Sharon Van Etten

Lived To Tell:
Sharon Van Etten Steps Out of the Basement and Finds Her Voice

Sharon Van Etten is on the prowl for zinc. The soft-spoken singer is wrapping up her first mini-tour with a backing band, and the unfamiliar strain of projecting her voice nightly over an amplified rhythm section has begun to take its toll. After debating and rejecting a few flawed formulations with her tourmates, Van Etten settles on steeping a bag of Throat Comfort Tea, striking a typically understated pose on an outdoor bar patio.

Presumably this bump in the road will be remedied by little more than herbal tea and some vocal stamina exercises, because Van Etten has overcome obstacles far more ominous than a raspy larynx.  Her new album, epic, is not merely very good – it’s one of those rare records so powerful that I will remember precisely where I was the first time I heard it.

Van Etten’s 2009 debut, Because I Was in Love was a solid work of solo introspection that drew comparisons to early Cat Power for its naked emotionalism but also introduced a voice as gracefully expressive as ’60s folkies like Sandy Denny. On epic she takes her unflinching compositions to an entirely new plateau by adding a well-considered mix of instruments. Opening with “A Crime,” an insistent mid-tempo workout for acoustic guitar and voice, Van Etten gradually ups the ante to the shimmering dream pop of “Don’t Do It” and the vague whiff of country in the gorgeous strummer “One Day.”

Van Etten describes her sonic progression as a natural yet conscious process. “All those songs on the first album are really personal – I didn’t know how to take them from demos to studio versions, and I didn’t want to add a lot of veneer anyway. I wanted the new record to convey a lot more confidence. I didn’t want to keep being portrayed as a singer/songwriter. So I played the first song solo, then we left the tape rolling for the closing of the door after, as a joke to ourselves – ‘That’s it! I’m through with the solo stuff!'” Even the album title (epic, with a lower-case “e”) stands as a self-effacing inside joke indicative of her dry wit, but Sharon’s growing base of fans can be forgiven for hearing something heroic instead.

When Van Etten repeatedly vows, “Never let myself love like that again,” in the haunting chorus to “A Crime,” it at first sounds like a standard case of post-breakup regret. “Of course you will, dear – we all get back on the horse eventually,” is an initial reaction. After learning Van Etten’s backstory, however, the words take on a wholly different meaning, and a feeling of “Wow, yeah. You probably shouldn’t love like that again – and if you start to, here’s my number, give me a call and I’ll talk you down.”

New Jersey native Sharon Van Etten, always a musical kid, opted for a college program at Middle Tennessee State (“I wanted to get out of town – I was on a budget and it was alongside Berklee at the top of the list for recording, only a lot cheaper.”) Not one for the classroom end of the equation, however, she never made it past the general studies requirements. Instead she gravitated toward on-the-job training in the Murfreesboro clubs. She also fell in with a local scenester who made it abundantly clear there would be only one musician in their relationship and by the way, it wasn’t Sharon. Despite a total lack of positive reinforcement, Van Etten would sneak out of their apartment to play at open mic nights and road test her growing notebook of songs. “It was a very controlling relationship – I cut myself off entirely from my family,” she explains, as if retelling the tale still provides therapeutic salve. After six years, with the help of a sister she essentially escaped in the middle of the night, leaving behind most of her belongings and regrouping for a time in her parents’ basement to lick her wounds.

Van Etten’s had her share of romances; our conversation is peppered with references to ex-boyfriends, and she claims the antagonists in her songs are actually a composite (“I’m recognizing a lot of patterns in my life, so the songs wind up being less specific than when I started.”) Still it’s hard not to see epic as a direct reaction to that one poisonous relationship. The poignant “One Day” reads like a tale of Sharon’s return to the family fold, and the exquisite “Love More” opens with Van Etten matter-of-factly delivering the horrific line “Yeah, you chained me like a dog in our room.” Which all begs the question, where does she turn for material once she writes her way through this trauma? “I don’t see myself as the kind of person who will ever feel like I’ve got it all figured out,” she shrugs. “And I’m OK with that. I’ve got a batch of really angsty country songs that I wrote just after the breakup that I doubt I’ll ever release. They’re not positive songs – If they’re not going to help somebody, what’s the point?”

With her growing confidence Sharon’s lyrics have become more confrontational, yet she knows when to keep a safe distance. She resolves “A Crime” with “Alone in this basement where I will write these songs/ of things I’ll never say to you again but you know why.” Her ex eventually landed in prison, for reasons unrelated to their relationship – Van Etten’s heard through the grapevine that he’s since been released.

Van Etten gradually regained her footing from that New Jersey basement, venturing out for open mics in outposts like Easton, Pennsylvania. Her slice of Jersey revolves more in Philadelphia’s constellation than New York’s, which helps explain her kinship with bands like Espers and Bitter Bitter Weeks (although she now lives in – surprise! – Brooklyn).  Sharon also took an office job with Ba Da Bing, the homespun but well respected label that had its first breakout hit a few years ago with Beirut and unless I miss my guess, is sitting on the cusp of its second. “I was so shy that I worked there for over a year before (Ba Da Bing owner) Ben (Goldberg) even knew I played music,” she claims.

Her label gig unwittingly played a role in shaping epic‘s sound.  “One of our bands, the Brunettes, was leaving the country and stored their stuff in my apartment.  One of the things they left behind was a harmonium,” that Tom Waits standby that plays something like a table-top accordion on Quaaludes. “After a couple of months I pulled it out, spent about a week learning how to play it, and used it on some eleven-minute demos” that she shipped to engineer Brian McTear, who surprised her by suggesting they keep the harmonium. There was only one problem – the Brunettes had since reclaimed their instrument. “My boyfriend at the time got me another one – I couldn’t have afforded one on my own. The better ones are made in India, and they’re so intricate that they have to be fixed after they’re shipped. Plus mine was held for ransom at Customs.” The instrument can be seen in action on tour during “Love More,” although the enchanting drone of “DSharpG” has proven too complex to attempt live to date.

Harmoniums and guitars aside, the true power of Van Etten’s music begins and ends with her captivating voice. While Because I Was in Love earned kudos for its exquisite overdubbed harmonies, Van Etten brought collaborators into the studio with her to fill out the sound on epic. “I’m a freak about harmonies,” she happily confesses. “Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll lose friends because I’m such a stickler, but I hear things the way I want them to be. Sometimes I can let it go but others, when everyone else is gone, I go back in and overdub one more layer. But I’d much rather have my friends on the songs.”

A voice as elegant as Van Etten’s rarely emerges without some form of formal training and sure enough, she spent her teen years in a variety of music programs. “I sang in church choirs for years. I was always into madrigals and musicals. Then one day my mom got a letter from the church saying that based on our income we weren’t donating our fair share. I’m one of five kids – I know my mom, and there’s no way she wasn’t doing what she could. I was so upset that I never went back.” The experience clearly left bruises, as Van Etten still speaks wistfully about the lost outlet. “The great thing about those groups was that there were people of all different kinds of abilities, but they all wanted to sing. In the school choir everyone could sing, but half the kids just didn’t want to be there.” Sharon and her friends have discussed launching a self-described “ladies’ choir” in Brooklyn to rekindle the spirit of the former.

Either the Throat Comfort tea did the trick or she’s already found her compensation strategy because Van Etten is in fine voice on stage later that night at 529, exuding a homey, inclusive warmth that belies her professed shyness. But there’s a significant difference between shyness and false modesty – Van Etten still considers herself an introvert and sure enough, she avoided eye contact for much of our meeting. At the same time, she’s absolutely charming and supremely confident of her talents. It’s ironic that in her wallflower phase Van Etten summoned the will to take the stage solo with a guitar, even in settings as daunting as outdoor festivals. Only now that she’s built that aplomb has she latched onto the support system a band can provide. “I’m not sure why I’m more confident here – maybe it’s because I have a good job, a group of friends that have my back. Going through what I did taught me just how badly I wanted to play music.” It’ll take more than a little hoarseness to silence this voice.