Over the past decade, the haunting, love-sick voices of Beth Orton, Regina Spektor, and Chan Marshall have helped pave the way for a new crop of talented female singer-songwriters: Lissie, Jessica Lea Mayfield, and Alela Diane. One of the most promising artists in this category is Brooklyn-via-New Jersey’s Sharon Van Etten. The beautiful harmonies and heartfelt lyrics of her 2009 debut album Because I Was In Love landed her on many critics’ year-end best-of lists. On her forthcoming album, Epic, Van Etten is joined by a full band and expands her sound with the accompaniment of electric guitar, piano, lap steel, drums, and backing vocals from Meg Baird (Espers) and Jessica Larrabee (She Keeps Bees). Epic will top lists once again, and Van Etten, a unique talent, will be making music for years to come.
I caught up with Sharon earlier this summer to discuss touring, Tennessee, and her new album.
R&G: Hey Sharon, how are things with you?
Sharon: Good, thanks.
R&G: I recently received an email from you regarding Zoom. What are your day-to-day responsibilities at Ba Da Bing?
Sharon: I do mostly publicity and so write a lot of emails, whether a record is coming out or a band is coming through or is going on tour. I’m still learning the whole process as I’ve only been officially full-time for the last year and I’m learning as I go. I try to write people and hope that they already like the band, and if they don’t know the band, I introduce it to them. I’ve had to learn about what’s too intrusive to say and what’s annoying and how to phrase emails.
R&G: Last year you toured with the Great Lake Swimmers, Rain Machine, Megafaun, Bowerbirds, and Antlers. What did you take from the shows while touring with those musicians?
Sharon: One of the things I gathered was their level of professionalism. The bands that I’ve gotten to open up for, they’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. They’re really organized, they’re really poised, and they’re really patient. When bands tour that often, at some point, the shit is going to hit the fan. Something’s going to go wrong. Someone doesn’t show up. Equipment fails. Whatever. But they’ve gotten to the point where you do what you can and it’s not always perfect and it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have the best show or if someone’ talking or whatever. They really helped me a feel more confident in that things just happen and you just do your job.
R&G: You lived in Tennessee for five years. Can you tell me a little bit about the time that you spent in the South?
Sharon: I had just graduated high school and I was really idealistic about the world. I thought that I could go to college and actually start taking classes in music and not worry about general education classes anymore. I also wanted to go far away from home, but I found a school that was tied for number one with Berklee for recording and it was really cheap to go there. That became the one thing that I could talk to my parents about, saying, “This is a responsible decision. I get to pursue music, but it’s also a back-up plan for a real job.” So I went down there and hated it. I dropped out of school and ended up getting a job at an all-ages venue called The Red Rose.
R&G: I read an online interview that referenced your boyfriend that you dated while living in Tennessee. I believe it was titled, “Crazy Ex-Boyfriend Can Suck It.”
Sharon: Yeah, that one made me laugh.
R&G: That was a good interview. You were really honest and candid about your relationship and how that led to the sad songs on ‘Because I Was In Love.’ He was an addict and is currently serving time in prison. It’s pretty bold of you to discuss it on record.
Sharon: If someone asks directly, “So, what is he doing now?” I have the choice to avoid the question or be straight. I want to be transparent in my songs. I want people to know this is really me. This is all real to me. This is how I feel. These are all emotions that it’s okay to let yourself feel. Maybe because my songs are like that, people sometimes ask questions that are valid but that make me think, “You’re going to go there?” In that interview, I just decided to go there.
R&G: Do you know if he’s heard your album?
Sharon: I have no idea. I’m kind of scared to find out.
R&G: On your new album ‘Epic,’ you explore many of the same themes from ‘Because I Was In Love,’ but your songs seem to be more optimistic and a bit edgier.
Sharon: I was able to sit with that last record for almost three years, even though it wasn’t out. From the time I wrote it and recorded it and released it, it was probably three years that I had been working on those songs and playing them live. It was so therapeutic for me that I feel like I’m in a place beyond those songs now. I was so insecure and brokenhearted when I wrote most of those songs that having moved on from those songs they no longer seem really sad. I listen to my old songs and it’s like I was giving advice to myself, but it’s only in hindsight that they were therapeutic for me. So now all the new songs are more like feeling okay with everything and letting myself be a little angry but without it being angsty. It’s hard to say.
R&G: You’re playing with a full band on the record. Can you tell me about your experience moving from being a solo performer to performing with a band?
Sharon: On this record, I wanted play more of my confident songs and more of the strummy songs versus the picking songs. When I started playing more on the electric guitar, my songs became a little more aggressive than those on the last record, so when I brought the songs into the studio we talked about including instrumentation. The only thing that really occurred to me was that most of the songs call for drums, but these songs took on a life of their own and turned into these kind of epic songs that I didn’t think my songs would ever be. I’m a little overwhelmed with the outcome, but excited too.
R&G: Were you purposefully trying to move away from the singer/songwriter label or genre?
Sharon: I was getting tired of that label a little bit, even though that’s what I am [laughs].
You can catch Sharon live this Saturday, September 25th @ Waved Out II @ Echoplex.
Pre-Order – Sharon Van Etten – Epic