Last month, Sharon Van Etten released her fourth album, ‘Are We There’, in hope that it will supersede her 2012 breakthrough record, ‘Tramp’. Nathan Westley met the Brooklyn-based musician to let her do the talking


“If I’m trying new things in the studio, I feel pretty vulnerable”

I want to be around people who I don’t have to worry about, people I don’t need to feel self conscious around and who know my weird way of communicating, because I’m not trained, I don’t know about keys or time. I talk about vibe and I show them with my hands and stuff like that, just knowing that going into it that I can be myself helps make the album be very honest.

Going into it, I really wanted this one to be more of a band centric record, because it felt different. For two or three years at least, it was the first time that I felt like I had a set group of people that I wanted to work with and who understood me. About half the record is live and then there was the whole thing of me being in charge; me producing the record, so the few people who did come in happened to be friends who were in town. I incorporated more electronics; there’s an Omnichord that we started using.

For every record, I’ve wanted to do something different. I don’t want to put out the same record; if I don’t change my approach or who I am working with then they’d either sound the same or very close to it and I don’t want to do that. As far as progression goes, I’m older and I’ve learnt a lot more, I feel like I’ve come a long way as a person and with my writing, these songs are probably the most current of any record; the nearest to which I wrote them. With every other record, I felt like I looked back on things and it was like I was gaining perspective from something that happened a long time ago, where as these songs are about things that happened in the last few years and they are all very fresh, and I feel that in a lot of ways I probably won’t understand all of the meaning until after I’ve started touring around.

“Whenever I write it is to reconnect”

I love New York but it can be pretty intense and you can feel pretty discombobulated easily and distracted easily and writing is a way that I re-centre myself. I write at home usually and it’s been nice to have a home to do that in. I just moved to Manhattan in November. I’m learning that even in the craziest parts of the city it’s teaching me to reconnect, and when you’re surrounded by chaos that it is okay.

The studio that we were working in for the record wasn’t really in New York; it was just over the Lincoln tunnel, the first stop after, and it was actually really nice to feel like I was commuting to work every day. I would take the train or the bus and it was like 40 minutes door-to-door and I felt like a normal person who was going to work. It was a bit like getting into a character, but still being yourself.

“If people want to say I sound like Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell then that is extremely nice.”

But I also feel that we are all the sum of other people. Even if I don’t feel that I do sound like them, somewhere, maybe way deep down, there might be a little bit that you can hear. I think that you absorb all of your influences and that they come out in different ways. I don’t know, I think I’m still finding my own identity both in music and as a person – I think that is what growing up is all about. I really don’t mind when people compare me to other people or describe me as something that I don’t think I am, as that’s just the way that it’s going to hang.

“The sound of my childhood was ‘Born In The USA’”

My Dad’s a vinyl collector and both my parents are music lovers, so we had a lot of rock’n’roll. My Dad was really into The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, all that stuff and my mum was into folk music and opera and classical and musicals; so at home we would listen to the local station on the radio and The Everly Brothers and Del Shannon; it was a mix and on top of that there was all of my sibling’s music, so they got me into a lot too. You start with this library and I think over the years you refine it, but it’s a lot of music to grow up with.

I had lessons – piano, violin, clarinet – at a young age, but I never really pursued it to the stage where I got any good at it.

I think it’s good to think about music with a different mind, you know? Playing drums is different from guitar and clarinet is different from violin. They’re connected but also they’re different. Chords on the piano are kind of similar to the guitar and you can try and knock it out, but the violin is really not that close to the guitar, as they’re tuned differently, but anything that you can associate with formation of the hands and stuff; it’s fun to learn. My mum used to make fun of me and call me the hobby girl, as I used to learn how to do things, but not so much that I’ll get too involved in it. Like, ‘Okay, Okay, I’ve got a basic idea’, and I’m over it. It was like that with other things too, not just music.

“Open mic nights help you know who your audience are and connect with them.”

When I was in Tennessee at college, I used to work in a coffeehouse, but when I moved back up north, I used to play open mics and bars. I played at a place called Zebulon pretty often. I thought about doing that again as I warm up, as I have a lot of piano based stuff, but none of them actually have a piano. I’ve not played them for a few years but I’ve also been really busy, but maybe in a few years – it could be fun.

When you start off playing those nights, it feels very personal and like you know why you are doing it; I kind of miss those days a lot actually. I think usually when people come to you and you can talk to them and find out what they’re all about; it’s a closer relationship.

“Gaining a little knowledge of the music industry is almost as important as making your record.”

My first job in New York was in a Wine Store and then I realised that I was a terrible shelf man. An old friend of mine had moved up to New York to work as an assistant to Ben Goldberg at Bada Bing! Records. He knew I was trying to do music and he hired me as an intern, just so that I could understand how to do it. I had got as far as booking my own shows and making my own CDs, but I had no idea what else to do, so thought that it would be interesting to see how a label ran on a small scale. It was pretty transparent that it is a lot of hard work; seeing what was being put into it, that you take on these bands that you really care about and work hard for and sometimes people don’t listen; the amount of work that can go into PR and interviews; sending out promo copies and following up; even the people you know might have really liked it might not because it’s come through originally at the wrong time of day – you can put your whole life into something and not get anything in return: that side of things is really hard.  But I also think that if you put out something that no one even likes; it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean anything. You could have put your heart and soul into that record and I think as a musician you should make a record that makes you go, ‘I believe in this’,and of course you would want it to do well, but you can’t control that and people are fickle. Your number one priority is that you need to be proud of what you’re working on and that will help you get through it.

“I have a hard time communicating and talking about my emotions”

I think a lot of people who are creative have a hard time in expressing themselves in day to day life, and writing, singing, drawing or painting, or whatever it might be, creatively, can help with that, in order to make an expression. It might be something that they don’t know how to talk about or maybe something that they just don’t want to talk about. They can create it in this form and it is a separate thing, they can compartmentalise that and move on; when they have a hard time articulating it. I don’t like sharing my thoughts with people and often retreat. Whether other people are similar, I wouldn’t know exactly, but for me it’s usually late at night, after I’ve been thinking too much about something that I haven’t made much headway on, I hit record and just sing a stream of consciousness into a tape recorder until I feel spent and most of the time those recordings don’t see the light of day, because they are just for me to work things out. If I see something in there that can then be shared with the world, which is maybe a universal idea, then I’ll work on it in a song.


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