Therapy Through Song: An Interview with Sharon Van Etten

We catch up with the lovely and immeasurably talented Sharon Van Etten.


Even for July, it’s an unsuitably hot evening. “Do you mind if we do this outside? I’ve been stuck indoors all day”, are the first words uttered after the introductions. Sharon Van Etten, the diminutive, charismatic singer-songwriter responsible for one of our favorite albums so far this year, leads the way out of the exit I wandered through 20 minutes earlier and lights a cigarette.

I immediately notice her tour van.

Sharon: It’s my bass player’s. It’s old but it’s truckin’. We’ve driven all over the continent. It’s pretty snug. There are eight of us in there.

Warm, calm and quick to laugh, she’s not what I expected, and seems as surprised by her success as anyone. We chat on the curb, and I get the sense that had she not been pressed for time, she would have readily indulged me for much longer.

PMA: Was self-producing Are We There something you felt confident doing? Did it feel like that needed to happen at this point in your career?

Sharon: It wasn’t a necessity, but I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. I mean, I’ve had so many people walk me through it. Stuart Lerman held my hand through parts, but I’m in my 30s and I’ve been playing music for ten years. I just needed to know that if I have the reigns I could do a good job too. I had a lot of fun while figuring it out.

PMA: Did it take a little bit longer once you did have the reigns?

Sharon: It took less time then Tramp, but that’s because Aaron [Dessner] and I were touring at different times that year. We actually had to find the time off to record, whereas I carved out time for this one. It was five days a week for three months starting last August.

PMA: Did the fact that Tramp did have a high-profile producer contribute at all to your decision scale back a bit?

Sharon: Well it gets sticky, because I think I’ve been paraphrased by other writers before on this topic and I think I’ve hurt his feelings because now he thinks that I’m doing this because I’m not happy with what happened on the last record, and I’m really sensitive to that. I mean, he was in charge and it was his studio and his comfort zone, but I felt really comfortable as well. I brought in my friends, he brought in his friends and it ended up being a community of people building a record together. I learned a lot from it. I got a band together and we toured on Tramp for two years, and after that I really just wanted to make a record witha band. But some writers skew it where they’ll say Aaron’s fame or whatever made me want to do something different. But I’m doing the same thing, I just wanted it to be my crew this time. I loved working with Aaron and I don’t want anyone to think otherwise, ever.

PMA: The parallel I’ve been drawing with Are We There is Hospice by the Antlers. I know they don’t sound anything alike, but just in terms of how emotionally intense the music is.

Sharon: Well I’ve known Peter [Silberman] a long time, and I sang on Hospice. We’ve played shows together and we write pretty therapeutic music and we came up around the same time in New York.

PMA: On some of your new songs you tweak the refrains. It seems to me as if you’re changing your mind on these topics as a result of the songwriting process. Can you speak to that at all?

Sharon: I’m not particularly aware of it when I’m writing. The way that I write is pretty stream of conscious. I mean whenever you go through something, you’re just weighing out everything. For me, when I’m writing it’s usually when I’m going through a hard time. I’ll just hit record and I never really have a plan. Then I’ll listen back on it once it’s a demo and be like “wow, I have very conflicting emotions!” Lyrics come in the moment and I tweak them as I go, but a lot of it is just being unsure of yourself. I usually figure it all out in hindsight, so a year down the road I’ll look back at this record and be in another, better place.

PMA: Do you think you have it in you to write happy music with that approach?

Sharon: My mom asked me the same thing. It’s just a form of therapy for me. If I’m happy then I’m not writing, I’m hanging out with my friends and doing my thing. I bet if I collaborated with other people I could do something different. But I haven’t ever changed my approach. I started writing for myself and it caught on, but I’m not going to write a happy song just because people are worried about me. It’s my therapy, and somehow it’s become a career, which is weird, but I’m a happy person.

She has an easy stage presence, and her songs explode in a way that you wouldn’t expect listening to the record. She has no problem engaging in goofy banter with her audience before breaking out into the moving likes of “Tarifa” or “You Know Me Well”, constantly trading knowing glances with her band mates.

PMA: Did touring with vets like the National or Nick Cave cause you to rethink any aspects of your live show?

Sharon: Well touring with the National I learned a lot about, you know, putting on a fucking show. I don’t do that thing, like we’re not a festival band. But I like how they’ve grown pretty organically just by keeping at it. They’re pretty grassroots for being as big as they are. They’ve been touring hardcore for over ten years and building their audience through that means on top of the music they make. But they are road dogs. They’ve built this amazing team where they have two buses on tour, and it’s pretty cool so see where they’ve come from. Part of me has acknowledged that I can’t be that kind of band but I appreciate that they do it. I’m not going to play the kind of music where I can get people out of their seats or walk on hands because it’s just not what I do. But it made me ask a lot more questions, for sure.

PMA: Does it get tough playing “Your Love is Killing Me” five times a week?

Sharon: It’s cathartic. Even though it’s a heavy song, pain comes from love and love comes from pain. You can love someone so much and there can be masochistic qualities to it that aren’t healthy. I don’t have any regrets about my past, but I wrote that song when I was going through a really hard time. I mean every word.

PMA: Was there any sort of tipping point when you first started writing?

Sharon: Well I started writing as a teenager, but I didn’t start performing until about ten years ago. When I was in high school and I was just one of those kids who couldn’t talk about anything and would withdraw and be alone when I was going through something. My mom gave me a journal to get it out somehow, and I had been learning guitar at the time and I just started playing.

PMA: Self-taught?

Sharon: Well my older brother played and I started learning when I had some free time in high school. My mom and dad gave me some guitar books, it all happened in a really weird way. It didn’t mean for any of this to happen!

PMA: Is the plan to flip between touring and recording?

Sharon: Maybe. I have thought about going back to school and becoming a social worker or a therapist. I’ve proven to myself I could do this and I think if I were to take it much further I wouldn’t be myself. It’s already gone further than I ever thought it could, but I don’t think I’ll be helping people, like the masses, with the music that I write. Maybe I’ll collaborate with other people or be in somebody else’s band or so some A&R. I’m down for anything.

PMA: But some humanitarian ambitions as well, then.

Sharon: Well I’d like to settle down and get a more stable job so I can have a family and still write. But when you’re travelling nine months of the year you can’t really be a good mother.

PMA: Unless you’re Arcade Fire.

Sharon: Yeah, they’ll be fine. They’re doing well enough that they can have a nanny on tour, I don’t want to do that well.

Sharon Van Etten's Are We There is out now. Read Brendan Frank's review of the album here.