Words by Laura Bassett
Photos by Chantal Anderson, Dusdin Condren, and Mark Jasiuk
Sharon Van Etten, previewed on BYT prior to her Fall DC9 gig, returns once again on the strength of her latest LP, “Epic.” A critical darling, Coke Machine Glow has described her as “a formidable songwriter, one with a voice that can turn sorrow into something even more commanding than sadness, a voice that’s always figuring out new ways to wedge itself deeper under our skin.” Sounds like a perfect way to repent for your Saturday sins to me. Laura caught up with her yesterday afternoon to discuss heartbreak, covers, and what’s next. You can catch her Sunday evening at the Red Palace.
BYT: You’ve written a lot of intensely personal songs about heartbreak. I know that as a writer, it can be kind of awkward to go back and read the things you wrote when you were in a particular emotional state that you’re no longer in. Is it tough to perform those songs with the same intensity and authenticity now that you’re not heartbroken anymore?
SVE: I still find it really therapeutic to sing songs that I wrote years ago I feel like it puts things in perspective for me and I feel like it kind of validates my decisions too and knowing that it helps other people too makes me want to go back to that place to have it feel like something again.
BYT: Do you ever cringe when you go back and read old lyrics?
SVE: Oh totally. There are some songs I won’t sing anymore.
BYT: Like which ones?
SVE: Like songs I wrote way back in high school, or there’ll be some song that I write and just never play for anyone because I don’t think I can generalize the song enough or it’s not obvious what it’s about.
BYT: Where does your songwriting inspiration come from now that you’re on the road all the time? Like, do you find yourself wanting to write about groupies and finger sandwiches?
SVE: (laughs) It comes from anywhere, from friends, to experiences that I have, to books that I read. It varies. When I get a moment alone I’m usually writing or thinking about a melody or something. I got some time in front of a piano today and I thought of a melody but I had to record it on my computer, even though it was a crappy version of it just so I would actually feel like I was doing work.
BYT: If you were to write a song about the day you’ve had today, what would it be called?
SVE: It would be a thank you song. We had a really nice afternoon in Montreal today, got some kindness from strangers helping us fix our amp, and we got to sit in their studio and play our own instruments and drink coffee while a friend of theirs fixed our stuff.
BYT: That sounds like a pretty good Thursday.
SVE: It was really nice, it was a little grey and rainy, but it was nice and mellow, and it’s always rejuvenating to meet people that help people.
BYT: For being relatively new on the scene, you’ve had some pretty famous people cover your songs. The National and Bon Iver have bother covered “Love More,” and Sweet Lights did a really beautiful cover of “One Day.” What’s it like to hear another band sing your lyrics?
SVE: Who covered “One Day?”
BYT: Sweet Lights.
SVE: Awesome! I mean, it’s really flattering. I got really teary-eyed when a friend showed me a video of the “Love More” cover. I lost it. It’s intense, you know, I respect these people. I was like, how do they even know who I am? How did they even hear my songs? That blows my mind, for somebody I respect to hear my album, it’s really comforting to know that the world is small.
BYT: So Middle Tennessee State University doesn’t strike me as a typical place for a blossoming singer songwriter, except perhaps for its proximity to Nashville. Did you feel like a misfit there?
SVE: Well it’s actually a really great recording school, but I didn’t even make it into the actual program cause I hated school. I ended up getting a job at a venue in town called the Red Rose, so it was kind of the backdoor route to learning how to do music in general and just how the music world works on an independent level.
BYT: How do you feel about country music after six years in Tennessee?
SVE: When I moved from New Jersey, I had a really surface-level dislike for country music, but then when I moved down there—it’s really, really beautiful music, like old blue grass. I just thought everything was radio country, but I got really into Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Gillian Welch…there’s so much beautiful music down there.
BYT: You’ve been compared to Feist and Cat Power. Sometimes your music reminds me of Lucinda Williams. Are you flattered or annoyed by comparisons like that?
SVE: I’m flattered by comparisons. I don’t think I sound like them, but it’s nice to be grouped in with them, you know? I was relieved when the comparison moved to Cat Power. I like Cat Power a lot—it’s funny though, cause I didn’t know her music until people kept telling me I sound like her, and then I listened to her and I felt like I liked that comparison, that was the closest thing to what I do.
BYT: So, I heard some ex-boyfriend of yours once told you that you weren’t good enough to perform in public. At what point did it occur to you that he was just threatened by your talent?
SVE: (laughs) Well when all my friends told me he was really holding me back, and he broke one of my guitars, and he would pawn off my gear, and I realized I wasn’t being myself and didn’t know who I was anymore, I realized he didn’t really care about me. So I moved back home with my family, who kinda nursed me back to a healthy state and helped me become myself again.
BYT: You wrote a lot of songs about him. Has he reached out to you since you got big?
SVE: No, I haven’t been in touch with him.
BYT: If you could collaborate with any musician, dead or alive, whom would you pick?
SVE: Tough one. Off the bat, I would say Neil Young cause I know he’s playing in New York next week, and he’s one of my favorite songwriters and thrashers.
BYT: Mine too. Ok, final question: What kinds of emotions other than heartbreak are we gonna be seeing from you in your upcoming album?
SVE: I think you’re going to hear happier, more optimistic songs, and it’s gonna be a little more experimental. It’s gonna be all over the place—a perfectly schizophrenic record.