An Interview with Sharon Van Etten

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Photo credits: Ryan Pfluger, http://pitchperfectpr.com/sharonvanetten

It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving in the US. Hopefully, you’ve all spent the last few days being safe, eating turkey, and relaxing. Getting back into the groove on a Monday is never easy. Getting back into the groove after a long weekend is even harder. There’s hope though. It may not seem like it, but things are heading in the right direction. Each day, we inch closer to a vaccine for COVID-19. Each day, we move closer toward peace. So, if you haven’t already, give thanks for that, as well as all the positives of this year. It may not seem like it now, but trust me, there are many.

I first discovered the music of Sharon Van Etten via a Pirate Radio show. Over time, the bulk of Remind Me Tomorrow has been played on that same show. That album happens to be Sharon’s newest and like her others, it’s emotionally deep and generally awesome. After I’d heard the album enough times on the show, I chose to go backward and dig into the rest of the catalog, and I came to find that the rest is equally awesome and equally deep.

So, today I am “sitting down” with Sharon Van Etten. It’s a really cool interview. Being from New York, it’s always nice to be able to talk with artists from the tri-state area (Sharon is from New Jersey). Sharon is as open and honest as she comes across in her music, and that was refreshing as well. If you’re interested in checking out the music of Sharon Van Etten, you can head over to her website here. Dig in!

Andrew:
Sharon, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a weird year, hasn’t it? What have you been up to pass the time?

Sharon:
You can say that again. The strangest time. I feel very lucky. As much as I miss touring, it’s been nice to be with my family and settle into our home in California. I had a great run of shows last year and this year has felt more like a reset and I am writing, without too much pressure, as I process what the hell is going on and how I feel and what it means, and how it affects everyone around me. So, yeah, not much. [Laughs].

Andrew:
Tell us a little about your back story. How did you get your start? What are your musical origins so to speak?

Sharon:
I grew up in Nutley, NJ. My elementary school, Yantacaw, a public school, had an amazing music program and as early as 3rd grade, I got to take violin lessons, clarinet lessons, and choir up to 6th grade. Then I moved because my mom got her first teaching job, after being at home, raising 5 kids, and going to night school. There wasn’t much of a music program at the junior high there, so I focused more on sports as I settled into my new home…but when I began high school, I decided to take freshman choir and auditioned for the musicals and that was a constant during my teens. During this time, I was learning to play guitar and write silly songs, with no real purpose other than it was fun to play with my friend Dana. Admirers of Ween, we wrote about what we saw to punny, literal proportions. (ex. “There’s a gangster on the corner, pants blowing in the wind…”) Oh yeah. That’s a direct quote. But being one of five kids, I was exposed to so much music: Grunge, Alternative, MTV, Pop, Classic Rock. So many genres being played on the radio at the same time. My mom loved Country and Folk and musicals – got me into Lucinda Williams, the Four Seasons, Del Shannon, Everly Brothers, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Springsteen, The Police. My dad got me into more Classic rock – The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, Jethro Tull, and Bob Dylan. Tom Petty was a family favorite too. One everyone would agree on a road trip.  

Photo credits: Ryan Pfluger, http://pitchperfectpr.com/sharonvanetten

Andrew:
You’re originally from New Jersey but spent some time in Tennessee. Can you tell us a little about that?

Sharon:
I left NJ for TN after high school to attend MTSU. I heard through my AP Music Theory teacher that there was a Recording Major there and that helped my argument in pursuing music with a backup plan. However, after attending for one year, I realized I needed to be more hands-on, and I didn’t want to take all the general studies classes I aced in high school. I felt like I was wasting my time where I thought music was more out of experience than a “proper education.” I got a job at a local venue and worked there until I moved back to NJ in 2015.

Andrew:
In 2009, you released your debut album, Because I Was in Love. It’s a really great album. Can you tell us a little about the recording of it? What was your inspiration at the time?

Sharon:
I met Greg Weeks through Ben Goldberg at BaDaBing Records (where I was interning at the time) and Otto Hauser from Espers (Greg’s band) whom I met while opening for Meg Baird on my first tour in the UK. I had never played with a band and I was learning how to play live shows. I wanted to keep the album minimal because I wanted to be able to own the recordings live in a way I didn’t feel I was deceiving the audience. And although my initial goal was to keep production minimal, the fact that I didn’t ever use a tuning pedal fell into play while choosing what to overdub after the live tracking. Apparently, I wasn’t ever in tune with any instrument other than myself so it became quite impossible to add anything anyway.   

Andrew:
I really enjoy the subtly heartfelt nature of your music and lyrics. It’s refreshing and honest. Oftentimes, artists will write lyrics and have no real connection to them, and other times they are deeply personal. Which is it for you?

Sharon:
I always write from a personal space, even when it’s stream of consciousness. I don’t always have a tangible narrative, but the feeling is always there and the build/intensity always plays a part, even more so initially than lyrics do.  

Photo credits: Ryan Pfluger, http://pitchperfectpr.com/sharonvanetten

Andrew:
EpicTramp, and Are We There are all really great albums. You’ve steadily released new music and managed to keep from repeating yourself while still sounding fresh. How do you feel you’ve progressed from album to album?

Sharon:
Every time I make a record, I am proud of it and ask myself what I can do differently to make it better for myself as well as the listener. I feel like if I approach it the same way every time I will keep making the same record, so I try to change at least one factor every time. 

Andrew:
You’ve done some acting as well! You’ve appeared in The OA and Twin Peaks, as well as Never Rarely Sometimes Always. How did you get into acting? Has your experience as an actress affected or influenced music at all?

Sharon:
The first time I was approached to act, a scout recollected my show opening for Nick Cave at Beacon. I’m not sure what he was looking for in his mental Rolodex. I was nervous to accept the audition because I had just decided to tell my band I was going to take a break from the road and go back to school to pursue psychology. I didn’t want to seem like a phony by changing career paths when I felt I had so dramatically halted the tour build. But after talking to friends and family and my partner, I was encouraged to take a chance and I somehow got the role. That was for The OA. For Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman knew me a few ways, but I think it was through my connection with Katherine Dieckmann (whom I did the score for Strange Weather). I feel very lucky that it feels random but also from relationships I had grown previously without trying to pursue acting in a direct way. It’s a relief the two paths of music and film complement each other without a lot of overlap. I feel like I can compartmentalize in a healthy way and stay inspired independently of each career.

Andrew:
In 2019, you released Remind Me Tomorrow. I’ve come to truly love this album and I think it’s my favorite of yours. Can you tell us about the recording of it?

Sharon:
After living with demos I had written during my time off, having a child during the first Trump election, I had an overwhelming feeling of dread and optimism I was battling. As well as trying to find a new (head)space for my songs to live. John Congleton met me for coffee and he asked me what it was I was trying to say and what my references were for the palate. I felt so clearly it was Nick Cave‘s Skeleton Tree, Suicide, and Portishead. I also knew that I was done trying to recreate and improve my demos and that they needed to be reimagined in a new space, out of my comfort zone. So, this is the first record I completely let go and allowed a producer to interpret with my direction. He picked the musicians and I just showed up as a singer and I got to approach my songs in a brand new light. It was scary and incredibly satisfying.  

Andrew:
This past April, you played bass and performed with the remaining members of Fountains of Wayne to raise funds for COVID-19 relief. I have to commend you for this. We need more of this in 2020. Can you tell us more about how this came to be?

Sharon:
Quite honestly, my manager reached out and let me know he had been contacted. I was honored and nervous and felt like I had big shoes to fill, but being from Jersey, and having so many friends in common with Adam, I felt like I could rise to the occasion as much as I could.

Photo credits: Ryan Pfluger, http://pitchperfectpr.com/sharonvanetten

Andrew:
Shifting gears a bit here. As I am sure you know, despite the efforts of wonderful organizations such as Women Who Rock, and Women In Vinyl, women are still severely underrepresented in the music industry. What are your thoughts on that, and what can we all do to change that going forward?

Sharon:
I can’t speak for an entire industry, but I try and support, share, encourage other women who are in the music industry. I try to stay positive and be a positive role model as well and that sounds high and mighty. I am not perfect or the best role model, but I try and share what I care about, what fuels me, what has helped me, and treat others as I have been treated along that way that helped me keep my head up and be driven. There’s no need to shit talk or be competitive. It’s about community.

Andrew;
Do you collect vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Sharon:
My husband and I have a record collection of over 2,000. We only just moved to California this past year and our records have been in storage this whole time! We love going to local record stores around the world when traveling. When we lived in New York, Other Music and Earwax were two of my favorite shops, but we were out of town so much…Amoeba here in LA is great of course…Gimme Gimme Records, Permanent Records, and direct to label as much as I can. We use our Sonos for our digital outlets at the moment, but of course, I prefer to sit and listen to a whole album and hold the record in my hands and share it with others. I cannot wait to do that again post COVID. A record night might be my first dinner party.  

Andrew:
What are a few albums that mean the most to you, and why?

Sharon:
John Cale, Fear. An album that reminded me that even when you play with another band that you have many faces. John was under-spoken and so diverse. For someone that was such an incredible support to Reed, to hear his songs in a more classic light opened my ears. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk. The intensity of the melodies and harmonies and interband dynamics just about made my heart burst. As well as the rawness of the sonics and the owning of the mistakes. And overall, empowering as a woman to feel represented in the lower register in such a tough, commanding way. Nick Cave, No More Shall We Part. This was the first record that made me fall in love with Nick Cave. I was always overwhelmed by the dark, Punk noise and then I heard the heartbroken lover. And I totally understood. Made me connect with everything else he made in a whole new light.

Andrew:
It’s been a weird year, but we’ve still seen a lot of great music released this year. What are some of your “must-haves” of 2020?

Sharon:
Fiona Apple, Arlo Parks, Nilufer Yanya, Lianne La Havas, Bob Dylan, Thundercat, Shamir, Deradoorian, Kim Gordon, New Order, Penelope Trappes, Devon Gilfillian.

Andrew:
Once COVID-19 calms down (if it ever calms down) what’s next for you? Any chance of a new album soon?

Sharon:
I am always working on music. I am trying to focus on voting efforts and community awareness until this fall passes. There is this illusion you have to release things as soon as you can just because you have the time to write, but I think what I must remember, for myself, is that reflection is the most important thing right now. There will be plenty of time to write and record and there won’t be touring for a while. Stop acting like there’s a rush. I am allowing myself the time to write while raising a child, continuing my education at a local community college online, while being present for my partner who has been so supportive in my work, whether home or away. As I said earlier in this interview, the necessary reset most of us have needed is to check in with our families and ourselves about what is important to us and how best to continue to live our lives.

Photo credits: Ryan Pfluger, http://pitchperfectpr.com/sharonvanetten

Interested in learning more about the work of Sharon Van Etten? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full catalog of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
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