Sharon Van Etten is a New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based artist who breathes fresh life into the sad-singer-songwriter archetype. On her two albums, 2009's Because I Was in Love and 2010's Epic, Van Etten sings broken love-songs in a heart-breaking voice that strings words out into strange and wonderful new songs.
Interview: 31 August 2010
When did you first start making music?
"Around my junior year of high school, I started learning how to play guitar, and writing stupid love-songs. I was really into Weezer, Pavement, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Ani DiFranco, but also The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, and Joni Mitchell. It was all-over-the-place; that stage where you're still figuring it all out."
Did writing songs come easily to you?
"Well, I felt better after every time that I sang, but I didn't exactly know why. I didn't think I was good —I knew I wasn't a good writer— I just liked doing it. When I moved away to Tennessee to go to college, I tried to pursue music, but the guy I was seeing wasn't at all supportive. 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 I'd always get positive feedback."
Did making music as this secret hobby influence the tenor of the songs?
"I think so. At the beginning, it was really such confessional writing, and performing was such an intensely cathartic experience. I had these really sad songs about being closed off to people, and then I'd go play them 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."
What was keeping you in that relationship?
"It was my first love. You can be so blinded by it, and have this fantasy that love isn't easy, and that you'll do anything for this person. Years later, I worked out that he actually didn't really love me; but it took years of neglect and abuse for me to realize that. It was a very slow-motion, downward-spiral of a relationship. It eventually came to a point where he either cleaned up his act, or I was going to leave, and he said he wasn't going to change for me. So, I moved back home to Jersey, and tried to pick up the pieces. I wanted to become myself again; I forgot who I was for a long time."
How much did music help that process of self-rediscovery?
"Hugely. It was probably the most helpful thing. It was like therapy to me. At first I thought I was a little crazy, but the more I wrote and was able to look at my thoughts —these stream-of-consciousness lyrics— the more it seemed like I was giving myself advice without even knowing it. Sometimes it takes me a year to look at lyrics that I wrote and realize exactly what I was talking about."
Have you ever felt guarded regarding what you sing about?
"Yeah, these days I'm a little more guarded. I feel like it can alienate people if you're not careful. I want it to be confessional and I want it to be personal, but I'm still trying to work out how far is too personal. It's been helpful to me, but I really want it to be helpful to other people, too. Part of me worries that people just want me to sing about something else. I get nervous, thinking: 'who am I to stand up here and demand that people listen to me?' Like, everyone has a journal; what makes me so special that I get to air mine in public? I get guarded only in those moments, when I'm insecure, and I feel like I'm not good enough to have people look at me for 30, 40 minutes without getting bored."
Are you more insecure in those moments where you're playing big festivals, or opening for bigger bands?
"It's difficult. Because the reason I play music is to have that intimate connection with people. And, then, when you play an outdoor festival where people are instantly disappointed the moment you walk on stage —like, they want to see a rockband, not a girl with a guitar— it can feel like you're just playing to static. It can make you doubt yourself. I have to learn how to not care as much."
Does that go against how you are as human being?
"I've never been the most confident person in the world, so it's a challenge just to go on stage, let alone go up there by myself. And then I have to sing these confessional love-songs, yet still come across as confident? I don't think you can change who you are at your core, but you can take a look at yourself, and be confident in that. I have to say 'hey, I'm a musician, this is what I do, some people like it, some people don't.' I have friends who send me negative reviews, because they think I need to toughen up more."
What did you want Because I Was in Love, as your first statement unto the world, to say?
"It was basically just a collection of the songs that I started writing in Tennessee, and continued writing through the process of me leaving, and getting my life back together. I was playing music just to make myself feel better, and, then, family and friends encouraged me to play [live], because they thought it could help other people, too. And, then, I didn't start to make CDs until people started asking me for my songs. I never thought of my music as being for people other than me. Existing outside of my room."
What about when you started recording with Greg Weeks?
"When that happened, I never knew what it was going to become. I let him work on [my songs], and he made [the album] into something more beautiful than I could've hoped. That helped me learn to let go of my demo recordings, and not hold on to the way a song initially sounded the first time I wrote it. If you want to take a demo into a studio and turn it into a lushed-out song, you've gotta be able to relax and enjoy it. I wasn't scared, with Epic, to lose the minimalism of [Because I Was in Love], because I wanted to try something different. Instead of the tension coming from the sparseness, I wanted there to be melodic tension. And, I wanted people can to finally be able to rock out to my songs, rather than just wanting to cry."
Is the title, Epic, a joke?
"Yeah, my stupid joke is this: the reason I write it with a lower-case e on the cover is that, for me, yeah, it's epic, considering where I was coming from before. But, compared to the rest of the world, my little record isn't really that epic."