Songwriter Sharon Van Etten ‘lucked out’ in being guided and encouraged by The National’s Aaron Dessner and others sensitive to her confessional craft, she tells SIOBHAN KANE
ONE OF SHARON Van Etten’s favourite pieces of writing is by ee cummings from his essay A Poet’s Advice to Students (1958): “To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
Van Etten’s fight is ultimately poetic, a hard-wrought path that involved a shattering relationship in Tennessee, to nourishing herself back together; first through moving back to her parents in New Jersey for a while (she excitedly mentions that she is flying her parents out for the Dublin show), then through creating a luminous body of work out of such shattering; harnessing folk and rock traditions to an introspective mast.
This melding of luminosity and introspection has drawn many people in; Great Lake Swimmers (who she toured with early on), Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, who advised her to move to New York (which she did), and Meg Baird, who brought her out on tour, introducing her to Greg Weeks, who eventually produced her 2009 debut Because I Was in Love.
“Greg set me on the path. He was the first one to say: you need to record this properly. I was so scared of doing any instrumentation and trying to recreate anything live, but he was very sensitive to my songs. Everything he added was so minimal, and without his help I wouldn’t have met Brian McTear, who ended up doing the second record [Epic]. Without that second record and Love More, I wouldn’t have met Aaron [Dessner]. It’s strange the way my life has gone.”
Love More was covered by Dessner and Bon Iver at the MusicNOW Festival in 2010, which led to a collaboration with Van Etten on the song Think You Can Wait for Marshall Curry’s documentary Racing Dreams, and ultimately a wider collaboration, with Dessner producing her third album, Tramp, released earlier this year.
“He is one of the most genuine people I have ever met, and for where he is in his career he is very grounded and sincere. He is a great music fan, and so much else – a really sweet father, and he’s like a brother figure to me.
“He is really patient with me trying to communicate my ideas, because I am not a technical person when it comes to talking about music. It’s about what I feel, and that is where he comes from too, but because he has been making music for so long, he has the language for it. Tramp is actually the first full record he has made outside of his band, so it was a learning process for both of us.”
Throughout the course of her three records, there is a raw frailty, set amid a desire to be strong, but an acceptance that sometimes it is impossible. I tell her that on her last two records, she signs off with songs that sound like little prayers of sorts – Love More, and Joke or Lie.
“Joke or Lie is a really pathetic song, in a way. It’s about me being at peace, and letting things go, whereas with Love More I wanted to end the record on a positive note – it is triumphant, things are more resolved within me, whereas Joke or a Lie is unresolved.”
This tension and spectrum of sensitivity is observed in her records, the places it can take you, the gentleness and the cruelty. That complexity is there in the lush piano on Ask, the echoey, aching vocal on Don’t Do It, and the lyrics that evoke vivid imagery like kissing guns and drinking in bed. A Crime is particularly evocative, a confessional that evolves into freedom, something writing has always brought her.
“Growing up I was really shy, and I never talked about anything. I never even talked about my day, so my Mum gave me a notebook so I could at least write things out, and learn how to communicate on that level. That writing eventually turned into songs, so instead of slamming the door I would write in my notebook. As a teenager I felt out of control and didn’t want to tell anyone, so would write it. I still write that way now, and with matters of the heart, it’s just so . . . irrational. When you are broken-hearted there is no control, you are in a manic state, but writing slows down my thoughts and makes me analyse and compartmentalise. I can almost act like it’s not me.”
This was also partly realised through her years spent singing in choirs. “It’s such an amazing feeling, isn’t it? When you are harmonising with people? And you can feel the vibrations in the room – there is nothing like it. I like it because you’re all relying on each other.”
We talk about ee cummings again, and his poem since feeling is first, which is a particularly appropriate way to describe Van Etten’s own impulse: delicately but honestly navigating around the half-truths people talk in.
“I see that. You know, one of my favourite books when I was growing up was Jonathan Livingston Seagull [by Richard Bach]. It was a basic idea, but said never stop trying to grow, and never give up, even when it’s really hard and you feel alone, there is always something else.”
As much as she has been in receipt of encouragement from others, she was keen to pay it forward on Tramp (which is dedicated to John Cale, whose 1974 record Fear is referenced in the artwork), which features collaborations with other members of The National, Julianna Barwick, Wye Oak, Beirut and The Walkmen.
“I feel really blessed. A lot of crazy things started happening when I decided to leave Tennessee and pursue music. Then various hands reached out along the way, and all these people are the reasons I am doing what I am doing. I totally lucked out. I was coming from a very bad place. I was insecure, and didn’t know if I could do music, but I was encouraged to try. I am still a little shy, and still a little insecure – I’m a human being – but I am a lot more confident now, and developing into having a band. Learning how to collaborate musically is really liberating. It is getting less terrifying every day.”
Sharon Van Etten plays Whelans tonight. Tramp is available on Jagjaguwar