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Interview: Sharon Van Etten
TFFT recently had the great fortune of meeting Sharon Van Etten, following her sensational set at Latitude Festival. After fiddling with a bleeping fridge and giggling about getting the tour bus stuck in the mud, and then getting the rescue vehicle stuck as well, we sat down and discussed Sharon’s recently-released third album, Tramp, fighting emotions on the stage and collaborating with some of the best artists out there…
With the latest album, (Tramp) you wrote and recorded it on the road over the past year, sleeping on people’s sofas…did you get comfortable with this, or was it a little stressful, or even awkward?
Yeh I just never felt stable. The only stability was going into a studio and recording. Not knowing where I was going to stay was stressful and I was never getting enough rest…coming straight off a crazy long tour and then spending all my spare time recording, my voice never really got a rest and I was ill for much much of the time….but I got through it and am happy with the result.
And recording and producing with Aaron Desner must have been an amazing experience, and helped release some of that stress…how did his guidance come through on the making of the album?
I had songs ready going into the studio for the most part…there was only one or two that I finished writing in there. But I didn’t have any instrumentation in mind, as it was just the bare bones, guitar and vocals, so without him I wouldn’t have pushed myself to have done as much production because I was afraid it would be too much. But I feel like Aaron helped me find a good balance between building on top of the songs, without taking away from the vocals or the songwriting.
Your earlier music and particularly Because I Was In Love is very personal and intimate, which continued with a bigger sound into Epic and now even more so with Tramp…was it always the plan to make a bigger sounding record this time round, or is that an example of Aaron’s input?
I think there’s a number of factors. I was afraid to play with other people on my first record and I wasn’t confident with my skills and playing ability, so didn’t want to share my songs with others at the time! Also I didn’t have a band, so didn’t want to add all that to the album and then not be able to pull it off live. Then with the second record I was ready to have a basic band which I also toured with, so that got my confidence up and I realised, I can actually do this, I don’t have to be completely knowledgeable or go to music school in order to play with people! It’s just learning to communicate with people in a different way. And so after playing with that band for a year, I was ready to record and push myself a bit further…but I always want to do something different. I always want to be trying different things, otherwise I’ll just end up bringing out the same record, and I don’t ever want to do that.
And those earlier tracks are deeply emotional and personal…beautiful, but heart-breaking. Is it a lot easier writing from an autobiographical place, and do you use it as a sort of therapy, to help get over what are essentially these past experiences?
Definitely…that’s how I started writing, my mom gave me a notebook when I was a teenager because I wasn’t that good at communicating my emotions when I was going through something, so I started writing just for me. This then turned into songwriting, but I wasn’t ready to share it with anyone, until a friend accidentally heard me playing one time. And they pushed me and pushed me until it turned into this thing where now I have a process – if I’m going through something really intense I just press record and play for twenty or thirty minutes and then listen back to what I was trying to say and try to analyse myself a little bit. Sometimes it’s really heavy and too personal, so I don’t want to share it, and because I don’t know whether people would be able to relate to it…but if it has a positive message or a lesson, then I’ll share it, but there’s no point letting something out that people can’t connect with.
When you’re playing these songs live, do you try to disassociate yourself with the words and context of the songs, or is it good to get into the zone of them? For example, when we last saw Kathleen Edwards play, she was clearly very emotional and still deeply connected to the personal story that she was singing about.
I think it’s really important because you need to feel connected with the songs that you’re playing. Otherwise I wouldn’t play them anymore, if I didn’t feel part of it, or couldn’t relate to them in some way…just like I wouldn’t perform songs if others couldn’t relate to them. Though there are some days where I can’t play certain songs live, I just can’t do it on those occasions.
We first discovered your music and talents about a year and a half ago, at the Sounds Of The South show where you performed with Megafaun and Justin Vernon. You’ve collaborated with numerous acts since and particularly on the new album, the likes of Zach Condon and Jenn Wasner feature…were these guys already good friends, or did you ask them to help out because you just knew of their amazing talents and you knew they’d fit perfectly on the record?
They’re mostly just my friends and Aaron’s friends and we just saw who was available over the course of the recording. I’ve known Jenn for a long time from working with her and then playing shows together, and I was her tour manager at one point when she was touring with Shearwater. And then through being a publicist with Ba Da Bing Records I’d met Zach and stayed in touch, I’d toured with Julianna Barwick, and am friends with Peter Silberman from The Antlers, so we’re all just a pretty close circle of friends really.
And when it came to recording the tracks, how you decide which song Matt Barrick, for example, should feature on?
With Matt it’s a pretty funny story really! When I was demo-ing songs and sending drumbeats to Aaron, I told him that I felt I was ripping off the National on this one track. And he said, ‘ah that’s funny, because when we used that beat we felt we were ripping off The Walkmen! Let’s call Matt!’ So it turned out to be this mad chain and we started to decide which songs we wanted some old school sounding drums on, which we could play live. So we did that with Serpents, Leonard and Magic Chords, sent Matt some ideas and it all worked out!
It must be great having that amazing circle of friends to reach out to when you need to!
Oh yeh, I mean with Matt I didn’t know him so I was like ‘Oh sure, go call Matt Barrick up!’ and then next thing he’s featuring on the record! So it’s pretty cool and having Aaron there is really good fun and I felt very fortunate
So is next year set to be as huge as the next one in terms of touring?
Touring will carry through until January and then hopefully I’ll take some time out to write again. It’s just finding that balance between touring, writing and recording, because if you’re touring all the time, you don’t really have the opportunity to do anything else. At the moment we only have a week or two between tours, so all we have time to do is catch up on sleep and laundry, and your real life! It’s tough to write when you’re around people the whole time, on the bus and playing non-stop. The touring’s fun, but it’s a lot of work and you give up a lot of other things to do it!
Sharon Van Etten returns to the UK to play Shepherd’s Bush Empire, on October 8th