“It’s the heaviest record I’ve ever made.”
Coming from Sharon Van Etten, this statement sounds somewhere between an observation and an admission of guilt.
The singer-songwriter pauses for a beat.
Then, with genuine empathy in her voice, she adds: “I apologize for that.”
I had just told her that even though I’ve spent a week with her latest record, Are We There, I feel like I’m just beginning to peel back its layers. I mean this as a compliment.
But Van Etten wants me to know that we’re in this together: “It’s still unfolding for me too.”
I am somewhat prepared for this.
It’s the third week in a May, a handful of days before Are We There will see release, and the Internet is flooded with Sharon Van Etten profiles, all of which tell the same story: Van Etten is one of the most endearing human beings on the planet. She’s disarmingly honest. She’s self-deprecating. She’s just a good fucking person. And journalists are tripping over themselves to describe the connection they formed with her over the course of a few hours or days.
Going into our conversation, I promise myself that I will not add to this bonfire, that I will not ask about shitty ex-boyfriends or the current good one, that I will not pretend that someone’s character can be assessed in twenty minutes. I will focus on Are We There, because it is an incredible record. It is a gut-wrenching document, but a remarkably self-assured one. It boasts Van Etten’s best songs and her strongest vocal performances, and it spreads them across a musical landscape that’s subtly varied and breathes effortlessly.
This is, of course, a futile endeavor.
Here we are.
Van Etten really is one of the most endearing human beings on the planet.
She gets on a phone with a complete stranger and within a few minutes is speaking with a candor that most reserve for lifelong friends. She laughs a lot. Actually, it’s more that she begins to crack up in a sentence’s last few words – a mixture of exasperation, self-awareness, and sincere amusement at life.
“I laugh, but, yeah, I’m serious,” she’ll say towards the end of our conversation, and that about sums it up.
When we speak, Van Etten is in calling from Herald Square in New York City, where’s lived for the past few years. In a few days, she’ll head to Europe, the first leg of a tour that will keep her away from home for most all of the summer. “I’s a nice day, so I thought I’d be outside while I can,” she explains. “I’m running errands, and I might even squeeze in a sandwich.”
What are you feelings at the onset of a tour?
It’s definitely a mixed bag. I get a little emotional every time that I leave, just because I’m going to miss my home, my friends, my family. Most people in my life understand it, but life also moves on without you. I’m not really home until September. It’s kind of like time travel.
I’ve been mostly in New York since last summer, but it’s been a lot of work even being home. It’s been nice to feel some sense of stability in this weird world that we live – this music world. [Laughs]
Does this record seem like a much bigger deal for you than Tramp or previous LPs?
For me, the heaviest part of this album and the upcoming tours is that the songs are so heavy. Every other record has been old, old songs that I’ve reworked and I’ve had some closure on before I had to record and perform them. Because it’s also the first record that I produced myself, I feel like I’m going to be at my most vulnerable. [Laughs]
And it’s probably the most intense time that I’ve had in my adult life and in my career. There’s this anticipation of everything just being better. After every album, everyone wants the next one to be better, and after every show they see, the next one has to be better. So, the anticipation is heavy as well. But as anxious as I am, I’m really excited. My new band is amazing. We have fun together. But it’s gonna be a journey. [Laughs]
Why was it important for you to produce the record yourself?
There are a lot of reasons. First, I’m a control freak – you should know that about me.
But every record that I’ve made, I’ve worked with people that looked out for me and held my hand. Most of my friends and people that I work with look at me like a little sister, and they want to take care of me. A lot of people have taken me under their wings throughout the years. My first record was with Greg Weeks from Espers. The next one was with Brian McTear, who I met through Greg. And then the next one was with Aaron Dessner from The National, who I met because he covered a song off of Epic. It’s all been people who I met naturally, but at the end of the day, everyone had their own vision for my songs. They wanted to help me see my vision, but they all had a sound that came with their own space.
With [Are We There], I was very conscious that I didn’t want a cast of characters on it that would give me my sound. I’m still finding myself. I’m still figuring out my sound.
Also, with Tramp, most of the interviews that I did were about the cast of characters on the record. You know, it was a National record. People didn’t ask me about my songs. It made me feel insecure about my songwriting – that people attached themselves to my music because it was produced by Aaron. I just wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “I wrote these songs! I was helping direct him this whole time!”
So, it was mostly for me. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it without the help of an older brother, you know? After touring Tramp with my first real band, we got really close. They understand me. They get me. I can be open with them and they understand my language. They’ve heard these songs as I was writing them. It made sense for me to bring them into the fold. I could be myself around them without feeling so insecure about it.
Was there a larger vision that you articulated to them? What did you want this record to be?
There wasn’t an overall sound. I knew that my songs were schizophrenic, because I’m kind of a spazz. Depending on the day, I was like, “This is my R&B song! Sorry about that!” [Laughs] Or, “Wrote this song on the Omnichord! It’s got some crazy beats on it! Still want to keep it kinda lo-fi! Do you guys get it?” [Laughs] Then I’m like, “Here’s a piano ballad! I wrote this drum part! Is it cool that it’s weird?”
All of my tastes in music are just across the board – like, all over the place. I like post-punk. I like R&B. I like Billy Joel. I like Bruce Springsteen. I like Emmylou Harris. I like opera. I don’t know what I am, because I love everything. And they get that about me. I wanted the overall sound to be comfortable and be a band and just not have a real sound. I think it’s funny when people want to put a stamp on you for something. They want you to be a genre-specific band. I don’t think that I am.
Are the musicians who you brought in aside from your touring band people that you had a similar connection with?
From the very beginning, I wanted to everyone to have a very specific role. I wanted it to feel like a band. Doug Keith has played guitar and bass for the last three years that we’ve played together, and in hindsight, I realized that I was asking a hell of a lot from him. So, I decided to bring in a bass player, so he could focus on guitar. Doug only learned to play bass to tour with me, but he’s an amazing guitar player. I brought in my friend David Hartley, who played bass on Epic. We’re really close. He’s in a band called Nightlands that I love, but he also tours with the War on Drugs, and we’ve toured together, and we get along. For me, the most important thing is the vibe. If you’re not comfortable around people, you’re going to be held back on the studio – that goes for me and that goes for everyone that I play with. I wanted everyone to feel at home. So, I brought in Dave, and them the rest of my band was my touring band: Doug Keith, Heather Woods Broderick, and Zeke Hutchins. That was the core of the record.
Then I brought in Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater, who I used to help tour manage. We’ve toured together as well. He moved to New York from Texas, but because of our lives, we only see each other on the road, and so it’s really nice to work together and just hang out. When he heard the songs, he had ideas and he laid some stuff down. But for the most part, he was just coming over to say hi and hear what I was working on, and then he had a couple of parts that were amazing and we kept.
Jana Hunter is someone who I always wanted to work with. We’re friends, and I’m a huge fan of her music with Lower Dens. It was, again, an excuse to hang out. It’s, like, highway hi-fives all the time, but you don’t get to hang out so much.
I brought in Jana’s friend Mickey Free from Baltimore, and he did some beats, because some of the songs wanted a little more attitude. I met Mickey Free through Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, because they toured together as Flock of Dimes, and we did a tour together. He’s really cool – so funny. He’s also a comedian and a rapper on the side. [Laughs] I finally had an excuse to collaborate with him, because I’ve never done beats before. The Omnichord beat is cool, and for the most part I wanted it to sound lo-fi, but “Our Love” wanted a little more attitude. I didn’t want it to be too easy.
Last but not least was this young singer-songwriter who’s from Georgia, but started writing music in Tennessee and just moved to New York. She’s only twenty-two years old – Mackenzie Scott, from the band Torres. She’s incredible, and I see a lot of my younger self in her, and I just want to give her the biggest hug. I wanted her to sing on the record so she could see that it’s not a scary thing to really work in the studio, and it’s really not intimidating if you set it up that way. I invited her to the studio to meet the band and hang out, and she sang on “Afraid of Nothing”.
You were a tour manager?
Oh, yeah – I was terrible! [Laughs] But it was so much fun.
I used to work at Ba Da Bing Records, who put out Epic. It was an amazing experience. Ben Goldberg, who runs that label, has a heart of gold. At the time, I was working at Astor Wines in New York. It was my first job when I moved here, and I loved it, but I wanted something more. My friend Alicia from Tennessee was Ben’s assistant and asked if I wanted to intern there – to see how an indie label works. I mean, he works out of his apartment, you know? I was just trying to do it myself back then – it was, like, ten years ago.
So, I was an intern, and he ended up hiring me part-time, and then he hired me full-time as a publicist, so I could have insurance, because he was worried about me. [Laughs] I learned a lot from that. He took on management responsibilities early on for some of the bands that he worked with. Beirut was the first group that he really worked with, and it got huge really fast, so he needed help. And then Shearwater came on as a band for management. He was old friends with Jonathan – he helped put out their records as well.
Jonathan and I got close, and he asked me to tour manage them. It was a Shearwater and Wye Oak tour. I was writing songs for Epic at that point. And it was a crash course! At the time, it was just me and my car – my Subuaru named Ruby. It was me and the car, and that was it. I wasn’t used to advancing shows or riders or hotels! So, it was a crash course, and Jonathan claims that I tour managed the hell out of that tour, but I had no idea what I was doing! But I learned a lot from working for him.
Was that the last job you’ve held down?
Yeah, happily and sadly, my touring became too much to be a good employee. [Laughs] I had to leave Ba Da Bing, but I learned a lot from working with Ben, and I miss working there. I’m still in touch with everyone that works there.
So much press and criticism ties your personal history to your music – to cite what you’ve said about your relationhips as a way of understanding and processing your music. I don’t think that’s a wholly uncommon thing, but is that ever frustrating?
I feel like I’ve made my bed. I write really personal songs, and they’re all love songs. I wear my heart in my sleeve. If anyone asks me a question, I’m going to be pretty honest about it. I feel bad for the love of my life, who has to read all of this stuff. [Laughs]
It’s weird – it’s my name. Even my parents are laughing about it. They’re like, “Your name is everywhere!” My mom is a teacher at a high school, and she has student and parents talking to her about my music! [Laughs] I’m out there. When I started writing songs, I didn’t really think about it. I was like, “Well, it’s my name. I don’t really have a band. I’m not going to come up with a band name – that’s stupid. I have nothing to hide behind, so I’m just going to be it.”
What you do and what I do is weird. If you’re passionate about something, you just do it, but then you’re like. “Oh, yeah, now I have to talk about it too.” You can either be honest or guarded, right?
Do you ever think, “Eek, wish I hadn’t shared that”?
I mean, there’s stuff that I’m embarrassed about, but at the same time, I don’t have regrets. I’m being myself. I listened to my first record not long ago, just to check in with myself, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I was really broken back then. I’ve come a long way. I’ve come into my own. I’m a lot more confident now.” But I was broken for a long time, and I was really shy, and I was an emotional wreck, but I’m glad I have a record of it! [Laughs] I laugh, but, yeah, I’m serious.