From the dark beauty of her official debut album, Because I Was In Love, to the stunning, melancholy tinged highs of her new release Are We There, Sharon Van Etten has consistently proven herself to be an artist of ferocious power. She has received critical accolades from The New York Times, Pitchfork, NPR, amongst many others, and the strength of her past releases is only equalled by the incredible promise of those to come.
Van Etten is not only well known for her own stunning music, but also for her collaborations with other titans of the alternative music genre. She’s guested on records by artists such as Jack Ladder, The Antlers, and sang a duet on The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis.
No stranger to Australian shores, she is set to head down under again with a tour due to kick off on the first of March. Ahead of the shows we spoke to Sharon about her past, her influences, and the trials and tribulations associated with Bob Dylan Songbooks…
Joseph Earp: How are you Sharon, and where does our interview find you today?
Sharon Van Etten: Great. Just making a chicken dinner at home in New York.
SVE: I always write from a personal place and in a therapeutic way when I am having a hard time, so I guess… yes. Ha!
JE: The vinyl release of Are We There is just beautiful – the design of the gatefold is incredible. How do you weigh in on the whole physical media vs. digital debate?
SVE: I am very hands on with artwork. I take the time with the physical for the vinyl lovers and if people download it, it’s fine, because I know I put my heart and soul into it, and anyone buying the digital music probably doesn’t care about the “package” as much – but I appreciate anyone that listens to the music, but they aren’t getting the whole picture.
JE: In terms of your writing schedule, are you the kind of person who will sit down a certain number of hours a week to write, or do you just let it come naturally?
SVE: I try to sit down and right when I have time off, but I don’t like to force it either. I take a breath or do something else inspiring (go to a museum, watch films, read books) to have something more to write about and become a better writer.
JE: Where would you say you drew the most inspiration from when it came time to put your new album together?
SVE: It was just me documenting where I was in my life.
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JE: Tim Presley (a.k.a. White Fence) said he recorded a cover of your song Every Time The Sun Comes Up and found himself in tears by the time he finished singing it. It is a really emotionally charged song: was it hard for you to sing as well?
SVE: It is hard for me to perform my songs, but only after I have some distance from them and realize, with hindsight, what they mean. I am a huge fan of White Fence and it made me teary eyed to think my songs could move him so.
JE: I’ve always felt there’s something quite literary about your lyrics. Are there any authors you feel have had a direct impact on your work?
SVE: Anais Nin, Milan Kundera, Ray Bradbury, e e cummings, and Richard Brautigan
JE: I love all the music videos for your songs, but Magic Chords might be my favourite. How was that shoot?
SVE: It was intense. It was cold. I’ve never been around more than one naked person before and never in that context. Ha. But I trusted Rick. He’s dark. He’s minimal, and toughly quiet. Understated and deliberate.
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JE: You’ve worked with a lot of awesome musicians in the past – you recently sang with Deer Tick in concert, for example. How do collaborations like that come up?
SVE: Deer Tick and I have been crossing paths for years. We tour constantly and have so many friends in common. I actually can’t believe it took this long to work together. I hope we get a chance to work together again. John McCauley is an amazing songwriter and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
JE: At what point did you decide to totally commit to making music? Was there ever a ‘eureka’ moment where you thought ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life’?
SVE: It was when I was working a day job as much as I was playing shows and I had to choose between the two. I loved both my wine job, my label job – but music was something I had to try harder at. So I did. I was 25.
JE: You trained to become a sommelier before you became a musician – does that mean you still have a well stocked wine cellar?
SVE: I buy wine as I drink it. So no. Ha!
JE: I love your list of musical recommendations included in the Tramp liner notes – it’s how I discovered Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Do you have any other bands you’re listening to at the moment that you could recommend?
SVE: Weyes Blood, Torres, Shilpa Ray, Natalie Prass, Leon Bridges
JE: Who inspired you to become a musician? What artists do you look up to?
SVE: I guess first and foremost, my family. Everyone in my family (I am one of five kids) is a huge music fan. Of all genres. Love going to shows. It has been in my life somehow since I can remember and my family has encouraged me in one way or another to do music – whether it be choir or musicals … and now as a singer – they still come to every show I play.
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JE: What’s the first song you ever learnt to play on guitar?
SVE: It think it was a Dylan song. My brother gave me a book. Or a John Denver song. My mom gave me a book. I was terrible though.
JE: You will be heading out on the road in March, performing several shows around Australia. What can fans expect from the upcoming shows?
SVE: I have a five piece band now and we are psyched to play these new songs for you – BUT we will play old songs as well. Much more fleshed out than the last time we were there. So excited to come back!
JE: What is your favourite venue out of those you have played in over the years?
SVE: It is still Bowery Ballroom in New York. My hometown show. :)
JE: Tell me something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
SVE: I have a birthmark on my ass.
JE: Thanks for your time Sharon
SVE: THANK YOU!
Sharon Van Etten’s critically lauded album Are We There is out now and her Australian tour dates are below:
Feb 26 – Chevron Festival Gardens – Perth, Australia
March 1 – Factory Theatre – Marrickville, Australia
March 3 – The Hi-Fi – Melbourne, Australia
March 4 – The Zoo – Brisbane, Australia
March 6 – Womadelaide Festival – Adelaide, Australia
March 7 – A Festival Called Panama – Tas, Australia
March 7 – Golden Plains Festival – Meredith, Australia