Sharon Van Etten, Folk-Rock Storm And Ecstasy

We talk to the Brooklyn singer-songwriter about her creative process, the blessings of the Jagjaguwar label, and anxiety attacks

Sharon Van Etten has been on the scene for little over three years, but with her track record of intimate and cathartic songs, we can honestly say she's a veteran. Latest proof of that is her third album, “Tramp”, featuring a host of New York indie stars. We spoke to the New Jersey girl.

Born in New Jersey, Sharon Van Etten started to write music when she lived in Tennessee. However, she didn't get very far, thanks to a possessive, control-freak boyfriend who felt she was wasting her time writing those dark and intimate songs. After some time, she decided to leave the man and go home, where she reconnected with old friends, among whom was Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio, who apparently encouraged her to pursue her dreams and dedicate herself entirely to her music.

While, listening to her songs, a very personal brand of folk-rock compared by many to the sound of Cat Power, one might think the girl has been writing tormented lyrics all her life, her career actually didn't take off until just three years ago. On her first two albums, “Because I Was In Love” and “Epic”, Sharon Van Etten sounded more minimalistic, but now, with her third full-length, “Tramp”, she has emerged as the new poetess of indie. It's fair to say that this is mainly due to the record boasting twelve pieces of emotional catharsis, but we must not omit the fact that she made a wise move by surrounding herself with some highly qualified musician friends. Aaron Dessner is the co-producer, and there are some collaborations with the likes of Julianna Barwick, Zach Condon, Jenn Wasner ( Wye Oak), and Matt Barrick ( The Walkmen). We called her up to find out how she goes about writing songs, how she deals with her anxiety attacks, and her relationship with Jagjaguwar.

Why did you choose to have the recording process of this album scattered across more than a year?

It was just kind of circumstantial. Aaron and I were both touring a lot, so we were recording in our off-time. We just left it open until we had the songs that we wanted to work on. So when we were done we were done.

"When I get nervous I just allow myself to get nervous instead of trying to fight against it"

What were the ups and downs of this?

One of the good things was that we could work on songs and then we could move away from them, we didn’t have to live with them for too long. I would play them on tour, listen to them and take notes. Then we exchanged emails back and forth listing what we were going to do next. So then when we got back in the studio, we had a list of things we wanted to do and accomplish. So it was good to be able to step away from it, but one of the bad parts was kinda the same thing. After a week of making great progress on a song, all of a sudden we had to stop, and then there would be like three weeks or something before we could meet again. To stop and go was kind of frustrating. It’s two sides to the coin.

There’s a big jump from recording with just one person on your debut album to having a bunch of people in “Tramp”. Do you feel more comfortable working with more people around you?

I think it’s good to start with less people so you can establish first a connection with that other person. Having too many people is distracting, so it’s nice to have the same goals and be on the same page with someone else with how you want the things to sound. Using a metaphor, it’s like starting a family. You bring too many people and there’s a lot of vagueness. You have often the feeling that you are being watched. I work in a small space, so it’s perfect for two people and then you have other people coming and going.

Were you nervous to ask for all these collaborations although they were your friends?

Yeah, totally. I admire all of their work, we all have different styles of writing and singing, so I was nervous to bring my songs to them, but also excited to see what they would think of, because there were things I couldn’t think of.

How did you share responsibilities with Zach Condon in order to write and record “We Are Fine”?

It’s funny because that was the only song I wasn’t there for. I wrote this song about having panic attacks and I asked Zach because he is a friend of mine and also has social anxiety. The only time that he could come and record when he wasn’t on tour or recording was when I was out of town! [ Laughs] So that was the only instant that someone came in to contribute to a song when I wasn’t in the studio, but in the end I feel like it’s the best.

How do you face the social anxiety you have in order to get on stage in front of dozens or hundreds of people?

Before I used to just drink a lot and try to deal with it, but that just made things worst. I just decided to embrace it and listen to myself. When I get nervous I just allow myself to get nervous instead of trying to fight against it. I haven’t had an anxiety attack for a while but I usually feel when they are coming, so that’s why I do breathing exercises. I get really nervous on stage and I confront it by telling jokes, closing my eyes, just focusing on the band. It’s usually people and crowds that make me very nervous.

You last played in Barcelona in a big open venue in daylight. Now your Spanish tour is in little venues. What differences will the audience find?

I’m looking forward to playing in these venues more. When you play outside it’s kind of impersonal and it’s too crowded sometimes. In a venue you can connect with people more, the sound is always better. I’m a rock club band, you know? It’s more fun and nostalgic.

"Every time I sing I go back to that moment where I wrote the song"

Your writing process is very personal. How does it work?

I usually just hit record and use a stream of consciousness method. When I do something really emotional I just hit record and play it for as long as I can. I’m not very good at talking things out right away, so I usually have to sing about them, understand them and even then it takes a very long time. I listen to the recording and I try to listen to what it is I’m trying to say. Then I edit it down with that in mind and try to understand it at a very basic level, even if it is just for me.

How did you manage to let all these emotions flow on the record?

Every time I sing I go back to that moment where I wrote the song. In the studio it can be a little sterile. I was really emotional at the time because I was so exhausted, so I feel it was beneficial to sing those songs in that frame of mind. I was really trying to do the best that I could.

Did you feel liberated after writing the songs of this album?

Oh, yes, definitely. When I finished the record and I put all the songs together, in general, I felt liberated.

What other things, aside from people, inspire you to write songs?

Everything from everyday experiences to movies or other music. My family and my friends, my boyfriend… I mean there are so many things that inspire me that I probably don’t even know about. Everything really.

Do you see the cover art of “Tramp” as a reflection of the album’s content?

The cover art is directly related to the John Cale record because I was listening to him a lot at the time. I don’t think it sounds like him at all, but I really admire how unique and beautiful every album he releases is. I just wanted something really direct and bold while also relaying something biographical to someone.

The songs here seem to be less complex than “Epic”; they are shorter, straight to the point and have more of a pop format. Do you think working with Aaron Dessner had something to do with it?

I think definitely as far as communication and production, sure. As far as song structure, the songs were already written before I went to the studio - all but one, “Magic Chords”, which was finished in the studio. I gave him like 20 songs and those were the ones that he chose in the end. It wouldn’t feel the same if it were only guitar and vocals, he brought a lot of parts of the songs out that I hadn’t thought of before. So he had a lot to do with it, yeah.

"I’m a singer and my voice is the best and strongest instrument on the record"

There are several songs here that have a The National vibe, but your voice is always upfront. How did you manage that?

From the very beginning, before we even started recording, there were two things that we talked about. I remember one was that we didn’t want to create a The National record. We didn’t want to sound too National. I didn’t mean it negatively. You know, I like The National, but I’m not The National. And Aaron is also developing his career as a producer, so he doesn’t want to be known for that. So, yeah, we made it clear we didn’t want to make a The National record, although there are moments that you can hear a little bit of that in there. Number two is that I’m a singer and my voice is the best and strongest instrument on the record. It’s the centre of all the songs, so we never wanted to lose that.

The media has agreed almost unanimously that this is your more defining album to date. What do you think about this?

I just try to keep growing and learning and trying new things. I think it’s not the record I feel proudest of. I don’t want to say it’s my best record, but I think it represents best where I am now and I think I’ve grown a lot. And I hope I grow more! [ Laughs]

Yeah, there’s a natural progression in your three albums, what do you think the future will bring you?

I want to improve on collaborating with people. Not only in the recording process, but also hopefully next time in the writing process, before I go to the studio. That will help me to grow as a writer and help my sound develop by letting other people in the creative process of the writing.

Since you signed for Jagjaguwar what have you felt? How is it different from other labels?

Jagjaguwar is amazing. They are friends. In general I try to work only with people that I want to hang out with, call, who I would ask for advice and know they had my best interest in heart. I can say that about everybody that I work with and they have just been an extension of that. They have helped me in a lot of ways. They are really good people and allow the artists to be whatever they want. They let the artist grow, they don’t tell them what to do, they don’t try to edit your work. They are not the bad record company, they are friends, people that are very passionate about music.

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