Interview: A Conversation With Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten has built a bit of a reputation over the last couple of years as being a spokeswoman for those with a broken heart.  Having recently seen her live and from also doing some research before sending over these questions, she appears to be in much higher spirits lately.  After tweeting quite a bit recently about her amazing record, Are We There, and requesting some of her time when she’s in Manchester, Sharon messaged me with an offer of sending across some questions via email.  Obviously I took her up on this and am extremely grateful to Sharon for taking the time out, whilst on tour, to answer the questions that I sent and especially in the honest and open way that she has.

The only problem with only getting to speak over email, is that it left me wanting to ask so much more.  Some of the questions will feel disjointed because they don’t follow on from an answer that I was just given.  Sharon Van Etten is a fascinating and intriguing individual and as I’ve previously said, with each answer I read, I had about twenty questions more that I wanted to ask.  I’ve never really wanted to do these pieces in a Q & A style, but because of the way the questions were asked and answered, it is probably going to be the easiest way around it.  I also don’t want to make it appear as though I’ve edited anything for my own personal gain.

To begin with one of the more conventional questions. You’ve received a lot of positive press since the release of the record (Are We There) and have therefore found a lot of new fans as a result.  What is the most important aspect for you? Receiving the good reviews, pleasing your existing fans, making the new fans or just the opportunity to keep doing what you’re doing?

“I feel very lucky that there has been so much of a positive response to this record.  I am really proud of it, although I do this mostly for myself and to heal… of course being able to relate to other people is why I perform live.  I am grateful to get to do this for a living right now.  And I hope that I am helping people get through hard times…”

9ed654e27d8f99289a1475d0e23a56d68688fe88Inevitably with the press that you’re currently receiving, you’re going to continue to grow in popularity.  However, I read this morning that growing doesn’t appeal to you which I can totally understand.  I find that an act like yourself does lose a big part of what the music is about when the intimacy vanishes due to some of the larger uninteresting venues that need to be played to accommodate the amount of people wanting to see you. I adore The National for example, and as happy as I am that they’re world famous huge festival headliners these days, I do miss the days of the small venues where songs like ‘About Today’ just felt all that bit more special. Is intimacy an important factor for you? Or is it more a case of a daunting feeling that you would have to impress a larger set of people?

Intimacy is a double edged sword. I am realizing that my songs may be too personal for me to keep performing. The live show is important to me – to connect with the audience. Have a conversation. See eye to eye… I can’t do this forever. It’s hard emotionally, psychologically, and physically. I want a life outside music and it took touring Tramp and writing Are We There to realize that. I don’t want what I think some musicians are looking for. I don’t want fame. It scares me. I started writing music as a form of therapy. I felt better. I just want to help people and I am going to carve out a bit of a different path in the next few years.

As a side, you’re well documented to be good friends with The National and I thought it was pretty cool that Aaron gave you a little shout out during their slot in Barcelona.  Have you seen the Mistaken for Strangers documentary? It was nothing like I expected.  I found it to be really funny, as well as pretty heart warming.

Aaron Dessner is one of the most genuine and caring individuals I have ever met. As a collaborator, friend, colleague, brother – I have only felt respect and love and comradery from him. As a band, The National are hard working. They’re road dogs. There is a lot of love in that band and they have fun with their travels, even though I know it’s hard for them to be so far from their families, touring all the time. There are 3 sets of brothers in that camp and their chemistry is fun to watch. I saw an early screening of the movie when he was still in the editing stages. It was funny and real and candid and playful and knowing… And that’s all real.

How many people questioned your comment about Primavera Sound resembling a car park back in 2012? Was it just one report that happened to gather a lot of attention?

I was being funny (or so I thought) by saying “isn’t it so ugly here?” I forget dryness can be lost in translation sometimes. But, you know… I was looking at the gosh darn ocean you know? Somebody get me! I explained myself and gave an apology and hey guys lets move on. I love Spain!

Your love of comedy is something I’ve seen many times being mentioned wherever your name is concerned too, and I think that images-artists-Sharon_Van_Etten_-_20120501183217149.w_290.h_290.m_crop.a_center.v_topthat’s quite apparent when people come see you live.  I took the name of my blog from ‘Flight of the Conchords’ (too many dicks on the dancefloor became too many blogs on the internet during a conversation with my friends..). Are you a fan? How’s your interest in British comedy?

I am a huge fan of comedy. Yes, my brothers got me into Flight of the Conchords. The British version of The Office is a GEM. I watch Ricky Gervais stand-up and Eddie Izzard. The State, Strangers with Candy, Louis CK, Kids in the Hall – are all still in heavy rotation.

On the subject of comedy, ‘Everytime the Sun Comes Up’ brings your latest album to a close and is probably your most playful song.  What was the thinking in ending the album with an out-take from ‘Nothing Will Change’?

I wanted to raise the veil a little bit, and let people know that even though the songs are intense and heavy and dark – that I’m ok. That we were still having fun. Everything will be okay. I didn’t want to end on a sad note.

You don’t have to answer this next one, because I can imagine it’s not something that all artists want to do. When I write up a recommendation, I include a number of songs for people to listen to.  If you had to choose a few of yours from your entire catalogue, which would you choose and for any particular reason?

“I Wish I Knew” on ‘because i was in love’ because it’s a good starting point. I was very minimal. I was very broken.
“Love More” on ‘epic’ because it was the first song I messed with instrumentation on with Jeffrey Kish and Cat Martino and it opened the door to record the rest of this record in the studio at Miner Street – after we had used the song for the first Weathervane Shaking Through episode.
“All I Can” on ‘Tramp’ because it was the most complicated melody I’d ever written and one of the first songs I worked on with Aaron that really took my songs to a whole other level bandwise and collaboratively…
“I Love you but I’m Lost” on ‘Are We There’ because this was a real test in the practice of restraint. I like that the full chorus only happens once and it’s not really a chorus. The melody is constantly changing so it never repeats and the fact that it’s drums and piano makes me tickled. I can’t help myself. My quiet jokes in dark times…

As a final thing, Are you a fan of Nick Cave? I ask this purely because the guy from the WSJ interview asked you about your writing process and whenever anyone asks about a writing process it always reminds me of Nick Cave’s.

I love Nick Cave. I got to tour with him last spring and I still feel like it was just a dream. His work ethic is really admirable. He works hard. I like that he “goes to work” and that he is such a methodical man. I have never been like that, but I appreciate it very much and hope to be better in that way down the line if my lifestyle ever allows.

thank you so much.
hope this is ok.


So there you have it. Sharon doesn’t want to be famous and is going to start to carve out a different path over the next few years, doesn’t hate Primavera, and is grateful to be doing what she’s doing right now.  Hopefully you found the piece as interesting as I did reading/writing and editing it.  I also managed to get a few recommendations from her as well that will come to light in a later recommendations post.  If you enjoyed it, let me know!

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