Progress Report: Sharon Van Etten
Name: Sharon Van Etten
Progress Report: NYC songsmith Sharon Van Etten talks about her soon-to-be-released third album, Tramp.
Not only was Sharon Van Etten’s last record — 2010’s Epic — one of that year’s loveliest surprises and critical faves, it also found the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter suddenly being covered by the likes of The National and Bon Iver. It also marked the beginning of a long tour for Van Etten and an even longer stint of homelessness, both of which would inform the emotionally thorny tunes on her new record. I had to chance to chat with Van Etten as she rehearsed with her new band in anticipation of playing some big shows opening for The National at NYC’s Beacon Theater.
STEREOGUM: Thanks for taking time out to do this. I’m very excited about your new record. I was such a fan of the last one. I guess a good place to start would be just to ask what has happened to you since the last record came out and how the new one was made? I know you had toured a lot on the back of Epic. How did that affect going into making a new record?
VAN ETTEN: Well the time with Epic was the most I’ve ever toured in my entire life. It was the most intense traveling I’ve ever done. Having just really settled down in New York before that, I realized I didn’t have both my band and an apartment — which is a pretty common problem for musicians in the city — so I decided to not have a place to live and just crash with friends and sublet when I really needed a place to myself or my own room or things like that and I just floated around for the last year or two, and wrote here and there. I wrote these scattered songs, kind of like all different sounding written different places over the course of a year and a half, two years and that became this new record.
STEREOGUM: That’s interesting. I know so many musicians who have that same experience trying to live in New York and be a musician. Did that cause some feeling of dislocation to creep into the music you were making?
VAN ETTEN: Yeah I think so and also I feel that every song feels different and has a different … I wanna say a “vibe” –- it kinda sounds funny to say that –- I feel like every song is individual and unique because they’re so scattered that they all don’t necessarily have the same energy to them. But because they were all recorded at the same time … they end up making sense together. I think they’re coherent as an album together. But it’s funny because they’re all over the place and they are a little scattered when you look at them individually.
STEREOGUM: People really loved the last record. Were you surprised by the way that record took off or the way it was received?
VAN ETTEN: Yeah, very much so. I was really proud of it but I didn’t know … I mean, that was not supposed to happen!
STEREOGUM: At what point do you start to feel like “Oh shit, this is really taking off now?”
VAN ETTEN: There are two points, I guess. One when I saw Justin Vernon and his brother covering one of my songs, which is really nuts to think of. Someone literally woke me up one day to show me a video of them covering my song. I was really tired and so it made even more surreal cause it was early in the morning and I was totally out of it. That was pretty intense to see people you really respect covering your song. That and playing, like headlining Bowery Ballroom and thinking about how I would go to shows there all the time and now I’m playing there. Still kinda blows my mind a little bit.
STEREOGUM: That’s very cool. Explain to me a little bit how this record was made. You recorded everything in a studio in Brooklyn, right?
VAN ETTEN: Yeah. Aaron Dessner from The National has a garage studio in his backyard that he built with some friends and between both of our touring schedules is when we decided to record over the last year, year and a half. But it’s just funny because all our time off was spent recording. And I was nervous about that because I thought his girlfriend would hate me or we would both be so exhausted that it would be torture, but he’s a workhorse. He doesn’t stop ever. And I … because I didn’t have a solid place to live, I felt like the studio was my one norm, the one constant. It’s turned into a really nice home for both of us.
STEREOGUM: How long did the process take?
VAN ETTEN: A little over a year I guess?
STEREOGUM: Wow. For some reason I thought you were gonna say it took a couple of weeks or something.
VAN ETTEN: Yeah, a year, scattered throughout, because we had started talking about doing something back when I was still recording Epic, because I saw them –- Aaron and Justin and Bryce cover that song “Love More” but that song was only a single before I recorded the album that it eventually got put on. And I had asked him if he wanted to play on the record ‘cause I saw him perform it, realizing he was a fan, and thinking maybe he wanted to play guitar or something. But he was really busy — as he usually is — but that’s when he offered if I ever wanted to demo some songs at his studio that I was more than welcome to when I was ready to do that. So only a few months later I wrote him to see if that was still an option ‘cause I had a lot of songs, and he said “Sure.” So that was the summertime over a year ago. Weird to think about that now.
STEREOGUM: Time is weird.
VAN ETTEN: Time is very weird.
STEREOGUM: Now that the record is done, how does it feel in comparison to your previous recordings?
VAN ETTEN: Like I said before, it’s a lot more diverse. There are more rock songs but there are also a lot of really sparse songs. They’re also more confident than the last record. I feel like the last year I’ve grown a lot and I feel more secure in writing and performing and I think most people just as they get older grow up a little bit hopefully. I feel that the record shows that.
STEREOGUM: I would assume also that playing so many shows and playing bigger shows must give you a shot in the arm in terms of how you feel about being a performer and songwriter.
VAN ETTEN: But I also want to push myself. I really wanted it to sound different. I don’t want to put out the same record every time. I was listening to a lot of John Cale at the time and I was fascinated by how every record he has sounds different and every song he has sounds different but always with the album as a whole they made sense together. I don’t think I sound like him or write like him or anything like that but that was a really important concept for me. Because I was a little nervous going in bringing in these scattered sounding songs and feeling like we had to make sense of them and I realized if we are recording over that amount of time together it’s gonna have that consistency of this space, so I should just embrace how different every song is gonna sound. It definitely ended up making sense together. But I guess there’s a hard rock song, I have a song I call my Sinead O’Connor song, I have a PJ Harvey song, just to generalize, but it is all over the place.
STEREOGUM: I know there were several other people who contributed to the record as well, like Juliana Barwick and Zach Condon –- were they just friends that happened to be around that you could have to come and play with you? How did those contributions happen?
VAN ETTEN: Most of the people were friends of mine that I had met through playing. Zack I used to work for when I was at my old pr job and the song that he ended up singing on was the song I thought of him just physically because we both suffer from social anxiety. The song is a song about a friend talking you through a panic attack. Also it was the first song I ever wrote on ukulele so that also, I just thought “Oh Zack might like this song.” And he actually liked it and wanted to contribute, so it was really nice. Juliana, we did shows together and we toured together and she has such an amazing range and she has such a beautiful, ethereal voice that it really made sense for the song that she ended up singing on. And then other people were Aaron’s friends, but he just … he’d be really funny where he’d listen to my demos and I’d have a mini-drum in the song and he’d say “Oh that kinda sounds like so and so on the drums” and I’d say “Yeah it is kinda like that, kinda like his style.” And he’d say “Oh you want me to call him and see if he wants to play drums on the record?” And I started laughing thinking he was messing with me. And I said, “Oh no, man, call him right now, it’s totally cool.” It was stuff like that would happen, or one of his friends would just walk in. You know, like, and they’d be like “What’re you working on?” then “That sounds cool, can I add a little something?” “OK, you keep it or not, no big deal.”
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. I’m always sort of jealous of that kind of interaction that musicians can have. That doesn’t happen to you when you’re a nerdy music journalist. It must be really gratifying to feel like you’re a part of this community of artists that can do things together. So was Aaron the de facto producer for the record or did you guys sort of do that together?
VAN ETTEN: I would see him as the producer because he pushed me more than I’ve ever been pushed. Not in an aggressive way but if it weren’t for him I don’t think the record would sound the way it does. I went in there with finished songs and ideas but I had no idea about production and how far I would take it. He helped me feel comfortable taking chances. And that was a different experience than I’m used to having in the studio. I’m learning how to let go a little bit more, and letting the album be its own thing instead of being nervous all the time of “How am I gonna do this live?” “Don’t overproduce too much, don’t add too many tracks because we only have three people to do this live!” But I’m learning that it’s nice to have it as an album and take it to where you want ‘cause you can reinterpret all that live stuff later. So he helped me see the light, in that sense.
STEREOGUM: I know that you are playing the Beacon Theater soon and have a big tour starting in February of next year. What will you be doing in the interim?
VAN ETTEN: Well, I have two new band members so we’ll be a four-piece. And we just started rehearsing together to learn how to play these songs together and how to interpret them best live. It’s been really fun. I have a new singer and we’ve been doing voice lesson and learning how to sing together. She’s a really amazing songwriter. Her name’s Heather Woods Broderick. She’s a multi-instrumentalist. She can play cello, guitar, bass, keys and flute, and my bass player is also a really good songwriter –- it’s nice to have songwriters in the band, it makes things a lot easier to communicate and they understand where you’re coming from more.
STEREOGUM: But that must make it fun for you too, to mix it up.
VAN ETTEN: I don’t wanna bore people.
STEREOGUM: So having lived in limbo for so long being a musician in New York, do you feel like you have a more stable place here now? Do you feel more rooted, like this is home?
VAN ETTEN: Yeah, I do … for the first time in a really long time. I think it was two years without having a place to live really. And October 1st I got my very first apartment by myself. I feel like I finally found a neighborhood for me. I felt like I was shopping around the whole time, trying to find the right place. I’m finally starting to feel at home again.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited about playing the Beacon Theater? Have you played there before?
VAN ETTEN: No, no, never. We are really excited. I think my whole family’s gonna come. But it’ll be the first time we’ll be playing as a four-piece with this lineup so we’re all really nervous, but also excited to be playing in such a beautiful theater. I’m gonna take lots of pictures.
Tramp is out February 7th on Jagjaguwar.