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Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten speaks to Jamie Rowland in her second interview with us about her forthcoming third album, 'Tramp', collaborating with the National's Aaron Dessner and being made to cry in her dentist’s office by a Hollywood musical star
It seems like no time has passed at all since I last met up with Sharon van Etten to discuss her second album, last year’s aptly named’ Epic’. She was in London for a very brief stop-over, playing just the one show in London’s East End before heading back to the States. Tired from a hectic schedule of recording-touring-writing-touring-recording-and touring some more, she still somehow managed to get straight back to work on her return to the States, completing work on her recently announced album ‘Tramp’ - her third since 2009’s ‘Because I Was In Love’ - due for release in February next year.
Following that announcement, Sharon was kind enough to come over to England to tell us all about it. Pennyblackmusic met up with her to discuss the progression of her songwriting, collaborating the National’s Aaron Dessner and being made to cry in her dentist’s office by a star of Hollywood musicals.
PB: I was sent a copy of the new album this week; I’ve only had a chance to listen to it a few times but it’s really, really good. It seems like a big leap forward for you.
SVE: Oh thank you! I’m really proud of it.
PB: It seems a much bigger record than ‘Epic’; did you plan to make a more audacious album from the outset?
SVE: Yeah, well for ‘Epic’ I just wanted to do a record where I was learning to have a band, and for this record I just wanted to learn how to collaborate throughout the whole thing. For ‘Epic’ I was just like, I know I want drums, I know I want bass; I just wanted it to be super basic. For this one, I wanted to work with somebody and talk about how to do the songs together, instead of just thinking of basics, you know? Thinking a little outside the box and working one-on-one with somebody who could help me communicate those ideas – which I didn’t really have before.
PB: And that was Aaron Dessner, from the National?
PB: So in terms of your collaborating with him,were you writing songs with him, or bringing material to him and broadening it out?
SVE: I brought demos to him that were just guitar and vocal, and together we talked about what to do next. Before I already had everything mapped out and brought it to the studio, for ‘Epic’. For this one, I had no idea what to do. I had just finished writing them basically; I was saving the thought process of instrumentation until I had a producer.
PB: And you had a lot of other collaborators coming in to work on the album, including Matt Barrick (of the Walkmen)?
PB: He is such a good drummer.
SVE: He’s amazing! He plays on a lot [of the songs].
PB: I thought I could hear him on ‘Magic Chords’...
SVE: Yeah, he played on ‘Magic Chords’, he played on ‘Leonard’, he played on ‘In Line’, and...
PB: ...was he on ‘Serpents’ as well?
SVE: Yes - that one’s funny, because on the original demo of that, I actually wrote a drum part; it was one of two songs I did a drum part for on midi. So I played the demo for Aaron and I was like, nervous because I felt like I was ripping off the National’s drums a little bit. But that was my idea, because it was like bom-bom bom! Bom-bom budda-buddum! And I said, “I’m really sorry, but I think I stole that from you guys”, and he was like, “Well that’s funny, because we actually stole that from the Walkmen!” And that’s when he decided to call Matt and ask him if he wanted to play drums on the song. It seemed appropriate! It was funny, because I am not a drummer at all, you know? But MIDI makes it easy
PB: I always think it’s very impressive when someone can hit drums in a kind of idiosyncratic way, and you can pick them out from the sound of their drums. John Convertino from Calexico is also like that.
SVE: I totally understand what you mean; I feel the same way with Bryan (Devendorf) from the National. I feel like he has such a unique sound, and especially the drum sound they get in their garage studio; it’s like really warm but really tight.
With Matt, we did the drums... we wanted a bigger sound for those songs. We left them towards the end of the recording process because we knew we wanted to have the drums recorded in a bigger room – because the garage studio is really small, and for most of the songs that worked really well for the drums, that room worked real well for everything else. But as far as the bigger sounding drums, we went to a studio in Miner Street in Philadelphia where I recorded the last record, and used that room for those. Matt lives around Philly, so that made sense.
PB: Would you say it was more upbeat than your last two albums?
SVE: I feel like my songs are progressing more and more, and I guess they’re more rock, and they’re more epic and they’re more driven. I hesitate to say “upbeat”, just because I know they’re not overwhelmingly happy – but in terms of drums and rock elements, then definitely!
PB: Last time we met, I seem to remember you said you were basically homeless. Have you managed to rectify that situation now?
SVE: Oh yeah, I just got my first place in like, twoyears this October. It was, you know, just travelling so much and having a band, with all my off time spent recording the only time I needed a place was to sleep. So I had all my stuff in storage and since, like...it’s been a long time. I had my stuff in storage for the last two years and would just stay with friends.
When I really needed my own space I would sublet apartments short term. One of the places I sublet – I sometimes name songs after where I’m staying - and so one of the songs, ‘Kevin’s’ is from where I was crashing at one time, in December.
PB: I was actually going to ask, actually; you’ve pretty much released three albums in as many years – although ‘Tramp’ comes out in February, it’s near enough – and you also seem to have been touring that entire time; how do you find time to be so prolific when you are so busy? Do you get inspiration for songs while you’re on the road?
SVE: Definitely; when I have a moment to myself I’m able to play, whether or not it turns into anything. When I’m in the van I do MIDI stuff, which is how I came up with some of the more pop and keyboard songs. There are a couple of songs that didn’t make the record that will probably be B-sides later that I wrote on MIDI in the van. It’s harder to do, it’s more of a challenge but you always find some time to do stuff. But I’m hoping that I have the next few months off to just rehearse with the band, and I’m hoping to write more then too.
PB: So maybe another album by the end of next year?
SVE: Well, I already have a piano EP! (Laughs) One of the places I was crashing at had a piano, so I started writing on piano.
PB: When we last spoke, you talked about some of the very personal messages you had received from people who had heard and been moved by your songs. Did you get as much of a reaction from fans listening to ‘Epic’?
SVE: Especially the song ‘Love More’ I find; people really... when it rings with people they really take it personally – not like, take it personally like I’m offending them or anything, but it really hits home. I think I’m always going to write personally, so it’s always nice to hear that. I think that the first album was just so about being broken. People respond [to that] and then ‘Epic’ was about trying not to be, and I feel like people respond to that too. So I’m curious about how people will respond to this one.
PB: You’re on Twitter too (@sharonvanetten) which obviously makes it very easy for fans to get in touch with you. That can have good and bad sides, and there are a lot of crazy people on the internet. Have you had much dealings with the internet’s stranger patrons?
SVE: Sure; I mean there hasn’t been that many negative interactions, but... I think I have a responsibility as a public person to reach out and respond when I can, and I always try to – I haven’t been good at keeping up lately! But there’s been some... I had a stalker for a little while. I had to get a new Facebook account. Because [I perform under] my name, you know? Things get a little weird online, with rules and stuff. So I was like, “Well, it’s my personal account but this person wrote me directly so I can add them.” But then I thought no; I should just have straight ‘fan’ and then ‘friend’ because people can find out anything about you on Facebook. It just starts getting a little weird.
When I was still sending out my record myself, before I was working with anyone, I was a publicist and so I was used to reading all my reviews and keeping note of them and keeping track of what regions cared about it more, and i was reading comments on my songs and on my records, and seeing how many comments were about how I looked or my sexual orientation; they weren’t even talking about the music. I had to stop reading the comments, but you know that people go to those websites because they can. It started to get tough, I started taking things way too personally reading these anonymous comments on a blog somewhere.
PB: Talking of Twitter, I was looking through your feed and saw an interesting post – did you really meet Julie Andrews at the dentist?
SVE: Yes! I did. Yeah. I haven’t been to the dentist in a very, very long time. I was super nervous, and my friend recommended this guy – it was in like, the Upper West Side or something. And so I go for the first time in probably six years, and I was just settling up at the reception area and paying my bill, when I hear this voice out of the corner of my ear, and she’s talking about how her husband’s movie – I think it was ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s ‘– they just had a 50th anniversary for it and they asked her to speak at Lincoln Centre in New York, about it.
I looked over – it was her... There were two receptionists so I was talking to one and then Julie – ha, “Julie”-Ms Andrews was talking to the other receptionist, and I look over and I’m like (Whispers) ,“That’s Julie Andrews!” I even did a double-take. So the dentist’s assistant walked up to help me go over my schedule, and I said, “Is...that...Julie Andrews?” And she looked over my shoulder and she looks back and says, “Yeah”.
So I went over and over and over in my mind if I was going to talk to her or not, and I thought, “Wwhen is this going to happen again? Should I, should I not; what am I going to say?” I’ve only ever been star struck a couple of times; once was with David Sedaris, the other was Evan Dando. So David Sedaris, Evan Dando and then her – and she was the biggest! So I was going to walk out of the room but I thought I have to say something, so I turned to her and I said, “I’m really sorry,” and she says, “What’s that?” and I said, “I’m a really big fan!” “Oh, why thank you!”
So I was like, “I’m a singer too,” and she goes, “Oh really? Where do you perform?” And all I could say was “Bowery”, and then I just started crying! I just said, “I’m sorry!” and I ran out of the room. I was so embarrassed.
PB: Did you just leave it at that? Running away in tears?
SVE: I just left! Well, I didn’t know what else to say. Tthere was nothing else I could say: I told her I loved her, I was starting to lose my shit; I just apologised to everybody in the room and was like “forgive me!” I just totally geeked out. And then I remember as soon as I left the building, I called my parents immediately because they’re, you know, I grew up on ‘The Sound of Music’ and all that stuff; we watched it none-stop when I was a kid. My parents were just laughing at me, they were like, “...That’s all you said? To Julie Andrews?!” I was so embarrassed. But yeah – it was true!
PB: I love the idea of you bursting into tears and then just leaving.
SVE: (Laughs) Well, what do you do after that? Am I going to be talking to her, sobbing?
PB: All your albums have come out since you moved to New York. Would you say that’s when you hit your stride in terms of songwriting?
SVE: Well, I had a lot of songs written before I moved to New York, but I didn’t think I could do music seriously until my friends convinced me to move to New York and really try to have a go at it. But up until then, I was only playing open mics, I was living in my parents’ basement just writing and recovering from heartbreak, never really having tried before. And then my friends convinced me to move to New York, and I got a job at Ba Da Bing Records and just started playing shows with the help of my friends.T hen things just started happening.
I have friends, Sam and Monica, in Tennessee where I used to live, and they would always give me advice. I was going through a really hard time and didn’t know what I wanted to do and they said, “Once you set your sight to one star, the constellation will naturally align”. I love that saying; I didn’t understand it at the time, but I felt like once I decided to do music seriously – just try to really, really do it – things just started lining up. Once I focused on doing that and that was all I was going to do, and I was giving myself a year to give it a start – things just started happening. It was pretty nutty!
PB: So when did you actually move to New York?
SVE: I moved there in... ’05 or ’06 I think? So I’ve been there about 5 years now, and it’s... I feel like things keep progressing. As long as it’s – because I get ADD sometimes; I almost went into wine, I almost went into photography, but I decided to go for music. So I’ll be like”What will happen if I lose my train of thought? What if I’m like “you know what? I’m gonna take a break from music, go to school for psychiatry”? I just hope I don’t lose track, because since I’ve been focused things have just been progressing.
PB: So that’s where the constellation is falling into place.
SVE: Yeah, and I think that’s really true of a lot of things. It’s one of my many mantras; I have that one and “Everything Will Be Ok”. I actually have a sticker on my laptop that says that so I can be like ,“It’s true! It’s true! Everything will be ok!”
PB: So obviously there’s a lot of interesting and diverse music that comes from New York, and you were encouraged to go there and seem to have flourished since; do you think the city has an energy – to use a cheesy term – or something that acts as a creative influence on people?
SVE: Yeah, I think just being around people that are productive and doing shit, you know? If they’re really active and... I feel like I’ve lived in areas where there have been amazing musicians, but they’re so lazy, and it makes me so sad because if they put an ounce of effort into putting out a record or touring or anything they’d do so well.
I feel like certain cities, when it’s really affordable to live there, it’s easier to get by... I nearly moved to Austin before I moved to New York, but then I was like, “That’s not the kind of place that’s going to kick me in the ass.”I needed to be kicked in the ass at that time, and New York was really motivational for me because you’re surrounded by people that are doing ten different things at the same time. So you’ll say, “What do you do?” “Well, I’m an actor and a chef, and I DJ, and I play music as well and sometimes I volunteer...” You know? They do so many different kinds of things. And you have to work really hard to just afford rent, so to be able to do all those things you really have to take advantage of living in New York – I’m sure it’s the same way here; if you’re going to live in a major city, it’s going to be expensive to live here. You have to be surrounded by people that are productive as well so that you are inspired by them.
One of my first roommates was a baker and also a photo assistant, and she moved over from Germany and just really made a path for herself. Just being surrounded by that kind of creative, positive energy. I don’t want to be surrounded by stoners all the time that are just watching cartoons and working at a video store. Not to say that that’s wrong, but for me I need to be surrounded by people that are being productive and are doing things. There’s something to be said for getting something accomplished in your life.
And I feel like my writing is getting better. I’m not where I want to be by any means, but being challenged by other people... You know, I used to be intimidated by the idea of working with people that are more professional than me, or better writers than me, or better singers than me – and that’s the way you improve; you learn from them. It’s taught me a lot – I’m nowhere near where I want to be as a writer, but I’m getting... I’m closer!
PB: You said you’d done a piano EP; will you be releasing that?
SVE: Well I don’t know; I’ve kind of been joking about it because in my time off, in between finishing this record and finding a place to live, I’ve written some demos on piano, and I would like to try to record them but I don’t know if I would be able to play them again because I don’t know what I played!
So I’d have to learn how to play piano a little bit, but over the next few months – I just go a new practice space that has a piano, so I’d like to re-learn how to play those songs and re-record them. Aaron has a piano at his studio, so it’d be fun to at least have a better record of it, because my demo recordings of it are so bad! That’s something that I’m thinking about doing, possibly. If I can figure out a way to do it. I feel like in some ways it might be anti-climatic to have ‘Tramp’] and then do a piano EP, but... I don’t even know what people will think about this record yet, so we’ll see. But it’ll be fun to do something else soon.
[My bandmate] Heather and I have started writing together a little; she’s a really amazing songwriter, Heather Woods Broderick – she’s really great, you should look her up! She just moved to New York and she’ll be working on some new stuff on the off time that we have, I guess.
I can’t wait for you to see the whole band when we’re back in March! It’s going to be really good. I have a new drummer, who’s more versatile. My old drummer was a rock drummer, so I decided to go with someone that can do all kinds of stuff, but he can also multitask. He can play electronic drums as well as play keys. My bass player is Doug Keith, who’s also a really great songwriter. He plays bass and guitar, but he’s more of a guitar player than a bass player, so Heather will be playing bass also; but she’s a multi-instrumentalist. She can play bass, she can play guitar, keys, flute and cello. As well as sing – my bass player and Heather both sing. So the fun part is, we’ll have a lot more room to run around and trade of instruments, and work on that – so the next few months we’re going to be working on that, because we start touring in February, full-on.
PB: That’s in the US, isn’t it?
SVE: February is US, and then the first week of March is doing a handful of major cities; London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin. Maybe five major cities, just here for a week and then we do another, West Coast tour. So February’s East Coast tour, then we do a week in Europe, then it’s West Coast tour. And then it’s a little up in the air after that, but we want to try and come back here and do a full-on European tour. We want to do Australia and New Zealand. We’ll probably do festivals over the summer. But we’re figuring that out. February, March and April are all set up. It’s going to be intense, but it’ll be fun. I’ve got a good group of people to enjoy it all.
PB: Thank you.