
with the people that I'm playing with,
the more I'm able to let go and collaborate with other people. When I
first started writing songs and recording, I was scared to work with
other people, because I didn't
know how to do it yet. The more I do this, the more I'm comfortable with
who I surround myself with and trust the people I'm working with, that
they understand where I'm
coming from. But I also don't want to put out the same record twice, so
I always try new things. I don't want to build up a song just for the
sake of building it up, but
I also don't want to write another solo record on guitar, like I did
with the first album. I hope it never seems to anyone that I'm just
trying to do something for the
sake of doing something different. I think I'm growing with my band and
I trust the people that I work with to help me flesh out the songs
Luna Kafé: You took quite a while to put your latest
album together, yet you managed to deliver a very coherent record. Was
it a lot of work to get
to that point?
Sharon: "I think what helped to give the songs an umbrella was
recording in the same space, in the same studio the whole time. Even
though the songs were many different
emotions and from many different time periods, I think it really helped
that there was a constant: It was constantly me and Aaron in the studio.
We had some songs we didn't
put on the record, because they didn't really made sense and as we
progressed in the recording process, we realized that some of the first
songs we started recording didn't
really made sense as a whole with the rest. I think we recorded 16 or 17
songs and only 11 made the record. After you've recorded half of the
album you realize that some
of the earlier songs don't make sense and you try to turn it more into a
story. It kind of takes a life of its own."
Luna Kafé: There are lots of stories floating around
about how you basically lived at Aaron's studio while you were making
the record, so I guess
the fact that you've found a real home recently is a big deal?
Sharon: (laughs) "Oh, it definitely was a big deal...
cliché also! I toured so much over the course of two years that I
couldn't afford a proper home, so
I crashed with friends, I crashed with my family and when I felt I was
putting other people out too much, I would sublet an apartment, like,
just a room or something from
somebody... New York rent is sooo expensive. I wasn't living out of my
car like Jewel, but all my clothes were in my car and all my belongings
were in a storage facility.
After I finished the latest record, I awarded myself by getting an
apartment in October 2011, although I haven't really been there so much
Luna Kafé: I'm sure not having a home affected the
writing and recording of Tramp (the title being an obvious
reference to her "homelessness").
Do you think having a real home again will have an impact on future
Sharon: "I think it will give me more perspective. I live alone,
which means I can write a lot more often and more freely, so I think
I'll have a lot more to work
with when I get to the studio, but I'm also not really playing guitar at
home right now. I'm writing more on synthesizers, so I think that will
change everything. I'm
writing piano songs and electronic stuff."
Luna Kafé: Is that more by default, because you have
those instruments at your home or is that again a way of challenging
yourself to try something
Sharon: "I'm just trying new things. I could easily play guitar
at my apartment, but I've decided to separate my work more and because
of that I got a practice
space for my band now, so if I want to be loud, I can go over there, but
if I'm home I want it to be quiet and a real "home". I don't want to
work too much there, if I
can help it. And if I do, it should be something quiet, so that I don't
bother my neighbors. Keys was my first instrument anyway, so I'm going
back to that a little
Luna Kafé: Do you need a specific atmosphere, a
special frame of mind, to write?
Sharon: "I usually... I like to pick up an instrument just to
have it be a good practice to pick up and try, but I don't like forcing
it, because then I feel you
force yourself into having a writing formula. For me it's really like: I
hear a melody in my head and then I HAVE to write. It usually comes out
of the blue. Sometimes
I'm screwing around on an instrument and I hear a chord progression that
sounds interesting and then I hear a melody in there. Then I just work
on the melody. It takes
me a little bit of time though, if I just sit down and force myself to
write. I'm not naturally that kind of a writer. It's fun to try
sometimes but if I feel I'm forcing
it, I just stop, because I don't feel that's how I work well!"
Luna Kafé: Generally, has writing songs become
easier for you, with the experience of three albums behind you?
Sharon: "I think I'm more aware of what I'm doing - but I don't
have it figured out yet (laughs)! I'm more aware of who my songs reach
and why and where I need
to improve, but in the end it all comes from a place that I don't
understand yet. The melodies just come, but I don't know why and how to
control them and I don't know
how to manipulate them. I'm just trying to interpret them in my mind,
but I can't explain them!"
Luna Kafé: What do you feel you need to improve?
Sharon: "My lyrics! Eventually, I'd like to be able to tell more
of a story, than be confessional. I don't always want my songs to be
about what I'm going through
or what my friends are going through. I'd like to be more of a
storyteller and separate myself a little more from it, but that's not my
strength. I need to work on that!"
Luna Kafé: That also might prove to be risky, as the
directness and truthfulness might be exactly what people love about your
Sharon: "I think you can have both! You can write about something
really personal and be able to tell a story as opposed to just tell
someone how you feel. In a
way it would be more universal to people and more people could relate to
it, if it was a story that's a not obviously about me."
Copyright © 2012 Carsten Wohlfeld
Photos copyright © Dusdin Condren / Elisabeth Vitale