Probably everyone has a certain musician who is very special for different reasons in their lives. Besides the touching songs that they create, there is also something else that connects us to them. Sharon Van Etten, one of the best female vocals and songwriters of our time, is the one that I feel a strong bond with, not only because of her beautiful and delicate voice and tunes, but also because of herself.
Sharon describes her feelings and thoughts through her brilliant and intense songwriting. The harmony of her lyrics and melodies affects the listeners so deeply. The songs have the type of lyrics that make many of us to say, “Yeah, this is exactly how I feel.” One can find both sadness and happiness in her songs while realizing that the experiences are similar in different people’s lives. Sharing all these is one of the most powerful ways to create strength and courage in the lives of people who feel the same way.
After releasing her last record Are We There in 2014 and being off touring for about a year now, Sharon has been trying to balance everything in her life and getting used to the changes. On a cold Fall day, we talked about her music career, life and changes, being an introvert, Anais Nin, and of course recent and upcoming projects.
Your fans already know you, but as a reminder, you grew up in New Jersey, moved to Tennessee, came back to Jersey, and moved to New York eventually. But music has been always the focus through these years. Besides being talented and making a great music, can you explain your efforts at the beginning of your career?
After coming back, the first thing that I did was connecting with a lot of friends. I was going to shows and open mics with friends as much as I could. I was making handmade CDs and giving them to anyone who was interested and sending them to the local radio stations. I was also on Myspace, when it was cool, and connecting with people all around the world. I played as much as I could and said “yes” to everything. You shouldn’t do this all the time, though! [Laughs] But yes, as newly starting, the main things are playing as much as you can and meeting other musicians.
I like to call you as “the princess of sad songs” whenever I have a conversation with someone about you. Your songs are mainly about your personal experiences, break-ups, and romantic issues. However, for the last couple of years, you have been in a healthy relationship – no break-ups and no big dramas anymore. And I want to learn how these opposite experiences affect your songwriting.
[Laughs] I used to make jokes with my mom. She was saying, “Your songs are sad, but I thought you were in a good place.” And I was saying, “You should worry if I make happy songs because it means that I’m in a bad place.” [Laughs] Of course that is not true. You still need to get emotions out although you are in a good place. Half of the time, it is not just about me anymore — the things that I’m seeing, the things that I’m feeling… And most of the things that I’m writing is positive, though it still feels like a ‘Sharon song’ — mid-tempo and melodically driven music.
Continuing with songwriting, you recently scored music for a film (Strange Weather) for the first time. How was the experience and process?
It was a wonderful experience. Katherine Dieckmann [the director and writer], who is a beautiful spirit, was super passionate, open, and was also a music lover. She wanted me to have my take on it. Her only preference was a very spacey and ambient guitar. Next step was going to see the movie with her — I was taking notes and she was describing how she wanted to feel while watching the scenes. So after these, I would send songs to her back and forth and she was making some adjustments. But she was always so positive.
You also wrote a beautiful song, Not Myself, about Orlando shooting as a tribute to the victims and a support for Everytown Gun Safety Support Fund. Can you talk about this a little bit?
That was the first time that I’ve ever felt to be driven to put something out there about injustice. I just connected to that feeling of trying to be yourself and connecting with other people… You think that you’re in a safe place, but then this happens. Yes, this event was a hate crime against LGBT community. But you don’t have to be from that community to know and feel what happened. I just wanted to share my feelings without making a political statement. And the support is for a great cause too, which is a real thing for me that I can support.
I know a lot going on in your life. One of them is going back to school and being a student again. How did you make this decision and how do you feel about that?
I was really nervous to go back. One of the things that drove me to do that was meeting the fans all along the way. They connected to my songs so intensely and had my music represent something that they weren’t able to communicate themselves. Parallel to that, the reason why I write is for the same reason why they like my music – I’ve had a hard time communicating my emotions until I sit down, write, and play songs. And through this process, I feel better. So I just wanted to understand why this is happening – having a hard time to communicate. Specifically late teens and early 20s are so crucial — You’re leaving home first time. You’re rebelling but you don’t know why. Everything feels like life-or-death. You don’t have a support group. You’re creating a new life. Top of that there is this hard time communicating. I’m glad that I passed these years [laughs]. But glad to have the experience and share it with people.
Beyond sharing your experience, you will probably help them in the near future after finishing the school.
Yeah, I hope so. If I go to school part time, I can still make music part time. And at the age of 50, I can become a therapist – that’s my goal! [Laughs]
Being off touring, going to school, having a serious relationship… All these sound like you’re settling down. How does it feel to have this kind of life now?
I feel so lucky that I was able to tour as much as I could. My band and fans have been so supportive. It got really hard to be gone nine months out of a year and expecting to come back home and to see that the things are the same. Life goes on without you. I’m 35 years old and I’m a romantic. But I haven’t really paid enough attention on that side of me. I wanna have love and I’m in love with a wonderful man who has been so supportive and encouraging. And I feel like I’m exactly where I wanna be. I’m figuring out the balance of being home, well creating a home, which I haven’t had – I always had studio apartments or lived really far just to pay affordable rents. Now, I can cook in the kitchen. I can keep plants alive [laughs]. I can have a cup of coffee with my partner in the morning. It really helps you stay grounded. Touring is the opposite. My band and performance keep me grounded, but other sides of touring can be really unhealthy, especially if you start missing home and get sad.
I feel this strong connection with you. It’s not only because of loving your music, but also about yourself. Similarities that I find between us are mainly about the effects of being an introvert. How do you describe yourself?
I’m still an introvert. I had anxieties growing up. I had a severe anxiety when I moved to NY first time. I was quiet and shy. I was thinking that I was not making a good music and I didn’t know how to put my name out there. But you meet people, you get used to things, and you come out of your shell a little bit. One of the things that I realized about myself was that whenever I go out and be social, I get drained for a while afterwards. I love doing it, but if I go outside one night, I can’t do it the following day. It’s like I can do the social, but I need my own space afterwards. This is one of the things that I learned and felt better when I read the book Quiet by Susan Cain. Sometimes I need to leave the room when it gets crowded. But I learned how to recharge myself.
Since we started talking about books, I would like to ask you about your favorite writer, Anais Nin. How did you start reading her?
When I was living in Tennessee, I was going through a hard time – I was in an abusive relationship and away from my family, which made me really isolated and alone. There was that one moment that I felt. I called my ex-boyfriend from high school and left a message. I think I freaked him out because I said “I would like to hear what kind of person I was before because I can’t remember and I wanna remember.” His girlfriend called me back. She was so sweet and she told me to get in touch with her whenever I needed. So she started recommending me some books related to my mood. Nin was one of them and when I read the diaries, it blew my mind and I started reading other stuff by her. I realized that life is long and I can move on. And yeah, since then, she’s been my favorite writer.
Going back to music, there are great albums out this year. What are your favorite albums of the year so far and what have you been listening to lately?
The albums of Damien Jurado, Cate Le Bon, and OMNI are really good. I also listen to Julia Jacklin and Etiqutte, friends of mine, lately.
Who are the musicians that would be your dream collaborators?
Other female songwriters whose harmonies are really great or whose vocal range similar to mine. Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, Cat Power… And also, I would love Courtney Barnett to teach me how to solo – I would love to learn how to shred because I can’t. [Laughs]
I know you’re writing songs. Should we expect the new album soon?
I have a lot of demos. I’m off touring for about a year now. So I’ve been writing songs and one day I realized that I have enough songs to make a record, but I was not working for a record specifically [laughs]. My aim is to record next year and put out the record by 2018.
*Special thanks to Ben Goldberg.