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Interview with Sharon Van Etten

ByPhil Smith

Dec 1, 2014

Sharon Van Etten arrived in Glasgow for her show at the iconic Art School on the back of a year which has seen her burgeoning career gather considerable momentum. Are We There, her flawless 4th full length record, was released to widespread critical acclaim in May. It’s music with a more spacious sound, less urgent than its predecessor, Tramp. However, her emotional intensity remains unrivalled, and these are songs which take flight and soar at every turn.

It’s an album of which she speaks with understandable affection, and it seems clear that assuming control of the production process for the first time is a key part of this, “I feel like the songs are much more mine, there’s probably less of a mishmosh of characters on this one. I feel like it makes more sense altogether.”

Alongside being able to truly set the tone and direction of the production process, being able to collaborate with her band in the studio for the first time created a positive and productive recording process which she remembers fondly, “I loved it, when you’re surrounded by your friends it makes it fun. I wanna work with people I know, that understand me, my language and how I work. It wouldn’t be fun otherwise.” She attributes her growing confidence to the “support of the people around me,” who gave her “the courage to actually try it on my own.” It’s clear her band are a key part of this, and their connection on stage is obvious throughout the Glasgow performance. The way her vocals dovetail with backing singer Heather Woods Broderick is a joy to witness.

At this point, my mind wanders to the closing track of the new album, ‘Every Time the Sun Comes Up’, a song that has been swimming around my head for virtually all of 2014. As moving as it is funny, I’ve spent months smuggling it into Spotify playlists for friends, sharing it on Facebook walls, playing it through speakers in cars. Everyone who comes across it seems to fall for its irrepressible, simple charm, and it’s no surprise that it emerged late at night, with little planning, whilst enjoying time in the studio with the musicians she is so close too. It brings out her playful demeanour that is so apparent when she interacts with the boisterous crowd for which Glasgow is so famous. When I ask her if surrounding herself with such supportive people, and people with whom she enjoys such special affection, has allowed her to express herself clearly and creatively, her response is simple and revealing: “Definitely.”

Nevertheless, these are songs that, for the most part, carry heavy emotional baggage. Van Etten has often spoken in the past of the cathartic element of writing such personal tracks, but performing them on a nightly basis must be a wearying process. “There are some days when I can separate them [the songs from their emotions] better than others,” she explains, “as time goes on, instead of being the present they become a moment in the past. But they’re still a part of me.” As such, she relies heavily on joking with the audience and establishing a connection with her audiences to “keep her grounded.” At one stage, she looks out into a spellbound crowd and asks, “Seriously guys, how are you?”

Seeing her perform live also makes clear what a talented and versatile musician she is. I have often seen her described as an ‘indie darling,’ which is perhaps unsurprising given her connections with the likes of The National, Beirut and the Walkmen, but it is a reductionist description that belies how comfortable she is moving between musical genres and traditions. From the strong Americana roots of ‘Save Yourself’, through to the R’n’B tinges that permeate the absorbing ‘Our Love’, it is clear that Van Etten is an artist determined not to limit herself. She unveils a new song, ‘I Don’t What To Let You Down,’ which explodes into life with a riff so Rock ‘n’ Roll it could make itself at home on a Faces record.

When I ask her if she wishes to pursue that sound further, her reply is revealing to how she works as a songwriter, “I don’t really plan how things will sound moving on. I write, I write, I write and then when I have a moment to go the studio, then whoever helps to create the space with me, it becomes something. It’s not like, ‘I’m going to make a rock record, I’m going to make a ballad record, I’m going to write love songs. I write songs and then when we get to the studio, that’s when it becomes something for real.”

Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to those who have followed her career. After all, on a recent appearance of Jo Whiley’s BBC Radio 2 show, she picked a collection of songs to be played that put Judy Garland alongside early Shoegazers Pale Saints. Somewhat selfishly, I ask her about her previously stated love for PJ Harvey, an artist who I adored throughout my teenage years. Asking her about whether the music from her adolescence still affects and influences her now, her infectious and all encompassing love of music becomes abundantly clear, “Well, that’s something that just changes day to day. I definitely go back and I check in on records that were big to me in my formative years and see how they stand; some don’t and some do. I mean, I love alternative music, I love doo-wop, I love rock n’roll and I even like going back to freestyle music, going back to when I was in junior high. I think everything effects you and I think everything inspires you, I’ve no regrets, even with Salt-N-Pepa!”

When we speak, Van Etten is about to embark on the European leg of her tour, and she is unsurprisingly missing home. The warmth of her personality still shines, though, and she is relishing the next step, “I feel very lucky to be in the position that I’m in. It’s hard, I’m tired and I miss home, but everyone that’s with me has given up their lives for a while and it’s because we’ve been given a great opportunity. I count my lucky stars that I get to do this for a while.” Watching her mesmerising performance at the Art School, however, leads me to think that we are the lucky ones, and I can’t help but return to her earlier sentiment about returning to the songs she first loved, “Some stand and some don’t.” Of one thing I’m absolutely certain: these songs will stand.

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