Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: because i was in love, best of 2009, cian traynor, interview, sharon van etten
When Sharon Van Etten hopped into Great Lake Swimmers’ tour van holding a naked drawing of the band, complete with exaggerated private parts, they had no idea who she was. Up until that point their tour had been beset with problems and the last thing they needed was an unexpected stranger in their midst. Yet seeing Sharon open for the band later that night in Berlin, guitarist Eric Arnesen closed his eyes, put his hands together and whispered “Thank you God” with relief. Two weeks later and Great Lake Swimmers were so desperate to avoid parting ways with their “little sister” that Eric planned to stuff the band’s instrument cases with newspaper and trick their tour manager into driving off with a van full of lookalikes.
There’s something about Sharon Van Etten that has this effect on people. You can see it as she ambles down Hackney’s Broadway Market in a petite red dress, denim jacket folded over her arm, with the eyes of coffee drinkers on both sides of the street drawn behind her. You can see it as she almost whispers the stories behind each of the three tattoos on her snow white skin, her eyes glowing as she adds: “I did shower today to meet you. And I wore the one clean outfit I had.” Connecting her charms as a bright-eyed but vulnerable folk figure and the surging momentum of her career might be a tempting conclusion to make. But, as she explains, it was a series of life-altering decisions and serendipitous timing that propelled her out of obscurity.
Growing up, the sensation of being surrounded by 50 singing voices in choir drew her into music, eventually learning to play the piano, clarinet and violin while dreaming of performing on Broadway. But as high school finished, her parents expected her to attend college – something she didn’t quite feel ready for. “I chose to go to the joint-best recording school, which was in Tennessee, because basically I had no choice at the time. I thought the balance of pursuing something in music while potentially having a career to fall back on would please my parents… But I dropped out after a year.”
She sits in the darkened, wood-panelled backroom of a near-empty pub. Her brown leather boots are the only remnant from the grungy figure who, two nights earlier, captivated a crowd as she curtseyed under the weight of a shiny red Gibson, her short hair flopping into her eyes. Now, hesitating over a pint of local ale, she gazes at the ceiling and reflects on the six years she spent in a town called Murfeesboro, Tennessee.
It was there that she bought her first guitar and found a job in a multi-purpose venue (“a record store, screen printing studio, coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant”), learning to book and promote shows while finding a second family in her creative-minded co-workers. Although Sharon’s then-boyfriend was in a band, he was so underwhelmed by her musical efforts that she’d only play or write while he was away on tour. “He kept saying: ‘You can do better than that, you can do better than that’. It came to a point where there was a lot of unhealthy behaviour going on and I just decided to leave. I felt like I always compromised everything up until that point. I thought: ‘Well, I’ll do this because of this person and I’ll do this because of that person’. It was the first time I said: ‘You know what? No. I’m leaving Tennessee for me’. So I moved back to my parents and went through all these songs I had written which he said weren’t good enough… and just decided to record them anyway.”
These songs became her Home Recordings CD, laid down in the basement of her family home in Clinton, New Jersey – the perfect setting to capture a time of upheaval. Having barely spoken to her family while in Tennessee, the transition home was a chance to rebuild a connection with her parents, eventually inspiring the song ‘Fold’. “On one hand you can look at it like you’re giving up and letting your parents take care of you again; compromising to save money. But then they’re so loving, I couldn’t spite them for anything. They had always been supportive of whatever music lessons I wanted to take; my mom brought me to musicals while my dad introduced me to rock concerts. I took them for granted for a really long time and now I’m closer to them than I ever have been.”
With some encouragement, Sharon decided to make a leap into the unknown, saving enough money to move to New York and focus on music for a year just to see what would happen. “I was seeing a therapist for a while to overcome a lot of social anxiety problems. I was really afraid that I’d freak out in the city because I wasn’t sure I was ready. But my therapist was amazing because she said: ‘Do it. You’re young now. Don’t have any regrets. If it doesn’t work out you can always move somewhere else’. And she was right. We think that a lot of these things we set up for ourselves are irreversible but they’re not. You can always do something else.”
For someone who considers themselves to be a country girl, Brooklyn seemed like a scary and intimidating place – especially when trying to eke out a spot in an already overcrowded music scene. But then the serendipity began. A friend from Tennessee was already living in Brooklyn and working in Sony studios, where he snuck her in to record her first demo – a CD-R that would later convert chance encounters into breakthrough opportunities.
Then one night while at a concert, Sharon thought the support act seemed familiar. It was TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone who, she realised, was the brother of a friend from high school. She introduced herself, gave him her demo CD and asked if he was ever back home. “It turns out he has a daughter where my parents live and visits her all the time, but he gets really lonely out there because there’s nothing going on. So we began hanging out and he became one of the most encouraging people of my music. He was definitely the first person to kick my ass. I’m still pretty insecure and shy, but he got me out of the shell I was in for a very long time.”
For all her lingering shyness, Sharon is bubbly, warm and disarmingly open, her eyes squinting as she giggles through an explanation of how Malone introduced her to Zebulon – a low-key venue run by two French brothers where the gigs are always free. Malone gave the club’s owners Sharon’s demo CD and suggested they give her a show. Soon she was curating her own night once a month and a word-of-mouth buzz meant that not only were people finding her music on Myspace, but were writing to ask how they could buy it. In turn Sharon would make her own CD sleeves and send off the recordings with a handwritten letter inviting people to stay in touch.
It was through these exchanges that she struck up a friendship with a fashion designer based in London, who regularly sent her tailor-made clothes as part of a swap deal. A year later, Sharon had the urge to finally meet her and asked if she could visit. “At the time, one of her friends was about to drive Meg Baird around on her UK tour and said that if I wanted to be the support act for two weeks, I’d be welcome to. Meg Baird was someone who Kyp played to me, like, six months before this happened. So all these things were lining up, blowing my mind.”
The good fortune continued when the tour was set to begin in Edinburgh after Baird’s main band, Espers, had just finished a tour of their own. Ever the opportunist, Sharon handed Greg Weeks, Baird’s songwriting partner, a CD-R as they met in the hotel lobby that night. Just over two months later, she was recording her debut album, Because I Was In Love, in Weeks’s studio, re-realising the songs with a clearer sound and some feather-light accompaniment.
As the handmade CDs and lo-fi bedroom recordings had been an integral part of Sharon’s sound, the priority was to keep things intimate. It was a personal connection with the listener, a moment shared that only ends with the sound of her pressing the stop button in an otherwise empty bedroom. Like her influences Vashti Bunyan and Sibylle Baier, Sharon’s voice has a sincere, timeless quality that uses simple phrasing and a sense of urgency to draws the listener in, whether you’ve experienced heartbreak or not.
“I try to make my music personal: open and honest. I wanted it to be that way with the CDs, for the person on the other end to know that I touched this, that I made this and recorded it. I just hope that represents my music somehow. I miss it, though, because what I’m doing now [with Because I Was In Love] is totally different. I hope it still has that feel. But it’s definitely not the same thing and it’s hard to let go of that. I knew Greg had my best interests in mind so I wasn’t worried that way… because I’m hoping that a song on its own can still speak to you somehow.”
Finally released through Weeks’s label Language Of Stone over a year after its recording, the fragile folk of Because I Was In Love has gone on to capture even more hearts. She may not have time for handwritten letters anymore but even as her profile rises, Sharon insists that the shows must remain small enough to stay personal. When she writes a follow-up email from her basement weeks after this interview, she does so in another “sad but perfect” moment, late at night with thunder crackling outside. It’s a scene that suggests the intimacy of her music is not just an illusion, or something easily diluted.
“I hope I never play big venues. It’s cool for bigger bands who want to see how famous they are but I feel like my music is not meant for huge spaces. If I had a band, maybe it would make sense. Greg really wants to have an orchestra on the next album but I like to keep things simple.” She trails off; a hint of disbelief creeping in as if just the thought of how far she has come seems tiring. “We’ll see.”
The idea of Sharon Van Etten with an orchestra at her disposal must have seemed like an impossibility back when her ex-boyfriend offered such disheartening feedback. When asked what he might make of her progress, she smiles timidly; her voice straining delicately into a rising intonation. “I haven’t heard from him in a very long time. The last time that I know he heard my music was about two or three years ago but I don’t know where he is today. It’s very different than when I left him, for sure. He probably never thought I would have made it this far.”
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