Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has released two albums; her first, ‘Because I Was in Love’, was an intimate, haunting album of acoustic guitar and voice, with minimal accompaniment. Last year’s follow up record, ‘Epic ‘,featured a fuller-sound, with van Etten sounding more confident in both her writing and her performance. The album’s second track, ‘Peace Sign’ was one of my favourite songs of the last year and seems to be perpetually stuck in my head. It is, indeed, epic.

In February she joined The National on their European tour, with a quick stop-off in London en-route to play a one-off show at Hoxton Bar and Restaurant. Pennyblackmusic caught up with Sharon there to discuss the pros and cons of touring, her musical influences growing up and the therapeutic qualities of music for both the performer and the listener.


PB: Is this your first time playing in London?

SVE: This is my third time; it’s my first time with the band. But it’s been over two years since I’ve been here. I did a tour with Meg Baird three or four years ago, and then I did a tour with Great Lake Swimmers two years ago. But I haven’t been since, so we just added this show to play London because it’s been so long. We got here Friday morning at 6 a.m.

PB: Have you had time to explore the city and see the sights?

SVE: We had one day to recover, and then we just walked around this area (Shoreditch/Hoxton) yesterday – today we had to get a lot of work done. [Hoxton’s] pretty cool, but the streets don’t make much sense to me!

PB: And after this show, you’re off touring Europe – how long are you over here for?

SVE: It’ll be for two weeks; we meet up with the National tomorrow and they’re letting us hop on their bus!

PB: Do you like touring as much as writing and recording?

SVE: I like touring, but it’s really tiring – the driving, the loading in and out, sound-checking and performing every night for a month. It’s so schedule orientated, there’s not much you can fit in. But I love it! And I know it’s necessary. I do like writing because I can just write whenever I want – well, if I had enough time off. I’ve been so busy touring that the only time I have off I spend recording. There’s not much time to write right now.

PB: Do you find it hard to find the time to write while you’re on the road, or are you just too tired?

SVE: Well it’s not even that; there’s no time and there’s no space! We crash at people’s houses most of the time because we can’t really afford hotels yet; we’re just starting as a band. When we have crazy drives, we drive for eight hours to get to the venue, we have two hours to sound-check and to eat, and then the show starts. And then by the time you get out of the show, it’s like one or two in the morning, and we have another eight hour drive the next day. It’s kind of: wake up, eat, drive, load-in, sound-check, eat, play, load-out, find a place to stay – every day! If we’re lucky we have one day off a week. But we make it work.

PB: And this tour comes off the back of another tour in the United States?

SVE: Yeah, we toured for September, October and November, and then I went on a solo tour in Japan in December, and in-between tours I’ve been recording for the new record, and then we did a week in January, then I went straight to recording, and then we went straight to touring!

PB: Did you enjoy touring in Japan? Did you find audiences reacted to you differently there than they would here or in New York?

SVE: Yeah, everyone is super different. I had to go by myself because my label over there couldn’t afford to pay for a whole band to go over, so I had to go over by myself to meet these strangers – I had only met these people through email. Basically, I was picked up at the airport, the guy barely speaks English – I don’t speak any Japanese – and they take me to someone’s house, and it’s his mother’s house.

Whenever you go to another country, it’s so much the same, but just a little bit different. There’s something parallel about everywhere, you know? Everyone was really nice and hospitable, and they were very structured; everything’s timed. It’s like, “Tomorrow, nine o’clock: we eat breakfast. Ten o’clock: we leave” – they had the trains down, they had everything down. Everything went smoothly. If you’re five minutes early, you’re late – you know what I mean?

When you play, you finish a song and then they don’t start clapping until you say “thank you” – otherwise everyone just sits there in silence! The Japanese are very hard-working, very schedule orientated, and very polite. It’s all true!

PB: Do you find generally that audiences react very differently from country to country, or even from town to town?

SVE: Playing in London is a lot like New York – people talk a lot, it’s a tougher crowd. I’ve lucked out in other cities in the US, like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, LA – people are generally awesome. I’m not really so familiar with Europe though. Berlin, I played a couple of years ago, and everyone was amazing – after the show, everyone was really honest, but really nice, like “You sounded a little out of tune on that song, but I really like it!”

PB: Do you prefer playing with a band than playing by yourself?

SVE: It just depends, depends on the space or on the show. My new record is mostly band stuff, so I’ve been playing with the band. I miss playing solo, but it’s a natural progression – I can’t relate to some of my old songs anymore, so it’s hard to play them. It’s just growing out of that time, you know; I like that it’s encapsulated, like a photo album or something – “I remember when I was like that!”

PB: How did you get your start in music; what inspired you to become a songwriter?

SVE: Well, when I grew up my parents encouraged me to take instrument lessons, so I took violin and clarinet before I did choir. But then when I went to high school, they didn’t have as good a music programme, so I only did choir – and musicals. But my parents took me to shows, growing up, and my mom would take me to Broadway and she took me to see Bruce Springsteen. My dad would take me to rock ’n’ roll shows. My first show with my dad was Aimee Mann playing with the Kinks. It was pretty cool.

PB: Was it seeing those shows with your dad that made you want to write and perform your own songs?

SVE: I don’t know; there were a lot of things that lead to it later, but it took me a while. I kind of wrote songs in high school, just because I like learning how to play instruments so I taught myself how to play guitar and then came up with melodies, but not really thinking about it. And then I moved to Tennessee after high school, to go to college, and I tried to take a normal path into a career in the recording industry, working on the technology side, but I just realised that I wanted to be on the other side.

PB: Was it in Tennessee that you played your first gigs?

SVE: Well I tried for a little bit, but I only did a few open mics. The six years I was there, I ended up dating this guy that wasn’t supportive of my music at all and he pawned off my instruments or broke them. So I didn’t really start playing seriously until I moved back to Jersey.

PB: Do you have a process for writing music? How do you go about putting a song together?

SVE: Usually the melody comes first and then the guitar part. The chords come after. So the song takes shape from the melody. And then once I have the melody and the guitar part, I just play that over ad over and over again and sing stream of consciousness lyrics. I’ll record for like fifteen or twenty minutes and then I’ll listen back to it and then hear what I’m trying to say and edit it down that way. So it’s a stream of consciousness so I can look at it and be honest with myself about what I’m trying to say. It’s like, therapy in hindsight, or something.

PB: Your lyrics do sound very personal, I was going to ask if there was a therapeutic aspect to your songwriting.

SVE: Oh, definitely. It’s the only thing I have!

PB: Are your lyrics always about particular, personal experiences, or do you sometimes use narratives or work in different styles?

SVE: I have songs that are very specific to a person, but I still try to write in a way where anyone can relate to it personally. Even though I might be talking about something specific, I just try to make it sound like I’m talking to somebody. The way I write is I try to make it sound like the way I would talk, I don’t try to be really poetic or cover it up with a story so it sounds like a fairy tale or anything, I like to be pretty normal – I want it to be straightforward and conversational. Some stuff is about my friends, some stuff is about myself; it’s kind of all over the place, but they’re all similar in that way.

PB: With some of the songs being so personal, does it make it hard to perform them; do you ever feel a little exposed or vulnerable sharing intimate details from your life?

SVE: It just feels healing every time, you know? It’s all things that I’m still going through, or it’s stuff that I’ve gotten past. I guess I have this weird separation with my songs where it’s its own thing and, even though I wrote it about something either me or a friend went through, I have this separation thing where it’s like, “Ok, that’s what that is!” It’s like this piece of paper, it’s not me anymore. But then people relate to it so intensely, which is awesome. That’s when it gets really emotionally heavy, when they ask me personal stuff or they tell me personal stories of why they relate to it. It’s only been a handful of people so far, but when I do hear those stories...

I had someone write me a handwritten letter, someone that works as an art therapist, and they were using my CD in their sessions. I thought it was so beautiful, but it’s kind of an intense thing. I mean, without really going into too many details, it was about a battered woman trying to heal through art. It was really intense.

PB: That must be very rewarding at the same time, though

SVE: God, yeah! I mean, it’s helping somebody other than me – it makes me feel not so selfish.

PB: You mentioned that you were recording earlier in the year

SVE: I’ve been recording on-and-off, with Aaron Dessner from the National. We started in September/October, and we’ve been doing about a week every month until January; we did two weeks in January. We’re hoping to finish the record over three weeks in May.

It will either be out in October or January, depending on the timing. It’s going to be crazier than the last one. Aaron’s a genius, he keeps pushing me and it’s going to have strings, horns. It’s going to be, like, in between my first record and ‘Epic’ – they’re not all going to be rock songs, but it’s going to be a lot more experimental. I like to be challenged, I like to be pushed; even though it’s hard, I like to grow and learn and redefine my music, write from a different place.

PB: So presumably even more touring will follow the new record?

SVE:Yeah, we’re touring February, March, April. We’re doing shows scattered through May, June, July and August. We have a potential tour – a big tour, that we can’t announce yet – in July. Most of May’s going to be spent finishing the record, but we’ll be touring all through the summer. Mostly festivals. Hopefully back here in the winter. But I want to have some time to chill out, because I’ve been non-stop since September. So I’m giving myself June.

I’ve actually been homeless since April. Because I travel so much, instead of getting an apartment I have a band – it’s the joke. I want to pay them. So I’ve been couch-sitting since last April. Now my plan is to get a place in June; so I can record in May then have a month off in June and then go off on a crazy tour for six weeks. I’m going to get a sub-let so I can try to have my own space. It’s very frustrating, but you have to make sacrifices.

PB: Thank you.















Related Links:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon_Van_Etten
http://www.sharonvanetten.com
https://twitter.com/sharonvanetten
https://www.facebook.com/SharonVanEttenMusic


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