Updated Mon, Jul 21, 2014 11:58 am
photo: Dusdin Condren
With the release of Are We There, Sharon Van Etten has won critical acclaim with one of her best albums to date. She's currently on tour in the U.S., Canada and Europe, landing this weekend at both the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago and then later at The Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky.
WOUB contributor Josh Antonuccio caught up with her somewhere outside of Fargo, N.D., to talk about the virtues of self-therapy, producing her new album, opening for Nick Cave and making sense of life as an artist.
Sharon Van Etten: Rumor has it that I’m talking to Josh, is that true?
Josh Antonuccio: That’s God’s honest truth, Sharon. Thanks for making time to talk. So, you guys just played in Fargo last night?
SVE: Yeah, we are in North Dakota right now. We played last night at a place called The Aquarium and now we are on our way to Minneapolis.
JA: When are you arriving at Forecastle?
SVE: I think we’re getting in the night before. We’re driving from Chicago. I haven’t played in Louisville in 10 years. It was a lot of fun, but that was 10 years ago, so I’m really excited to come back. I’ve heard great things about Forecastle.
JA: Do you feel like you've been getting more recognition from the mainstream since your song "Serpents" was featured on The Walking Dead?
SVE: Yeah, it’s funny. I never would have thought that any of my songs would have that kind of appeal. Most of what I do is not exactly accessible or poppy or radio friendly, so when that song got on that show, I felt really lucky and definitely met people along the way that have found my music through that show. So I’ve appreciated it, it’s helped for sure.
JA: For the new album, you produced it yourself with help from Stewart Lerman (Loudon Wainright III, David Byrne, Elvis Costello). What was that process like? Was it daunting or liberating?
SVE: I was really intimidated at first, but it was important for me to try it. I reached out to Stewart just to look for a studio; I never thought he would want to work with someone like me. I really liked his energy. We had worked together in different capacities before and I knew that I could get good advice from him. So when I sought his advice for a studio, I sat down with him and said that I wanted to bring my band, a handful of friends and find a studio that's non-descript and not genre specific. Somewhere where there’s not already a vibe walking in or a sound stamp going in. Other than that, there wasn’t much of a game plan, other than bringing my band into the studio. My band had already heard demo versions of all the songs. It was a constant conversation about what was going to happen next and after the album was tracked live from the very beginning, we just worked on it track-by-track after that.
2013 Nelsonville Music Festival (photo: Sarah Laubacher/WOUB)
JA: A lot of your songs involve personal revelation, wrestling, and struggling. What’s your process like in getting this kind of material down?
SVE: I had written most of the songs over the past couple of years. I wrote them on the road when we were touring on the last record (Tramp, 2012) and during some of our time off in New York, finally having my own apartment to live in and work in. But yeah, they’re all autobiographical. Always very personal because I always write through a conscious style and self-therapy, I’m sure that you’ve heard about that. For some of the songs I would just do a guitar and vocal, or a keyboard and vocal, and lay down minimal drums, just to give my bandmates an idea of what the vibe is. Then my bandmates and friends can do it better it me. But I was pretty hands-on with the bass lines, drums, and I played a lot of keys on this record. I had to hang back on the harmonies to let my bandmate Heather sing a little bit more of them. I’m usually pretty territorial and this is the first time I let someone else handle them.
JA: When listening to the new album, it’s almost like one is looking into a diary or a journal, it’s feels so honest; just a lot of searching. How do you muster the audacity and the courage needed to put that out there? Is it just therapy or are you trying to connect with people that may be in a similar place?
SVE: I’m still figuring it out, because sometimes I wonder if what I’m sharing is too personal. I try to only share the songs that I feel like have universal ideas, even though all the songs come from a really personal space. But I’m going to be concerned about alienating the listener to where they can’t relate to the song personally. I don’t want to come across as a victim and I don’t want people to feel bad for me, because I’m fine. I walk the line a lot of the time, but hopefully it still feels cathartic and people can relate it to it themselves: the focus of not trying to paint a picture about what’s happened to me, but rather in them feeling not so alone.
JA: There seems to be tension in the lyrics. On the one hand, there’s a need to take a journey, but also a sense that you want to arrive at a destination. On the first track, "Afraid of Nothing," you sing that you want your companion to arrive somewhere emotionally. How do you carry that tension as a songwriter--the therapy of searching and also the yearning for resolution?
SVE: Well, most of these songs, they document the last few years of me wanting to be home, but also needing to work and believing in what I do and trying to give out to the people around me, whether it be in the band or when I’m home in New York. It’s a hard balance, you know, to try and have a relationship, even to try and be a good friend, or to be a good daughter or sister and still not feel the pressure from it. And…I haven’t figured that out yet, Josh! (laughs)
JA: Hopefully you’re making progress!
SVE: I am. Well, I’m constantly writing and I feel pretty great. I have a great group of people around me and, you know, hopefully keep moving forward.
2013 Nelsonville Music Festival (photo: Sarah Laubacher/WOUB)
JA: I read that you toured with Nick Cave. What was that like?
SVE: He’s a man of many words, for sure. He does so many things, and it’s not all in music. He has a really incredible work ethic and he is really good with the people he works with. And you can see that with everyone I met on that tour. He’s a gentleman--professional and is actually very organized and diligent in making sure that he’s working constantly, no matter what it is he’s working on. And the live shows are always incredible. He treated us, his opener, pretty cool and never made us feel like we didn’t belong there, and I think that’s a lot of why people like him and his music. He’s like a punk, and then he writes beautiful songs, and then he writes songs about killing people. No matter what, you’re just as scared as you are in awe and your heart is also melting for him in a weird way. I respect him and his band very much.
JA: Nick Cave is a pretty disciplined songwriter. Are you the same way, where every day you're getting something down or do you need to pretty much be home or in a certain place to write?
SVE: I don’t know, I’m definitely not as diligent as he is. I mean, I try to read or write, or do photography or just something everyday where it’s not just playing shows, just something. The more you read, the better you write. The more you even step outside of music, and just turn off your ears to music and turn to nature or art, it really helps clear your head a little bit, instead of being very inside yourself. I also try, if I do have a moment, to sit down and play an instrument that I don’t normally play, so that helps me think of writing in a different way. But then, I don’t like forcing it either. Anytime I sit down and try to force myself to write, I get more frustrated than anything.
JA: Do you find that you have a lot of people who try to connect with you, write to you or talk to you after shows about how your songs have spoken to them, in areas like heartache or struggles they're having?
SVE: Yeah, that’s one thing that people can say they’ve gone through on some level. People like talking to me after shows to tell me what they’ve been through, and that means a lot to me. That’s not easy to talk about, but I think it’s important.
JA: In your new video for "Our Love," you have your eyes closed for almost the entire time. I was thinking that there are two images that really help me understand this album: You closing your eyes, like you could be letting go, or maybe its fear. Then at the end, we finally see your eyes and it’s this moment of awakening and revelation. The other image is the cover art of the album; the shot of your friend in the car. It’s such a great picture of breaking free.
SVE: Yeah, she's one of my best friends who did the art for the first few records. That photograph really summed up where I was at. It’s a release, it’s beautiful. There’s something sad, but also timeless to it. And there’s something just really innocent about it, too. I don’t know, it just summed up where I was for sure when I found it.
JA: On so many tracks on this album, songs like "Your Love Is Killing Me," "Our Love" and others, there is so much intensity and emotional wrestling. Do you ever write from a different place where there isn’t so much difficulty?
SVE: Well, I guess when I write, it’s usually when I’m really in a bad place. I find it really hard to write outside of how I’ve been writing for the last 10 years. My band convinced me to record the last song ("Every Time the Sun Comes Up"). It’s probably one of the happiest, silly ones, even though it still has a dark side. There’s part of me where I’ll let people know I’m doing alright, and we’re having fun. But it’s really hard for me to write differently. Performing those songs and writing them--the fact is I need it. It’s really cathartic for me.