To Know Somebody In And Out: The Honesty, Pain, And Searching Of Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There
It takes about ten minutes from the moment I meet Sharon Van Etten for her to make her first confession: “Sorry, I’m pretty hungover today.” She says it with a sort of bashful glance downwards — as if it’s uncommon for a musician to show up for an interview in such a state. Then she smirks, and quickly fills both our glasses with water out of the carafe in front of us. This, small moment as it is, sets the tone for the next few hours. Van Etten is incredibly unguarded, quick to divulge stories both heartwarming and heartbreaking, quick to mix self-effacement and jokes, and while she may not outline each bloody detail, she rarely shies away from elaborating on something that hurt her in the past and later became a song. Which, I suppose, is exactly what you’d expect from the woman who has made albums as introspective and intimate as her forthcoming Are We There or the three records that preceded it. And, actually, the smallness from which our conversation emanates winds up being the tell-tale sign of so much of Van Etten’s story. Are We There is easily her heaviest, most overwhelming album in terms of emotional fallout and orchestration, but its genesis lies in all the little scenes and moments we pick up as we go along, living through major periods in our lives without yet realizing it.
Having come up in the prime era of “Brooklyn indie” becoming a stereotype, Van Etten has actually recently relocated to the West Village — to a street that lingers in my memory as “that one with all the sex shops and shitty bars” amidst the general quaintness of the neighborhood. Today, though, we’re sitting in a French cafe in Prospect Heights, around the corner from a rehearsal space Van Etten has maintained as of late while she and her new band begin preparations for their upcoming tour. Even as her excitement to get to that next step is palpable, Van Etten has no trouble digging back a decade and tracing the points that make up the story of Are We There. She comes off as the sort of person who feels a lot of things from a lot of different times, who can easily pull up far-flung memories and reckon with them in the present moment. This is, after all, how she writes: always stream-of-consciousness, always personal narratives. When she has enough songs that make sense together, they become an album.
Everything stems from the photo that became the cover for Are We There. It’s a slightly convoluted tale of two crucial moments in two (or three, depending on how you look at it) relationships that traces the whole arc of Van Etten’s career and, pretty much, her adult life. In a single cover and album title, you can get the summation of everything she’s carried up to this point to allow herself to become the artist she is today, and all the stuff she continues to carry that makes her question where she’s headed.
Let’s start with the moment in the photo itself. That’s a shot Van Etten took from the passenger seat, of her friend Rebecca leaning out the window and screaming into the onrushing wind. You can’t really see that she’s screaming in the photo itself — for all we know, she’s leaning her head out the window, eyes closed, meditating on the feeling of the wind in her hair, in revery. But even with that specific knowledge, it’s an image open to a lot of interpretation. Is she screaming out of frustration? Or catharsis? Or joy or fear? As it turns out, the image became resonant for Van Etten as a symbol of a very tumultuous and complicated transitional time in her life, a time warranting perhaps all of those emotions.
After high school, Van Etten moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee with the intent to go to school to work in the recording industry. She made it a year before dropping out to focus on her own music. Van Etten spent another several years in Murfreesboro, much of that time in a relationship that that grew toxic. Around the same time she made the decision to move back to New York and pursue her music career, her friend Rebecca was making a very different choice to move to Indiana and settle down. The photo was taken in the thick of that moment, right as their lives were about to split off into very different directions. Shortly after that, Rebecca was married with kids and Van Etten — after a brief spell of living at home in New Jersey, working at a wine shop, and taking photography classes at a local college — had relocated to Bushwick and was focusing on songwriting. “The record talks about that a lot,” Van Etten says. “It parallels my choices of career vs. relationships and family, and often comparing having chosen music to having an affair.”
Shortly after that fateful move to New York, Van Etten was playing to a disinterested crowd at the now defunct Sin-é in the East Village when she noticed a bartender paying close attention to the set. This is the guy who Van Etten would wind up in an on-and-off relationship with for ten years — the guy Tramp’s “Give Out” is about, the guy who, actually, a whole lot of her songs are about in some form or another. They started seeing each other during the early stages of Van Etten’s career in the city. She gave him a gift, the first print she was proud of: the photo she’d taken of Rebecca.
Fast forward to last summer, during the tentative first stages of the most recent “on” phase, and the same guy was in the process of clearing out part of his apartment for Van Etten to move in (a period that’s chronicled in the Are We There standout “Break Me”). “He pulls out this pile from underneath the bed, and it was everything I’d ever given him. Early demos, mix CDs, postcards,” Van Etten says, visibly choking up at the memory of it. “I had no idea he cared that much.” Amongst the items was the old photograph of Rebecca, which Van Etten hadn’t seen for almost a decade. She was moved he had kept it, but also remarks upon how the layer of dust upon it seemed to say something about the state of her relationship. “It all started coming together,” she recalls. “I said, ‘This is the cover of the record. This is where we are.’ And I just start asking myself a lot of questions.” It wasn’t long after that when Van Etten realized her relationship and her career were irreconcilable at the moment.
“I like open ended things, so that people can find their own meaning a bit and think about it,” she reflects, commenting on how the various histories behind her new album have informed its overall themes. Even knowing the various origins of Are We There, that ambiguity can remain. At its core, the album’s full of the big questions we all ask ourselves, about balancing lives and dreams, past and present. For Van Etten, it comes at a very particular moment in her career: the record immediately following her breakthrough and/or most acclaimed release to date. She’s achieved her goals as a musician, and she doesn’t know what comes next. “Are We There is obviously a play on the phrase ‘Are we there yet?'” she says of the title. Though that wordplay combined with the road trip photo on the cover could be seen as Van Etten’s jocular side, you could also imagine that question eating away at her at this moment in her life. Looking back on the decade that birthed it, one of the major questions of Are We There beyond “What next?” could be: “At what cost?”
Accordingly, the density and gravity of Are We There feels inextricable both from the experience of a long-term relationship dissolving and the various open-ended questions still lingering. Musically, it flits between two kinds of songs. Some of them take little elements of old-school R&B — “Taking Chances” and “Our Love” are both more groove-centric than much of her past work, where “Tarifa” (which originally sounded like a melodic extension of Tramp when performed acoustic at last year’s Pickathon) has the emotive swell of a ragged old soul song. Those songs are the salves for the purge that occurs throughout the darker, heavier songs. “You Know Me Well,” “Your Love Is Killing Me,” and “Break Me” are some of Van Etten’s most layered songs instrumentally, and they feel like monumental attacks on her own anguish — far from the sort of staid, singer-songwriter confessionals she first became known for. Van Etten pours the sort of intensity into these songs that makes you stop and swear that, upon your twentieth listen or so, you’re still hearing this stuff for the first time, unfiltered and raw. If you happen to be in any sort of weird transitional moment in life yourself, it’s a gut-punch of a listen.
But while the title and central concern of of Are We There revolves around questioning a lot of things — her relationships vs. her career, her future, etc. — there are plenty of declarative statements across the record. “Are we there?” is answered with “Well, I don’t know, but we’re here at this moment, whatever that’ll mean.” Things aren’t totally figured out, but there’s at least a resolution to move forward. And, fittingly, Van Etten’s whole approach to this one was an assertive one. She knew she had to leave her boyfriend and focus on the work, to prove she could follow up a breakthrough she felt she hadn’t entirely gotten credit for. While she’s emphatic about her gratitude towards Aaron Dessner for how he helped her with Tramp, she describes feelings of defeat and frustration, ironically, in the wake of her biggest success to date. She traces these anxieties back to how every headline and article fixated on Dessner’s involvement and the host of guest musicians, a sort of mini indie-rock who’s who, that populated the thing. Are We There had to be something else, the first she would produce totally by herself. “It’s just my own thing,” she allows. “I just want to prove to myself that people still connect with these songs the way I did.”
Maybe that will be enough to let her walk away someday soon. While Van Etten claims she’ll always write music for herself, she questions whether she’ll continue to do so in a professional capacity. “I’m at this point in my life where I’m like ‘Why am I doing this? Why does anybody want to hear this?'” she says. “I’m really considering taking a break from music and going back to school.” She talks of becoming psychiatrist, of a desire to help people in a more direct fashion than you might as a musician. Inevitably, it comes back down to her family and her relationships. Van Etten is relieved she won’t be missing her sister’s wedding, but also notes how you can miss someone’s entire pregnancy over the course of a tour. She remarks about how she doesn’t even feel like a resident of New York. So much changes in the gaps of time she spends away; she misses things closing and only sees the new places that replace them. In the midst of listing it all down, she stumbles, rapid-fire, into the core of it: “I’ve lost the love of my life because of this.” There’s plenty proof of that — it’s the story that spreads out all over Are We There. After long maintaining a life in which her career and relationships simultaneously feed and prey on one another, Van Etten’s desire to cut it off sometime in the perhaps-not-distant future seems understandable. “I’m really just wondering why I’m making music anymore,” she says. “I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, but what does it matter? I want to help people in a real way.”
There’s a paradox in the emotional experience of Van Etten’s music. Sure, it’s as raw and human and honest as ever, and on one hand that makes you think, well, this is about human connection and other sort of elemental but not quite definable parts of our being that tie us together even when we keep hurting one another. But, also, it’s music that emphasizes the distance between our personal experiences — the fact that there’s so much lovelorn material in Van Etten’s catalogue is directly rooted in the impossibility of aligning her life as a musician with the life she tried to have with her ex-boyfriend. And, despite the universal concerns of it, it can be music that’s hard to find your way into. It’s naked enough to let you relate to its hurt, but it’s also the kind of music that can make you pause and think: how can one person feel this much? Do I feel this much? And, if I don’t, is there something wrong with me? A cursory experience of Van Etten’s music would leave you with the sense that she’s laying it all out there — that this is exactly what it’s like to peer into another person’s heart and soul. But she says it herself in a new song, entitled “I Love You But I’m Lost”: “To know somebody in and out/ After a while, it’s a real challenge.” The more time you spend with Van Etten’s music, all it may do is underline the inherent unknowableness of other people, the various twists of our nature that make us ultimately indecipherable to one another.
When Van Etten had first arrived today, she arrived frenetically: running late, working on little sleep, still feeling that hangover and hiding her eyes behind large sunglasses that seem to cover half her face. But there was another reason she had been not quite with me at first — she’d gotten an idea for a new song on the subway ride to Brooklyn. After lunch, we end up in her rehearsal space, and as her band goes about the usual setup, she retreats into her own world, back to that song. Everyone’s catching up, talking about sports and other random things, while Van Etten stands in the corner moving her way through a chord progression, hypnotically, over and over until she finally finds the last two chords she’s looking for. Once she has it, she wants to record it before they do anything else. For a moment, everyone turns to quieter activities — her bassist, Brad Cook of Megafaun, hunches over a notebook and writes out chord progressions — and Van Etten whisper-sings in a hushed rasp over her guitar until she’s satisfied that she’s gotten the idea down. It’s a relatively shocking scene, simply because Van Etten has one of those voices you assume can’t happen in a casual circumstance, just messing around before rehearsal. And yet, there it is — almost unbidden, demanding from her that once it’s been conjured from wherever, one of her melodies demands to be put to tape, and it has to be with that voice.
The band is in its early stages of preparing for the upcoming tour. It’s a new lineup, and they have a new record of material to learn — stuff that’s a good deal more complex than, say, the straightforward beauty of something like Epic’s “One Day.” They haven’t played the new songs in front of anyone yet, but they agree to let me stay for the ones they’ve been working on the most.
They start with “Tarifa,” with a chorus now dominated by a dramatic jump in volume and emphasis from the guitars rather than the horn part on the recorded version. After another run-through that, they pause and pick apart a few specific moments in the song — trying out harmonies, a particular piano line. Mostly, it sounds appropriately weathered, far more broken-in than a new song should. After that, they do a single attempt at “Your Love Is Killing Me,” and this, frankly, destroys me. Everything about the performance is immense. Where just before everyone was joking about someone’s idea for a comedy sketch involving an A&R guy who goes to Guitar Center to discover “the next big thing,” Van Etten’s already in that other place again, in the turnover of a moment. Her small stature keeps her mostly hidden behind a keyboard, but she nevertheless becomes incredibly magnetic through the sheer force of emotion she’s pouring into this, in a little room tucked away in Prospect Heights, surrounded by her friends. Each time they crest into the song’s chorus, there seems to be real anguish in her face, her eyes looking out into something else beyond her surroundings entirely. It’s hard to imagine how she can give this to a song again and again, night in night out, to a room full of strangers.
After it’s over, it’s time for them to work on new material and it’s time for me to leave. As Van Etten walks me out, I tell her I feel the need to get some fresh air after watching “Your Love Is Killing Me” — that I need to walk it off.
She smiles understandingly. And perhaps knowing that her music gives so much while simultaneously leaving so many mysteries in its wake, she simply says: “Imagine how I feel.”
Are We There is out 5/27 via Jagjaguwar.