Interview: Sharon Van Etten

We met Sharon and her new bandmates Doug Keith (bass) and Ben Lord (drums) in London on the eve of their first show outside of US soil as a band. In a busy pub on a Saturday lunch time we managed to find a spot in the corner hidden from the booming commentary coming from the live rugby on television and mostly hidden from the raucous fans whose eyes were glued on the game. We talked over a pint about her musical progression, recording her new album with Aaron Dessner, touring Japan, forming a band and UK cult comedy Peep Show amongst other things.

For people who don’t know you, tell us about your musical past and how you started in music

SVE: Growing up I started off being in choir and I was in musicals in high school and then I moved to Tennessee and started listening to a lot of country kind of music and then by the time I moved back to the East Coast I was doing like solo acoustic guitar and when I moved to electric guitar I decided that I wanted to get a band together.

Was it only once you were in Tennessee that you started to write your own songs?

SVE: I wrote a little bit in high school but I didn’t really put out very much.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

SVE: My sister reminds me all the time. I remember one of the lines – it was so bad – but I remember the lyric was “I wanna rip out your eyes and hang them in the sky” or something.

That’s not so bad…

SVE: I’m sure that the rest was worse. That’s the one line that my sister always repeats to me. We used to share a room. She was like the studier and I was always playing guitar, she’d be like “shutup, I need to study!”

A non-appreciative audience…

SVE: Yeah, but she loves it in hindsight.

OK so what kind of things outside of music inspire you?

SVE: My friends, movies, Woody Allen…

Were you a Woody Allen fan from early on?

SVE: Oh yeah

So you must have always wanted to move to New York?

SVE: Oh yeah. All of his movies are like so New York and that was my vision. I didn’t watch any of them until high school but yeah I love him. I even saw him play at The Carlisle because he has jazz nights once a week.


SVE: Yeah so I got to see him on my birthday last year.

What does he play?

SVE: He plays clarinet!

Is he good?

SVE: He’s awesome.

Ben: Really good

You play clarinet don’t you?

SVE: I played when I was really young and I played for a couple of years but I wasn’t very good.

You’re not tempted to ever try to play clarinet on a song?

SVE: It’s hard to sing and play clarinet at the same time…

Yeah that’s true! < laughs > You could do like a clarinet solo in the middle of the song…

SVE: That’s true. Let Doug sing.

Doug: Yeah, I’d sing with your clarinet. < sings a little > < everyone laughs >

So are you still inspired by the same things as you always were or have you learnt to appreciate other things?

SVE: In all honesty it’s just things that happen to me and my friends. Because of my life I just write about my friends, my surroundings, and everyday things like that.

Do you write anything other than songs?

SVE: I write moments and I write… I don’t know if they’ll turn into songs or anything but I like keeping a journal of my travels, writing quotes from movies or just things my friends do.

So you fairly recently brought out your second album [Epic] and it’s quite a different sound from the first one [Because I Was In Love]. What changed lyrically – to me it seems that both of them are about a breakup or a few breakups and the first to me is about the initial impact and the pain and the second one is more about reflecting on it.

SVE: Definitely. I’m also just a lot more confident than I was when I wrote that first record and now it’s like I’m coming out of it, I’m more secure. I’m still learning to deal with some things but like, I’m learning to be a little angry, I think that’s OK too. But I think mostly it’s just that I’m more confident.

Is that anger going into your new songs?

SVE: Yeah I think the newer songs are kind of a mix of the vibe of the first and the second but I think they’re a lot more nice. But there’s always like an air of sadness in my writing, but that’s only because that’s my way; it’s like self-therapy. I’m dealing with it, I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s like dealing with the things in hindsight.

I wanted to ask – I don’t mean to sound rude – why did you only put seven tracks on your last record? How did you decide it was done?

I had two weeks to record and we picked the strongest songs that made the most sense with the others. We got six songs done and we added the seventh ‘cause I recorded “Love More” first – before we went into the studio – for the Weathervane Project. I don’t know if you know anything about that? It’s awesome! Brian McTear is amazing, he just asked me to do this thing and it was like two days of writing and recording in collaboration, which they filmed and they documented. They got the song as a single on radio and I wasn’t expecting the song to do well, I just thought it was a cool project for the community to let them know this is what they do, that they have people contributing money to help them to continue to do this, to support struggling artists. I had such an amazing experience in the studio that I decided to record the rest of the album there. So we recorded six songs in two weeks and we added that one to make it seven. Also it made sense with the vibe of the record. It ended up being “well this is what I have, and it makes sense, and I’m really proud of it. I don’t think anything needs to be added.” I just wanted to be done with it, it was a really good time to have it finished and be out.

Shaking Through: Sharon Van Etten from Weathervane Music on Vimeo.


You guys are recording together for the new album; how’s that going?

SVE: Pretty awesome.

Ben: Amazing.

Doug: Swimmingly.

SVE: It’s going to be insane.

Ben: It’s like a beautiful, natural progression.

And you’ve got Aaron Dessner of The National producing, that’s exciting!

SVE: Yeah, he’s been great. Every time I do a record I want to step up. Every time, you know? You don’t want to have the same record. There’s people that I love but all their records sound the same. I want the proceedings to be different each time, to stand out on every record so that people can remember it for what it is. So he’s pushing me a little beyond my comfort level, I think that’s good because most of my friends do that to me anyway to help me, like, grow as a person. So he’s helping me grow as a person and do things I wouldn’t naturally do.

Ben: He’s pretty brilliant and he’s coming up with pretty amazing arrangements. He’s very good.

SVE: Yeah his brother did some string arrangements on a couple of songs.

Doug: He’s got a unique perspective.

How did the collaboration with Aaron come about in the first place?

SVE: Well, I was on tour with Megafun about two years ago and Brad the bass player woke me up in the morning to play me a video of Justin Vernon from Bon Iver and Aaron and Bryce from The National covering my song “Love More.” And I lost it, I was just like “how do they know who I am!? What is happening?!” And so by the time I got home from the tour I was planning to record the rest of the record. So I went out on a limb and I wrote Justin and I wrote Aaron and I wrote Bryce and I asked if they would want to record on my record. But they were too busy, so they said “next time you record, let us know. We have a little studio in Brooklyn in case you want to stop by and work on something.” Yeah if you want to stop by, no big deal. < laughs >
So I finished the record and I kept in touch with Aaron and I let him know my plans. And he kept his word and now we’re working on stuff. It’s funny how someone that you put up on a pedestal is super normal and down to earth. He just likes doing music; he tours and comes back and he goes back into the studio. He’s so productive.

It’s funny; he’s so busy all the time you’d think he’d want to relax!

SVE: I know! We had like three weeks off between tours and we recorded straight through it.

Ben: I think that is relaxing for him: being in the studio. It’s his zone.

SVE: I think he just feels lucky because he’s right back to work. He has the opportunity so he’s like “I’m going to do as much as I can.”

Did you say it’s his studio?

SVE: Yeah, well it’s like The National’s studio. It’s in his backyard, basically everyone in the band lives in his neighbourhood. It’s a super neighbourhood-vibe there and they go into that studio to work on stuff all the time.

So how far along are you with the new record?

SVE: Well…

there’s ten songs that we’re working on, we’re going to try to record fifteen. Those ten aren’t done, we’re going to work some more in May and hope to finish it then.

I’ve heard Aaron’s putting lots of different sounds on it, how does it sound so far?

SVE: Well we have violin, cello, viola, trombone… My friend Julianna Barwick is singing on it. There’s a song we kind of turned inside-out on it, because originally it was just like strumming, chord preogression, but we realised that I start all of my songs like that so just for fun we tried to mess around with the guitar part. And so now instead of playing the normal progression I’m just playing a drone, one note the whole time and then stuff builds around it instead. So he just helps me to do things differently.

Doug: He’s kind of a genius with guitar sound, too, I think. He does like – it’s a guitar but he adjusts the sound every time to make it unique. He’ll find a different way to play it, he’ll take a chord and do it front-way then turn it around.

SVE: He’s got lots of pedals and different amps.

So it sounds like it’s going to be different…

SVE: It is different. Hopefully it’s not a total shock but there’ll be some surprising things.

I suppose it’s too early to talk about labels really, but I noticed you quit your job at Ba Da Bing and you put out a seven inch on Polyvinyl, does that mean anything?

SVE: Oh no, Polyvinyl just did a seven inch; we’re not going to Polyvinyl. I just made Ben from Ba Da Bing my manager so we’re going to put it out on a new label but we’re not sure who it’s going to be yet.

So you just went to Japan! How did that come about?

SVE: It was awesome. They put out Because I Was In Love over there. For this new record they basically paid for me to have an all-expense-paid trip over there. It was amazing. Art Union over there is super sweet, they had like a team of people that picked me up from the airport, hooked me up with places to stay, had a schedule for me every morning, they just took really good care of me and I’m excited to see them again. Even though the language barrier got a little frustrating, everyone was so nice and it was so beautiful.

Did many fans come out?

SVE: Yeah and it was cool because it ranged from like thirty people to a hundred and fifty people. We went to this small town called Tsuruga that’s right on the sea and there’s this couple that have a house with a self-sustaining farm in the back and then a shed that they’ve converted into a gallery and another shed that they’ve converted into a performance space. So it’s very intimate but very comfortable with about thirty people on bench-seating in this room and in the corner is this very small stage with one single light and someone like me just gets up and plays guitar. But people come from everywhere because it’s such a small space and it’s such a small town, it’s a really rare thing. They only have three or four shows a year. It’s like solo, one-off shows in the middle of nowhere, it’s beautiful. And they had a table set up outside with drinks and food that they made. Hand-rolled sushi… so nice! It’s just a couple that loves music. She was eight months pregnant, just hanging out.
And every venue is just so different from another. I remember one place was underneath a subway so you could hear the train running by every ten minutes, but it was nice. And there was a gallery that had cathedral ceilings so it was really good acoustics…
I don’t know, it was just really neat. Everybody takes good care, and you play and everybody’s dead quiet, like there’s nobody at the bar talking. And then when you finish the song nobody claps until you make it clear that it’s over.

Did anybody document any of this?

SVE: There’s a couple of YouTubes up. There’s a montage – I learnt to say a few things in Japanese so they got a bit of me introducing myself in Japanese, but like giggling.

We couldn’t find the video Sharon mentioned, but here is a video of her playing “Save Yourself” in Kamakura

So going to Japan must be something you never expected would happen when you started out, what else has been unexpected?

SVE: Just everything! It’s a little overwhelming. I didn’t think the last record would be received like it’s been received. And like, this one time we were on tour and I saw that Aimee Mann tweeted that she liked my record, it’s just moments like that when I’m like “what am I doing!? What is going on here? How have we gotten this far?” It’s only my second record!

Doug: It’s really neat to be involved but to also have an outside perspective, because we’re not Sharon obviously. It’s very amazing to watch and be a part of. It’s like this massive snowball that just keeps growing and growing and growing.

Ben: This past six months has been a complete surprise but the next year is going to be full of even bigger surprises. Weird little things keep popping up.

SVE: Just like shows where they’re like “Yeah we can fly you out and get you a hotel,” and I’m like “I don’t lose money on this show? That’s amazing!” And just meeting new people, I get introduced to so many new people on tour who are all really nice, like the people we’re staying with here. Being on tour kind of renews my faith in humanity.

Doug: On that note, too, Ben and I have been playing music together for a long time, but this is Sharon’s first band. And it is just such an awesome band, like the best vibe in the band I’ve ever experienced in my life. For sure.

How did you find each other?

Doug: Friends of friends.

SVE: I met Ben at our friend’s 40th birthday party. It’s funny because I was really scared about getting a band together because I’d never done it before and I was really nervous. But he kept reminding me “if you ever want drums…” I felt bad because I’m just not organised enough to do something like that. So finally he was like “I have the space, let’s set a time.”

Ben: I was a persistent bastard.

SVE: So he set it up, and we played and it was awesome. He was like “Do you have anyone in mind for bass?” and I said I had no idea and he said he had a friend Doug who played bass and I was like “oh wow, a drummer and bass player who are friends; my dream!.” So Doug came over the next time and it was great!

You finished your last show in New York with an R.E.M. cover, are you going to do more covers live or was that a one-off?

SVE: We’re working on doing more covers. We’ll have more time in the spring to work on new ones.

Ben: That R.E.M. song [“Strange Currencies”] kind of found us because Sharon found that album [Monster] and brought it in and played that song and did a full singalong-lip-sync to it. So we could not not do it live.

I saw you tweet earlier that you’ve been watching Peep Show; is it your first time?

Doug: First time, it’s amazing!

SVE: It’s amazing! I think my favourite quote is “fuck the fuck off!” < general laughter > But it’s intense!

Doug: We watched all of season 1 yesterday and part of season 2.

SVE: I love the British Office too and my Dad was really into that older British comedy Coupling.

OK back to serious topics. My favourite album of 2009 was Hospice by The Antlers [on which Sharon guested]; do you know anything about their new one? Are you going to be on it?

SVE: I know they’re working on it, they just set up their own studio. They all lived in separate places before by now they’ve all moved to a local area so they can write and record together in the same space. I was supposed to stop by before I left but I was too busy so I’m going to have to stop by after this and hopefully catch them before they leave. I think we’re only back for three or four days between tours but I hope we cross paths; I want to see their new space. I’m sure it’s just a matter of me showing up and they’ll find something for me to do on their new record. But I don’t even know what their new stuff sounds like, we’ve all been so busy that we can’t even see each other play.

So what are your immediate plans after this?

SVE: We’re touring with The National for two weeks around Europe which is exciting. I’m excited to see them play for two weeks in a row.