Interview Sharon Van Etten: ‘I Slap Myself Every Now And Then At Just How Lucky I Am’

Sharon Van Etten talks The National, John Cale and stage fright.

While I wait for the phone to ring through to Sharon Van Etten, I wonder about the type of interview we’re about to have. Her album ‘Tramp’ is one of my favourite albums of the year; a cathartic and intense record, rich in emotion and vivid in its personal recollections and storytelling. It’s the type of record that makes it easy to think of her as a tortured soul. I’ve also read that she suffers from nerves.

And yet I needn’t have worried. From the moment she picks up the phone she is wonderful. Open, warm and happy to discuss a wide range of topics. We talk about her highlights of what have been a spectacular year and why she slaps herself every now and then at just how lucky she’s been to work with an array of musicians that include Beirut, The Antlers and The National (though talent more than luck, it’s quite clear, seems to have been the main contributing factor).

How has 2012 been for you?
It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve never travelled so much in my life It’s been really great I feel really lucky to have been able to tour so much and that people want to come to my shows, I’m not boring people. Getting to know my band better and work out my songs more and more and I just feel like we’re the best we’ve ever been because we’ve toured so much.

What have been the highlights? You were amazing on Jools Holland.
I have to say the peak of it all was when I played Jools and got to meet John Cale. Oh my gosh it felt like the whole year came into fruition a little bit.

Why does John Cale mean so much to you?
Well I guess this whole album really … I dedicated the record to him, the cover was an homage to him. He’s just someone I listen to a lot especially in the writing of the record and I had no idea I’d get to meet him and it was amazing. I don’t think I sound like him but he was definitely a huge inspiration to me.

How proud are you of ‘Tramp’? How rewarding has it been to get it out there and see people’s reaction?
That’s a tough question. I guess I’m so lucky – things have been a lot better than I thought they would be.

Was it a conscious change in songwriting from ‘Epic’ to ‘Tramp’?
It definitely wasn’t a conscious change. As far as the actual songwriting itself goes you know I’ve written songs for a very long time and I don’t think I could change that but the conscious change came from working with Aaron and for me having heavy instrumentation on the record and that kind of a thing. Content wise I think I’ve grown up a lot and conscious or not looking at that you can tell that I’ve grown a bit and matured a bit and more at peace with things and have more control.

Does moving from place to place affect the writing?
I feel like it affected the urgency of some of the songs and made me finish songs that probably wouldn’t have made the record. When you’re given such a small amount of time to finish something and you’re … not necessarily under the gun … but you have a goal that’s really nice. But sometimes you’re given so much freedom and too much time that you never finish anything. I think it helped me be more versatile cos I wrote these songs in so many different places.

How did you become friends and start working with Aaron (Dessner)?
I was on tour with Megafon and they woke me up to show me a video of their friend Justin (‘Bon Iver’ Vernon) covering my song (the song was ‘Love More’) with Aaron and Bryce at the Music Now Festival in Cincinnati that Aaron and Bryce put on every year. At the time I was getting ready to record Epic when that video popped up and my friends at Megafon encouraged me to write to them and see if they wanted to be part of the album.
It’s funny cos they were already working on their album and they were really busy recording but Aaron and I kept in touch. Aaron said he had a studio in his backyard in his garage and if I wanted to ever demo a song after this record then just to let him know. I sent him a few demos and when we were both in town we met up for coffee and just chatted about our recordings and things like that and we clicked and we were laughing cos he was saying you’ve sent me so many demos that we’ve nearly got a record already – so he said instead of demos we need to make this into an album.

What’s Aaron like to work with in the studio?
It was really comfortable – I was nervous going into it. It was like the first day of school and you’re nervous the first time you start working with anyone. It’s also a pretty vulnerable situation to be in – you and one other person and your demos. But he’s so disarming and we were like brother and sister by the end of the recording. I was sad to see the album be done in a way.
It came very naturally and we started very basic with guitar and vocals and then we’d talk about where it could go and what it didn’t have to do. We analysed it to death! It was tiring cos we’d get together when we’d got home from touring so we had no time off – we’d go straight from touring to the studio, but it was worth it.

Do you have any plans in the future to do anything?
I would love to but we’re kind of in a similar spot right now – I’m ready to write and record and he’s working on new songs right now. But let’s see what happens – I’d love it that’s for sure.

You’ve worked with an amazing array of different musicians – is it intimidating to work with these people or is it just natural to you?
It’s intimidating to meet these people but every one I’ve worked with I’ve become friends with because they’re genuine, authentic people – I mean sometimes you do meet someone you really admire and they turn out to be not such a good person but I’ve been really lucky with the people I’ve been able to surround myself with and they’ve befriended me as well. I slap myself every now and then at just how lucky I am.

Are there any more artists on the list you’d love to work with?
Well, yeah lots of people. You know, obviously John Cale, and there’s my friend Kyp Malone. I’ve been wanting to work with him for a while but he’s a very busy guy as well. I mean I’d love to play with all my friends again just to have an excuse to hang out.

When you’re writing your own music do you have to shut yourself off from listening to other records? Or does that inspire you?
I think listening to music is really helpful. It clears my head actually. I do stop myself if I’m writing something and I think it sounds too much like who I’m listening to. ‘I’m just writing a Cyndi Lauper song’. I keep myself in check if my influences are too obvious but usually I’m pretty good at that. I think it’s really good to listen to other styles of music and arrangement.

Are there any albums this year that have stood out for you?
Oh yeah, there’s a bunch. Angel Olson record I think is beautiful, and the Spirtualized record is really great. Lower Dens as well…

It’s been a great year for albums I think…
Yeah, definitely. I feel like there have been a lot and it just gets harder to keep track of. You just have an ongoing list. I can’t wait to be back home long enough to listen to all the records I’ve accumulated.

I read that you feel nervous playing live?
I guess I’m learning how to control it better but yeah I’m always a little bit nervous. It’s a weird thing to get up there and do what I do in front of people. Performing is a very bizarre thing – but I don’t freak out anymore.

How do you get overcome that?
Yeah I think it just comes from having more confidence … and breathing exercises.

Does it feel better playing with a full band and knowing them better?
Definitely, most of the band is new this year. Keith my guitarist is the only one I’ve been playing with longer than the others. We’ve only been playing together for a year and it took some going in to but they’re really amazing people. And we’ve definitely turned in to this family.

Are there any songs you’ve played on tour where you’ve been surprised by the reaction?
The song ‘I’m Wrong’ because it is just based around a drone and it sets itself apart from all the others – it’s not a pop song, it’s not necessarily verse/chorus and it’s a drone and live we’ve developed it in a way that turns into its own thing. And, you know, most of my songs aren’t like that. They’re controlled but on this one we kind of just let it go and it’s a lot of fun.

Have you got plans to record a new album or will that happen in the New Year?
I’m starting to think about recording but I’m more trying to plan out my writing. I have to write more songs before I go in to the studio. I’d like to have a plan going in this time and have songs that I’ve worked on with the band before we go in to the studio and play all the parts together.
We have this European tour coming up and then an Australian tour after Christmas and then that will be it for a while so I’ll actually have some time to write, which will be great.

Your songs are always very cathartic and very personal – do you ever feel like you have to pull back and take some of yourself out of the songs?
I guess it’s something I’ve been learning about myself and what’s too much and what’s not enough. I want people to be able to relate to it and that’s my biggest concern. Right now, I write from a very personal place and if it’s too much I try not to share it with people cos that’s not the point, it’s just selfish. I write for myself to begin with and if it’s nothing people could relate to I wouldn’t share it.
On ‘Tramp’ they’re general enough for people to relate to but people definitely know it’s me. I’m still learning how to generalise enough and eventually I’d like to just be a better storyteller because I think it definitely helps take away the pity I fear some people have for me on some of my songs.

Do you have a song that’s closest to you on the album? ‘Leonard’ is probably my favourite.
‘Leonard’ is an intense one! I can remember exactly where I was when I wrote that one. I think for me it’s probably ‘Give Out.’

When you play live does that come back to you? You can remember the feelings when you wrote the song?
There’s definitely sometimes when I perform ‘Give Out’ that I feel like I’m gonna cry in the middle of the song apart from a couple of times. But I think that’s good.

And finally, if we could get you anything for Christmas what would you choose?
I think I’d make it summer all year round.

Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Tramp’ is number 41 on DIY’s Albums Of 2012 list. Find out more here.

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