Sharon Van Etten is one of those charmed few artists whose works elicit acclaim from fans and critics alike. While many acts have cultivated this unquestioned love by engaging in a shell game of hype and bravado, Ms. Van Etten has built her reputation on the strength of two beautifully heartbroken albums, Because I Was In Love and Epic, and a series of transcendent live performances that showcase her unique voice. The increased recognition has upped awareness- Van Etten is headlining her first tour, and buzz has already started about her third album, recorded with Aaron Dessner of The National. As she prepared to hit the road, Ms. Van Etten took the time to talk with us about headlining responsibilities, connecting with sadness, and the addition of noise to her music.
According to the press, I’m talking to Sharon Van Etten at the right time. You’re at the top of your game.
The top of my game? I don’t know about that, but I’m frankly awesome. I had a great time playing in Europe, and I’m excited to be doing some more shows in the U.S.
How do you remain humble when everybody’s writing so many nice things about you?
Because I don’t believe them. I guess I don’t read them. I try not to read good things, because I know I can do better. I got out of the habit of reading reviews because I used to be really sad when I was reading the negative ones. It’s been great to have had so many opportunities, though, especially since I feel like I’m still learning how to do this.
Do you look at your career as a gift or a reward for your hard work?
I don’t think of it as a reward, but I think I work hard. I know I’m going to have to work harder to keep doing it. I feel really lucky to be doing what I’m doing. When I don’t feel that way any more, then I’ll stop playing music.
You’ve not always been a musician. Do you see yourself giving it up at a certain point?
From a very early age I wanted to learn instruments and play music. It was always something for me personally. Then I decided to share that with other people. I’m still learning how to be a performer. I can write without performing. But I wake up and I just want to play guitar. I wake up and I just want to sing.
When it comes time for the next step, particularly with your upcoming tour, are you nervous or do you just go for it?
I’m always going to be nervous. I’m always going to question myself, because I think that pushes me and challenges me to think about what I’m doing. It’s always good to do that, but there’s only so much in your control. As long as I do my job, at some point I have to stop thinking about everyone else.
Tell me about being the headliner.
It’s definitely a little bit of pressure. As a support act, people are coming for the headliner, and they don’t really know who the opener is, and they don’t care. As an opener you have the pressure of warming up the crowd when they all might hate you because they’re not there to see you. Now the pressure is I have my first headlining tour and I need people to come. Especially during SXSW, there are so many other shows going on and bands are hitting every city. This is probably the hardest headlining tour I could do, just because of all the other things that are happening. But I’ve toured enough to know that’s how it goes. I know big bands that have had empty rooms just because they had the wrong timing. I’m excited to travel around with my band, because they’re a lot of fun to hang out with. I’m still learning to perform with them, because we’ve only been performing together since September. It feels like camp after a while. We have to take good care of the opener, because we’re going to be traveling together for a while. If you have a bad show, you have make everybody feel good. I’m not a natural born leader, but I’m learning to be one, because that’s my job.
You seem to be taking this very seriously. That’s very admirable.
I’m trying to learn how to do it. The guys that I play with have been in touring bands before, and they’re much more decisive than me. It’s cool because we’ve all toured a lot before, and everybody takes their share of the responsibility. Nobody has to babysit anybody. There are times, though, when it’s my decision. I’ll ask them what they think, and they’ll say, “Whatever you want. It’s your thing. You tell us.” They’re teaching me how to be in charge, but it’s so new to me. I’ve been solo for so long.
Given the content of your work, is it difficult to get out there every night?
In the sense that I’m getting over social anxiety, but to me playing my songs is really cathartic. Even though when I start I get nervous, once I’m singing I’m usually fine. My songs might seem sad, but it’s really me getting through my own things or helping my friends through some of their tough times. I think it’s okay to talk about being sad. You can talk about being sad without being sad. It’s not an emotion that most cool bands want to talk about. They want cool songs and upbeat songs, or whatever sounds the most reverb-y. I think being straight to the point about a natural emotion that people like to avoid having is really important.
Do you make a distinction between your music live and recorded?
Yes, definitely. The studio’s a much more controlled environment. You can invite people in, you can redo things, and you can add as much as you want. Live, I like to keep it pretty simple. The core of the song is the voice and the guitar. When you’re playing live, you have to let go of the recorded version. You’re going to be feeling differently every night. There’s going to be a different vibe in the audience; you’re going to be more or less tired. That’s why I love live shows. It’s a totally unique environment, and no one’s going to experience that again.
Do you ever second-guess a show?
I think that’s something I’m learning to get over, because if the audience isn’t into it I feel like I’ve done something wrong. Really, though, it’s not everybody’s thing; maybe the people in the audience were having a bad night. As long as I tell myself that I did as well as I could, that’s what’s important.
To change the subject a little bit, can you tell me anything about your new album or are you keeping that under wraps right now?
This record is going to be less straightforward. It’s going to be more instrumental, and there’s going to be more people involved. There’s going to be a lot more noise on it. That’s all I’m going to say.
Did you consciously want to expand your sound palette?
It was about pushing myself vocally and learning how to use guitar pedals. Having an emotion other than being broken-hearted. Turning a song inside out and not having the core being drums and bass and guitar. Content-wise, it’s going to be similar, but a lot more confident. The more I write, the more I feel okay with who I am.
How is non-broken hearted Sharon Van Etten different?
I can make more eye contact with people and hold a conversation longer. I’ll probably take more chances. I opened the door to experimenting with other collaborators and not letting the guitar be first. I let go of that, even though it’s been my comfort.
Think long-term. What’s going to make you happy?
I’ll be recording, writing, touring, and collaborating as long as I can. The only thing that truly makes me happy right now, though, is my friends and family.
Label: Ba Da Bing