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Artist Profile: Sharon Van Etten

The Confessionalist

By

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten

Kristianna Smith
Born: 1981, Nutley, New Jersey
Key Albums: Because I Was in Love (2009), Epic (2010), Tramp (2012)

Sharon Van Etten is a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, New York. She sings slow, sad, incredibly-frank confessionals about life in a destructive relationship. Her doleful, slurring voice is comparable to Cat Power, and, like Chan Marshall, Van Etten favors double-tracked vocals, rich in harmony.

Background

Van Etten grew up in a musical household, exposed to Kinks and Beatles records at an early age. She learnt clarinet and piano as a child, performed in school musicals and choir groups throughout her youth, and began teaching herself to play guitar and write songs as a teenager. "I felt better after every time that I sang, but I didn't exactly know why," she said, of her first bouts of songwriting.

Van Etten left New Jersey, in 1999, to attend Middle Tennessee State, where she hoped to study to be a live sound engineer. Dropping out after a year due to being "not a good student," Van Etten managed an all-ages, vegetarian café/printing-studio/record-store space in Murfreesboro. Yet, Van Etten didn't perform herself.

"I tried to pursue music, but the guy I was seeing wasn't at all supportive," Van Etten would explain. /;So, I just had to keep it secret, and write and play in my room. Then, whenever he would go out of town, I'd go play an open-mic... and just explode. Like: 'I've been holding this in for so long! He's finally gone!' I worried that it was too much for people."

After years caught in the destructive relationship, Van Etten eventually returned to her family home, in 2004, and sought to put her life back together. Using music as therapy, Van Etten wrote a host of confessional songs about being held prisoner in a destructive relationship, and, with her family's support, began playing live.

Van Etten also began making home-recorded, self-released CDRs of her songs, and passed one on to TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, whose brother Van Etten had been friends with in high school. "He said, 'You need to move to New York,'" Van Etten recounted, to AV Club. "He helped book my first couple of shows, he introduced me to venues in New York-he really gave me my start in Brooklyn. I feel really lucky."

Another fortuitous home-made CD ended up with Philadelphia acid-folk outfit Espers. It proved fortuitous: vocalist Meg Baird would take Van Etten on tour with her, and guitarist/producer Greg Weeks would eventually roll tape on Van Etten's debut album.

Beginnings

In 2009, Van Etten released Because I Was in Love; produced by Weeks and released on his Language of Stone imprint. The album kept Van Etten's songs stark and spooky, with the songwriter's double-tracked harmonizing on every line, and teasing out every syllable.

That year, Van Etten also sang on The Antlers' breakout record Hospice, which was universally lauded as one of the albums of 2009.

By 2010, Van Etten's music was attracting notable listeners: both Bon Iver and The National covering Van Etten songs live. A Take Away Show performance, an opening-act slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and a support stint for José González's band Junip all increased Van Etten's profile.

This lead to the release of Van Etten's second LP, Epic. The album found Van Etten shaking off any nervousness and delivering a commanding set punctuated by the stark naked "Love More," a tale of being kept prisoner in a relationship set only to a wheezing harmonium.

Breakout

Following the release of Epic, Van Etten found herself playing gradually larger shows; opening for The Antlers, The National, and Neko Case, and collaborating on stage with Megafaun and Bon Iver. On Bon Iver's recommendation, she signed to Jagjaguwar, and delivered 2012's Tramp.

Produced by Aaron Dessner of The National —and featuring members of The National, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, and Julianna Barwick— tramp was a grander, more ambitious, more rockin' set; with electric guitars and orchestral swells backing Van Etten's sad songs.

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