Sharon Van Etten: Blindsided by Love - The Quietus (2012)

It started with ornate CD-R packages assembled from wrapping paper, black gaffer tape and brown paper bags, accompanied with a handwritten note inviting the listener to stay in touch. These were Sharon Van Etten's 2008 home recordings, the result of MySpace users demanding a way of buying her efforts as a confessional songwriter with an acoustic guitar. The wrought vulnerability and crackling tape-hiss created a captivating intimacy but, at the time, listeners would have been oblivious to the back story: Jersey girl moves to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to study sound recording, then drops out and hooks up with a controlling musician who dismisses her attempts at songwriting. The next five years suck Van Etten into an unhealthy cycle: the relationship becomes turbulent, she disconnects from her family and only plays music in secret. Eventually she leaves in the middle of the night, returning to her parents in Clinton, New Jersey, where she documents the experience and gives her music a chance to breathe.

In time, Van Etten considered pursuing music full-time in New York but feared being overwhelmed. "Do it – you're young now," a therapist urged her. "Don't have any regrets. If it doesn't work out, you can always move somewhere else." And she was right. As soon as Van Etten moved to Brooklyn, connections sprouted effortlessly, support slots turned into friendships and the momentum accelerated.

When I interviewed her in 2009, Van Etten seemed like a starlet in the making: that searing voice, disarming openness and a presence that had dozens of eyes along Hackney's Broadway Market trailing behind her. She had just released Because I Was In Love, which built on the strengths of her demos, and the next year Epic saw Van Etten assembling a band to craft a bolder, more muscular sound. Epic's 'Love More', later covered by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and The National's Aaron Dessner, became a pivotal moment that drew a wider audience and led to Dessner producing her latest album, Tramp.

Buoyed by a strong supporting cast (members of The National, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, Beirut and Julianna Barwick), its intricate production provides the perfect platform for Van Etten's ruminations on taking chances, quelling panic attacks and exorcising demons from the past. Sitting in an Italian restaurant in central London, hair tied back and hands wrapped around a glass of wine, Van Etten talks the Quietus through her quickening ascent and growth as a songwriter.

When we spoke in 2009, your career seemed like a series of lucky breaks and serendipitous encounters – and it's kept going that way. You've built up this amazing network of connections with so many musicians: Kyp Malone, Espers, The Antlers, The National, Beirut, The Walkmen, Bon Iver...

Sharon Van Etten: I know, I know. [giggles] It's a trip. I can't even explain it to you. I don't know how it's happened. I don't know how long my music will last or how long people will like it but I'll just keep doing it as long as they listen.

But aside from the music, there's obviously some quality of your personality that people warm to. They tend to take you under their wing. I remember Eric from Great Lake Swimmers saying you were like a little sister to him on tour.

SVE: I feel like I have a lot of older brothers in the world, looking out for me. Do you know the radio station WFMU? There's this DJ there, Jeffrey Davison, who has a show called 'Shrunken Planet'. He was one of the first people to play my music on the radio. We became friends and he invites me over to his house to have dinner with him and his wife, and he plays me records he feels will inspire me. Right before I left for tour – and this is a man in his fifties – he said, "I don't know what it is about you, but everyone just wants to take care of you." I've no idea what it is either but it's nice to know I have them looking out for me.

But what's it like when you've already been admiring those people from afar?

SVE: Even though in some ways it feels really validating to have support from people whose records I owned, it honestly feels like more of a family or a community. Music isn't about what level you're at. Status is something you put on somebody else. So meeting people like Aaron and Justin, they're the most genuine, grounded, giving people I've ever met - they just want to help anyone that touches their life at all. That's how they treat everyone they know... Agh, I'm gonna get all choked up about it!

You've taken to the art of keeping your songwriting more general. Originally, your ex in Murfreesboro would criticise you for putting too much of yourself in the songs. Do you think, in a roundabout way, you've arrived at the same conclusion?

SVE: Yeah, but also I feel like I wouldn't have any of these songs if I hadn't had him. [laughs] In some ways I wouldn't be as confident of that idea if we hadn't talked about it all the time. But I think being personal is important too, because it's real and it's honest and it's conversational. The emotion you put into it, from your own experience, is usually what draws people in initially. Even when the story's not mine, it feels like it is when I sing about it. It's learning how to draw that line a little bit, but still putting yourself in there. I feel like if I write from too personal a place, people are going to have a hard time connecting with it. I want to learn to do it on a more universal level.

But that was the beauty of your early stuff: the intimacy. The music was on a much smaller scale, but the listener was right there beside you feeling this burning, raw emotion.

SVE: That was bleak! I mean I'm really proud of that stuff but I listen to it now and it's just so bleak. I love it but I was very broken. I think in general I learn more about myself as I look back on things. Sometimes it's just a matter of perspective: where I am now versus where I was then. Sometimes I think a song means one thing and then it develops over the years; sometimes it stays the same.

When someone's going out with you, should they accept that they could end up in a song?

SVE: Well, it's funny because I've been on and off with the same person for about seven years. Since last July we've been really great. And he knows... He knows some songs, like 'Give Out', are about him. He was the first person I dated when I moved to New York; well ,before that, actually. He was the first person to ever listen to me play. I remember he was a bartender at one of my first shows. It was a room full of people talking and he was the only one listening. So he knows exactly what that one's about. We decided I just wouldn't tell him about the other songs that are about him.

Whenever I'm staying in someone else's place, I can never fully relax. What's it like trying to write an album when you're crashing on sofas?

SVE: Awkward! When I really felt like I was invading someone's space or putting someone out – that's when I would sublet instead of couch-surf; when I actually just needed my own space. At some point I had like 10 pairs of keys in my bag. I would try to rotate among friends and not stay for more than a few days at a time, but there comes a point when you know it's time to go. You just have to be aware. I was worried it would make the album sound a little schizophrenic, only because I was writing and recording in so many different places and mindsets. But I think in a way it ended up being a strength of the record because it's so versatile. It changes a lot.

How did the process compare to Epic?

SVE: It was more of a challenge. Epic was done in two or three weeks but it was non-stop, blocked-off time. Then I had a month off and started touring. But Tramp was over the course of a year – two years if you include the writing of it – while touring constantly. All my off-time was spent recording. I was singing every day, even when I was sick, when I was losing my voice, when I was homeless, when I was tired – all those things you can usually recover from if you schedule things properly. [laughs] Aaron saw the best of me and the worst of me. I'd bring songs to him and we'd flesh them out together and bounce ideas off each other. Opening myself up to somebody else's opinions and working off someone else's ideas was very new.

John Cale's Fear: apart from the cover, what is it about that album that spoke to you?

SVE: With John Cale in general, every record he does sounds different – yet when you hear his voice, there's no question who it is. I don't think I sound like him and I don't think this record sounds like him, but he inspired me to take chances production-wise and to always let your voice be the main thing. I'm not a strong guitar player and although my lyrics are confessional and autobiographical, I don't think they're my strength either. I think it's my vocals.

And for him too, I think. It's what identifies him: his delivery and how raw he keeps it. It's pretty much there all the time. I wanted to keep that. No matter what was around me, I wanted the vocal to stand on its own. But Fear was in constant rotation the last few years when I was working on [Tramp], both writing and recording. He has a full band sound but you can still hear every instrument separately. He's able to shift from being really delicate and vulnerable to an in-your-face rock song, letting himself go from end to end like that.

Here's something I wanted to show you [takes out Sharon's Home Recordings CD-R]

SVE: Oh my gosh! I can't believe that.

What do you think when you see this now? What does it remind you of?

SVE: It reminds me of my basement. I miss this so much. This was probably when I was still with my parents. Oh my gosh! This was when I was in Bushwick. When is this from?

It would have been around May 2008.

SVE: Woah. How do you still have this?

Well, I wasn't going to throw it away.

SVE: That's amazing. I still remember cutting this out – the paper bags! [laughs] The type-written lyrics. Wow. Thank you for still caring. I really appreciate it.

I remember writing to you back then and you said you were learning how to leave the house and hold your head up. Since you didn't have any encouragement in Murfreesboro, what kept you going?

SVE: I didn't write so much in Tennessee. I would secretly do it. but it was more when I left and moved back with my parents. As soon as I left Tennessee, everything started happening. My family, my friends and everyone I met after that encouraged me, and that's what kept me going: people telling me it helped them.

When fans share stories and impressions of your music, what kind of thing resonates?

SVE: Just people that let themselves be emotional, connecting with something, whether it's letting yourself be sad or happy, or just to feel anything at all. That's why I write. People come up to me sometimes so overcome with emotion that they can't even say anything. That means the most.

Didn't you do that with Julie Andrews?

SVE: Oh my god! I was at the dentist's office, checking out and making another appointment, when I notice there's this woman in there talking to a secretary. I just whispered to her afterwards, "Was that Julie Andrews?" and she said yes. I got so emotional because I grew up listening to her. She has such a beautiful voice and on top of all that, knowing she's had problems...

I don't even know what came over me! I normally don't talk to people but I went up to her and said, "I just have to say I love you. You're amazing. I'm sure you hear this all the time." She thanked me and when I told her I was a singer too, she said: "Oh really? Where do you perform?" I just got super emotional, told her, "I'm playing Bowery Ballroom!" and started bawling. I apologised and left; I was so overwhelmed.

Given the trajectory you've been on, is there still somewhere you're aiming for? Somewhere you'd rather be?

SVE: I don't know. I just want to keep playing and writing. Obviously I'd like to connect with as many people as possible; I want to grow with my band and figure out how to write better.

So if it stays exactly like it is at the moment, would you be content?

SVE: [smiling] I'd be content. Things are good.

Sharon Van Etten - Wears the Trousers (2009)

When Sharon Van Etten hopped into Great Lake Swimmers’ tour van holding a naked drawing of the band, complete with exaggerated private parts, they had no idea who she was. Up until that point their tour had been beset with problems and the last thing they needed was an unexpected stranger in their midst.

Yet seeing Sharon open for the band later that night in Berlin, guitarist Eric Arnesen closed his eyes, put his hands together and whispered “Thank you God” with relief. Two weeks later and Great Lake Swimmers were so desperate to avoid parting ways with their “little sister” that Eric planned to stuff the band’s instrument cases with newspaper and trick their tour manager into driving off with a van full of lookalikes.

There’s something about Sharon Van Etten that has this effect on people. You can see it as she ambles down Hackney’s Broadway Market in a petite red dress, denim jacket folded over her arm, with the eyes of coffee drinkers on both sides of the street drawn behind her. You can see it as she almost whispers the stories behind each of the three tattoos on her snow white skin, her eyes glowing as she adds:  “I did shower today to meet you. And I wore the one clean outfit I had.”

Connecting her charms as a bright-eyed but vulnerable folk figure and the surging momentum of her career might be a tempting conclusion to make. But, as she explains, it was a series of life-altering decisions and serendipitous timing that propelled her out of obscurity.

Growing up, the sensation of being surrounded by 50 singing voices in choir drew her into music, eventually learning to play the piano, clarinet and violin while dreaming of performing on Broadway. But as high school finished, her parents expected her to attend college – something she didn’t quite feel ready for. “I chose to go to the joint-best recording school, which was in Tennessee, because basically I had no choice at the time. I thought the balance of pursuing something in music while potentially having a career to fall back on would please my parents… But I dropped out after a year.”

She sits in the darkened, wood-panelled backroom of a near-empty pub. Her brown leather boots are the only remnant from the grungy figure who, two nights earlier, captivated a crowd as she curtseyed under the weight of a shiny red Gibson, her short hair flopping into her eyes. Now, hesitating over a pint of local ale, she gazes at the ceiling and reflects on the six years she spent in a town called Murfeesboro, Tennessee.

It was there that she bought her first guitar and found a job in a multi-purpose venue (“a record store, screen printing studio, coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant”), learning to book and promote shows while finding a second family in her creative-minded co-workers. Although Sharon’s then-boyfriend was in a band, he was so underwhelmed by her musical efforts that she’d only play or write while he was away on tour.

“He kept saying: ‘You can do better than that, you can do better than that’. It came to a point where there was a lot of unhealthy behaviour going on and I just decided to leave. I felt like I always compromised everything up until that point. I thought: ‘Well, I’ll do this because of this person and I’ll do this because of that person’. It was the first time I said: ‘You know what? No. I’m leaving Tennessee for me’. So I moved back to my parents and went through all these songs I had written which he said weren’t good enough… and just decided to record them anyway.”

These songs became her Home Recordings CD, laid down in the basement of her family home in Clinton, New Jersey – the perfect setting to capture a time of upheaval. Having barely spoken to her family while in Tennessee, the transition home was a chance to rebuild a connection with her parents, eventually inspiring the song ‘Fold’.

“On one hand you can look at it like you’re giving up and letting your parents take care of you again; compromising to save money. But then they’re so loving, I couldn’t spite them for anything. They had always been supportive of whatever music lessons I wanted to take; my mom brought me to musicals while my dad introduced me to rock concerts. I took them for granted for a really long time and now I’m closer to them than I ever have been.”

With some encouragement, Sharon decided to make a leap into the unknown, saving enough money to move to New York and focus on music for a year just to see what would happen. “I was seeing a therapist for a while to overcome a lot of social anxiety problems. I was really afraid that I’d freak out in the city because I wasn’t sure I was ready. But my therapist was amazing because she said: ‘Do it. You’re young now. Don’t have any regrets. If it doesn’t work out you can always move somewhere else’. And she was right. We think that a lot of these things we set up for ourselves are irreversible but they’re not. You can always do something else.”

For someone who considers themselves to be a country girl, Brooklyn seemed like a scary and intimidating place – especially when trying to eke out a spot in an already overcrowded music scene. But then the serendipity began. A friend from Tennessee was already living in Brooklyn and working in Sony studios, where he snuck her in to record her first demo – a CD-R that would later convert chance encounters into breakthrough opportunities.

Then one night while at a concert, Sharon thought the support act seemed familiar. It was TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone who, she realised, was the brother of a friend from high school. She introduced herself, gave him her demo CD and asked if he was ever back home.

“It turns out he has a daughter where my parents live and visits her all the time, but he gets really lonely out there because there’s nothing going on. So we began hanging out and he became one of the most encouraging people of my music. He was definitely the first person to kick my ass. I’m still pretty insecure and shy, but he got me out of the shell I was in for a very long time.”

For all her lingering shyness, Sharon is bubbly, warm and disarmingly open, her eyes squinting as she giggles through an explanation of how Malone introduced her to Zebulon – a low-key venue run by two French brothers where the gigs are always free. Malone gave the club’s owners Sharon’s demo CD and suggested they give her a show.

Soon she was curating her own night once a month and a word-of-mouth buzz meant that not only were people finding her music on Myspace, but were writing to ask how they could buy it. In turn Sharon would make her own CD sleeves and send off the recordings with a handwritten letter inviting people to stay in touch.

It was through these exchanges that she struck up a friendship with a fashion designer based in London, who regularly sent her tailor-made clothes as part of a swap deal. A year later, Sharon had the urge to finally meet her and asked if she could visit.

“At the time, one of her friends was about to drive Meg Baird around on her UK tour and said that if I wanted to be the support act for two weeks, I’d be welcome to. Meg Baird was someone who Kyp played to me, like, six months before this happened. So all these things were lining up, blowing my mind.”

The good fortune continued when the tour was set to begin in Edinburgh after Baird’s main band, Espers, had just finished a tour of their own. Ever the opportunist, Sharon handed Greg Weeks, Baird’s songwriting partner, a CD-R as they met in the hotel lobby that night. Just over two months later, she was recording her debut album, Because I Was In Love, in Weeks’s studio, re-realising the songs with a clearer sound and some feather-light accompaniment.

As the handmade CDs and lo-fi bedroom recordings had been an integral part of Sharon’s sound, the priority was to keep things intimate. It was a personal connection with the listener, a moment shared that only ends with the sound of her pressing the stop button in an otherwise empty bedroom. Like her influences Vashti Bunyan and Sibylle Baier, Sharon’s voice has a sincere, timeless quality that uses simple phrasing and a sense of urgency to draws the listener in, whether you’ve experienced heartbreak or not.

“I try to make my music personal: open and honest. I wanted it to be that way with the CDs, for the person on the other end to know that I touched this, that I made this and recorded it. I just hope that represents my music somehow. I miss it, though, because what I’m doing now [with Because I Was In Love] is totally different.

I hope it still has that feel. But it’s definitely not the same thing and it’s hard to let go of that. I knew Greg had my best interests in mind so I wasn’t worried that way… because I’m hoping that a song on its own can still speak to you somehow.”

Finally released through Weeks’s label Language Of Stone over a year after its recording, the fragile folk of Because I Was In Love has gone on to capture even more hearts. She may not have time for handwritten letters anymore but even as her profile rises, Sharon insists that the shows must remain small enough to stay personal.

When she writes a follow-up email from her basement weeks after this interview, she does so in another “sad but perfect” moment, late at night with thunder crackling outside. It’s a scene that suggests the intimacy of her music is not just an illusion, or something easily diluted.

“I hope I never play big venues. It’s cool for bigger bands who want to see how famous they are but I feel like my music is not meant for huge spaces. If I had a band, maybe it would make sense. Greg really wants to have an orchestra on the next album but I like to keep things simple.” She trails off; a hint of disbelief creeping in as if just the thought of how far she has come seems tiring. “We’ll see.”

The idea of Sharon Van Etten with an orchestra at her disposal must have seemed like an impossibility back when her ex-boyfriend offered such disheartening feedback. When asked what he might make of her progress, she smiles timidly; her voice straining delicately into a rising intonation. “I haven’t heard from him in a very long time. The last time that I know he heard my music was about two or three years ago but I don’t know where he is today. It’s very different than when I left him, for sure. He probably never thought I would have made it this far.”