• Q&A

Q&A: Sharon Van Etten

written by: on August 6, 2012


Since her release of 2012’s Tramp, Sharon Van Etten has graduated from National Public Radio darling to one of the most exciting female singer/songwriters in recent memory.  Pop ‘stache discusses her roots and her approach to songwriting  via email.

Pop ‘stache:  What made you decide to settle in Brooklyn?

Sharon Van Etten:  I needed to live somewhere I felt motivated.  I spent a lot of the time in the south and in my parents’ basement, where my hopes were slipping, so I needed a good kick in the ass where there was a music scene happening.

P’s:  How would you describe your time interning at BaDaBing Records?  Did you learn a lot about the industry?  Did they have any idea that you were writing your own material all the while?

SVE: BaDaBing has a very grassroots, DIY background and really genuine people with a true passion for music.  I learned a lot about the people behind the industry and learned to not be so scared of it.

Ben Goldberg, the owner, didn’t know that I played music at first, but when he found out he was very supportive and would even come to my shows.

P’s:  Your sound has evolved a lot in the three short years since Because I Was in Love.  “Warsaw” and “Serpents” show a new, pop/rock leaf on Tramp.  What spurred you to pick up an electric guitar? Are we going to hear more electric Sharon in the future?

SVE:  Yes. I am writing on electric guitar all the time. I have always had a hard time with anger management, so I decided to let some aggression out on an electric. It felt so good.

P’s:  Although beautifully fragile at times, you exude more confidence in your voice and sound than ever before on Tramp. Are you finding yourself more at home in the studio and/or on stage?

SVE:  The more I play and write and perform, the more confident I am.  I am more secure with who I am and what I am doing.

P’s:  As a producer, The National’s Aaron Dessner must have challenged you from time to time.  What was the best piece of advice that he gave you while recording Tramp?

SVE:  Do whatever you want.  Try anything.

P’s:  Tramp is an awfully solid record for being a sort of piecemeal production.  What was it like trying to tour, write and record while being produced by someone [Dessner] doing the same thing with his own band?

SVE:  It was a bit disorienting at first, but it helped to have some time and space with and from the songs.  Aaron and I would also return to the studio from tour with notes and go over them and have a “to do” list upon beginning again.

P’s:  What artists, new or old, do you think are kindred spirits?  Who is someone in particular that you would love to work with?

SVE:  Jana Hunter from Lower Dens or PJ Harvey.

P’s:  Anyone who has ever been in love or has had their heart broken can relate to your lyrics, but how do you achieve the conversational aspect of your lyrics?  There seems to be a dialogue with your listeners.

SVE:  I hit record and sing stream-of-consciousness for 10-20 minutes.  I sing as though I am telling myself what I am going through and upon listening back and editing, I try and convert lyrics to a more conversational style. That way it’s easier for the listener to relate.

P’s:  Due to the highly intimate nature of some of your songs, how much of your material remains tucked away in notebooks or quietly sung behind closed doors?

SVE:  Most of it. When I begin to write it’s mostly for myself and it’s way too personal.

I would say that only 5-10% of my songs end up being used because of the universality of my dialogue.  I don’t want to alienate listeners with lyrics that are too personal.

P’s:  You have described writing music as cathartic.  Has penning songs on sorrow, self-doubt and anxiety helped to subvert some of those same emotional fetters?

SVE:  Learning where my anxiety comes from and facing it head on has helped me to overcome.

P’s:  You’ve written numerous love songs but you never seem to find much humor in love, even dark humor.  Is there any chance of hearing the lighter side of our heaviest emotion?

SVE:  At the moment, my lighter side is live, in between songs.

P’s:  If you had to pick one track out of your entire catalog, which do you think you are most proud of?

SVE:  “All I Can.”  It is the most developed melody I have ever written.