An interview with Sharon Van Etten


The general consensus seems to indicate that once a person has listened to Sharon Van Etten’s voice, there is no going back to any other music for a while. The Brooklyn resident has crafted albums so intimate and personal, yet filled with so much universal emotion, it’s as though she were singing a page from all of our diaries.

At some point or another, we all experience heartbreak. Van Etten knows it, or at least can voice it better than most. Both her debut album, Because I Was In Love, and the recently released Epic are beautifully sung stories of love lost, betrayed, destroyed and hearts on the mend.

We spoke with Sharon about her musical beginnings, getting help from TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone and being inspired by Ani Difranco. You played at CMJ this fall. Was your experience different than years past? Did you have to get used to being noticed a bit more?

Well this year we only played one show so I got to just hang out and catch some of the other musicians this time and could just hang out at the same venue all day without having to run around, so that was nice. A lot more people knew the words to my songs, that’s for sure. That was nice.

AE: Is it fun looking out into the audience and seeing people singing along?

Definitely! And especially this time playing with the band, seeing people bobbing their heads for once instead of just sitting on the floor.

AE: I think it’s interesting because when most people describe watching you play, the most used description of the audience is that they go silent while listening to you because they’re just awestruck. Has that now changed a bit?

Well I still keep some slower songs in the set because I want to keep most of that. But it is a little different because there are some songs that are a little more rock. I still have quiet songs but I like to keep a balance. I don’t want to depress people all the time.

AE: When you first started out, before meeting Kyp Malone, did you always keep copies of your demos on you just in case?

I actually only started making them when I met him. I wanted to share it with people but I didn’t know how because at the time I was only really doing open mics, so I gave some away to whoever wanted them. Sometimes if I’d go into a coffee shop and they’d be playing someone like Mirah, I’d say, “Oh you might like this” and give it to them. But I wouldn’t give it as a business card or anything.

AE: What was your state of mind after handing over your demo to Kyp?

Well, we had actually talked music before this. He had asked me if I was playing music or writing music already. Actually, the whole reason I had started talking to him to begin with was because I was friends with his brother in high school. He was opening for the band Celebration and I only knew about them going into it, but then when I saw him go on stage opening for them and heard his name I was like, “Holy crap! That’s my friend from high school’s older brother who I’ve never met.”

So afterwards I saw him hanging out at the bar and introduced myself, but then groups of people started crowding around him and I left. Later, he found me sitting on the other end of the bar and we got to talking about music and he told me he’d like to hear what I do. That’s when I was like, “Actually, I have a CD on me if that’s not weird,” and he said, “No, that’s not weird at all,” and so I gave him my CD.

AE: So when he played one of your songs on NPR when he was a guest DJ for them, did you freak out a little bit?

Yes, totally!

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