Sharon Van Etten is one of indie rock’s most true and interesting soldiers. Her lyrics are wounded and vulnerable. Her voice is triumphant and builds to roar. She’s producing now, confident enough to walk alone in the studio and direct traffic.
Her latest, May’s “Are We There,” is maybe her best stuff. It’s the crossover shine record but only because after five years of increasingly strong releases, every writer at every influential outlet knows. That’s about as organic as traffic can get these days. It’s expansive but never gluttonous in her sound’s growth from dark country to, well, dark country with bold arrangements.
She’s at the Mohawk on Saturday, and Van Etten was kind enough to email me back.
Q: I read that you worked as a publicist. Having seen how the music industry operates with respect to PR, what lessons did you take away and apply when launching your music career?
A: Well, I learned that I was a terrible publicist and that I wasn’t a very organized person – but I work very hard and I thrive when I work with people that can give me tasks. That is why I love my band and my work. There are deadlines and assignments and people that need guidance and look to me for answers. If they have questions I don’t have answers for . . . I find them out and have to come up with a plan. I know how hard people have to work to get anything done in this business and you have to stay in constant communication with people. This day in age with most correspondence being in the form of email—there is so much left open to interpretation . . . But most of all I learned that you must trust the people you work with. This line of work is so personal and all encompassing — I need my team to feel like family.
Q: Yeah, the new record, I think it’s the best thing you’ve done. I love it so much and it’s sharply written and beautifully arranged. The 2012 one I liked too — but sonically it struck me as an alt/indie Midwestern Jagjaguwar fastball. It seemed incredibly collaborative and was led by a high profile producer. How was the creative process for “Tramp”? Is it ridiculous to take away that the album was you channeled through a more structured preset?
A: Thank you. “Tramp” was a great experience for me. Aaron Dessner took me under his wing and gave me confidence to speak up and tell people what I wanted in a studio setting. I was still learning how to do that. And at that point I didn’t have a set band (other than my bandmate Doug Keith) so Aaron helped me gather some friend musicians to flesh out the songs . . . For “Are We There” I finally had a band that I had been touring with and felt comfortable communicating my ideas with. I felt more in control but also more comfortable and relaxed because of the environment I created with Stewart Lerman.
Q: I say that because this one seems a little more experimental (the keyboard drone and warble on “Break Me,” the sax melting on “Tarifa,” the fresh beat from “Our Love”). I was delighted to read that it was self-produced. How did you open up the playbook on that one production-wise? What did you bring to the table that you hadn’t gotten to previously?
A: I had more access to instruments in my time off. I had my first real practice space where I could get loud on guitar, organ, drums, omnichord. I even played piano! I realized that I wanted to show people that I don’t just write folk songs or country songs or rock songs — but weird combinations of blues and soul and R&B . . . I like that this isn’t a “certain kind” of record. It has something for everybody.
Q: Yo, the honesty and biting frankness is brave and makes for some incredible, lingering tracks. “I tried to tell you when I’m sober how I feel about you,” “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you.” Certainly the stark vulnerability is a talking point. What real life experiences did you conjure for that writing?
A: I write stream of consciousness from my own experience. But I shape the song into something a bit more universal so others can connect to it in their own way. If I tell you what the song means to me it will take away from the listener — it is just too personal.
Q: The surface-level influences may seem relatively easy to spot (you toured with Nick Cave; Patti Smith is an easy angle to work), but what are some things you were listening to that may not have a sonic foot print on your work but influenced the conception of “Are We There”?
A: Glass Candy, The Chromatics, Lee Hazlewood, Low, Bob Dylan, Natureboy, War on Drugs, Meg Baird, Bobby Womack, Charles Bradley, Colin Newman, Suicide, OMD, PJ Harvey . . .
Q: With respect to sequencing, how did you pace the record? I ask because the closing song was the first single we heard. And it seems to end on a hopeful tone. It’s morning. I’m still laying around with this person in an apartment. I guess we’ll see what happens next. Is that close? Did you have any specific takeaways for the listener there?
A: I didn’t want to give everything away in the record. And there aren’t many “rockers”— so you have to carefully place them. I [am] all about the slow build.
“Afraid of Nothing” seemed to sum up where I was coming from and the build was a nice way of letting people in gently. Then going into “Taking Chances” was giving everyone a nudge — letting them know that something different was happening. We deliberated over the sequence for a long time. It didn’t come easy. I tried many different ways . . . but things fell into place.
Most importantly, in ending the record, I wanted to let people know that I was OK—and through all the dark times, I was still having fun. I am a goofball through all the weight.