Words and interview by Brendan
If you saw my review of the recent Sharon Van Etten and Iron & Wine show here in Pittsburgh, you know I had an awesome time. If you didn’t see it, you should probably read it. But you should also definitely read this post. I still can’t believe I got to meet Sharon Van Etten, let alone ask her a bunch of silly questions that I cobbled together the day of the interview because I didn’t know it was happening until noon that day. Kudos to her for being incredibly friendly and personable and sharing some funny and insightful comments and stories, despite my bumbling, nervous awkwardness. Check out some of her incredible songs below, and read on to learn about her thoughts on the music industry, her first time performing in public, her songwriting process, and why her electric guitar and automobile have the same name.
The arrangements for this interview came together around noon, when I got an email from Sharon’s PR agent, which Jim unknowingly-wittily described as “epic”. I called my friend to borrow his vehicle and laughed at the idea of me driving a van with the current mustache I’m sporting, which led to the following Gmail chat exchange between Jim and myself:
12:28 PM Jim: can you get your butt over there to interview her?
12:29 PM me: yeah i’m borrowing my friend’s van haha
12:30 PM Jim: creepster
me: van + mustache = bad news bears
CLEAN YOURSELF UP FOR THIS WOMAN
she’s an angel
Indeed, she is, but I did not shave (sorry!) for lack of time. I drove out to the venue and met Sharon (henceforth abbreviated as SVE) around 7:00 at the front of the stage area, and we went backstage to her dressing room. I met her bandmates Doug and Ben and another friend of theirs whose name I’ve forgotten. She kindly offered me some of the water & soda they had in a cooler. And then we got down to brass tacks. I had Jim’s handheld voice recorder with me; I set it on the counter, whipped out my sheet of paper with some hastily-scrawled notes on it, and off we went!
So how’s the tour going?
SVE: Good, kind of at a close but not really, you know? It’s like … we did nine weeks from February through April and then had a week off and then we’re doing today and tomorrow with Iron & Wine and then … it’s like every other week after that, through May and June. And then recording, mostly.
Oh, so you have plans for recording soon.
Are you writing those songs now? Or are they just waiting to be recorded?
SVE: Yeah, they’re waiting to be recorded. We started recording on and off in September, so we’re hoping to have it finished in July.
Cool. Listening to your last two albums and comparing them, the instrumentation is really different. For Epic, did you write those songs with the instrumentation in mind? Or did you just start to record them and figured that all out later?
SVE: Well, I guess I was … it kind of happened by accident, but, I worked with Brian McTear on the last record in Philadelphia. He has a non-profit called Weathervane, and he has a series called Shaking Through, and I recorded one song before I started working on the record but it was the first time that I was encouraged to really bring collaborators with me to work on a song and, after that one experience, it made me want to record a whole record there. He encouraged me to just invite my friends and see what happens, and I had the songs written and I already had an idea of what I wanted to record, but we kind of just winged it once we got in there, but I wanted to keep it minimal.
Yeah, I heard a demo version of “Save Yourself” on …
SVE: Oh yeah.
SVE: Yeah totally! That one sounds a little bit sadder, I guess, in hindsight.
It’s sad either way, really.
SVE: [laughs] Right.
Did you listen to the songs in other formats and just decide that the way they are now is how you wanted them to be?
SVE: I mean, that was my demo and that was just what I brought into the studio to show people the song, what it sounded like when I wrote it. But I knew that I wanted it to be like a Fleetwood Mac song. I wanted it to be kind of like a Fleetwood Mac record, if that makes any sense. But I don’t know … it just happened.
I guess that’s how it goes.
SVE: It was a total accident! And there weren’t other alternate versions, so that was like the demo version and the studio version was the only other version I recorded.
SVE: Well, I never worked on my own stuff at Ba Da Bing but I worked for other bands at Ba Da Bing. And then once they started working with me I kind of phased myself out from working there just because I became too busy touring and working on this stuff that I felt like I wasn’t doing a good job. But I learned how to do it because of my job and I worked on it at home. It was great though. I learned a lot about honesty in music.
Do you think that’s what you’d be doing if you weren’t touring and playing music?
SVE: I loved it there. It was a family and I really loved the bands that he puts out and the people that I worked with. Ben Goldberg and Hunter Giles are really great. I don’t know … it’s really fun to learn how the music world is slowly changing. Um …
Some people might not say “slowly”, but—
SVE: Well it depends … I think it depends on which side you’re on.
What do you think is changing the most right now?
SVE: I think it’s the pace at which bands are coming out with music and the pace at which people are listening to it and which website is more popular, but … I think really it’s about who’s touring.
Interesting. How does that affect the decisions you make regarding your own music?
SVE: I’m realizing it’s important to have a great record, like, something that you’re really proud of, because you’re going to have to tour it for a really long time if you really want to get your name out there and have people remember you and have it feel special because that’s what keeps your name local. If that makes any sense …
Yeah. So you end up touring a lot. Are there certain places or venues that you like to play at? Would you prefer a place like this or a crowded bar or whatever?
SVE: I think they’re all great because I just like to play with who I am friends with or who I respect, so it’s … you know, like I get to bump into old friends that I haven’t seen in forever, but yeah, it’s more important who I play with, because it’s fun. Every different space … This theatre is beautiful. It’s fun to play an old space. It’s fun to play a new space. It’s fun to play small for, like, have it being more intimate, and then bigger spaces just to take all the energy.
Do you end up tailoring your set list or performance to the space you’re playing in or who’s there?
SVE: A little bit yeah, like, just depending on how quiet the space is or … I don’t know, sometimes I play a little more solo songs. Other times I like to play a little more rock songs or something, you know.
The Fleetwood Mac songs.
SVE: [laughs] Yeah, totally.
Cool. Any horrible/crazy/funny venue stories that you have?
SVE: Hmm I don’t have any horrible … It’s just, every now and then you show up someplace and they don’t know a show’s going on, they don’t know who you are, what you’re doing there, they just are not prepared at all.
I don’t know how that could happen.
SVE: Yeah, it’s just super rare. But we’ve been really lucky because everywhere we’ve played has been great. I know it sounds very uninteresting, but everyone’s been great, we’ve been lucky.
You’ve been to Pittsburgh once before, right? How was it?
SVE: I was at Garfield Artworks.
SVE: With Manny.
How was that?
SVE: He …
SVE: He is a staple of the commnunity. [laughs] I’ve heard many stories, as well. But it was one of my first shows ever around here and I felt really lucky that he wanted to put on a show, not knowing me at all.
That’s a good point. Do you have any memories or stories of when you first started playing music? Like, maybe the first time you ever performed your own songs?
SVE: Oh, I was terrified. I couldn’t look up at all and I felt like I was on the verge of tears the whole time, I was shaking so hard.
Where was it?
SVE: Well, I guess the first time I ever played was … it was for a benefit concert at a high school. What was it for … it was a non-profit, like an anti-war, education non-profit … this was over ten years ago … Well, anyway, I played a very peaceful, non-profit benefit show at a high school that my friend made me play. I had never played in front of people outside of just playing in the hallway after school, you know? But then I played the talent show later that year … Oh! Amnesty International. That was the benefit. Yeah, I played the talent show which was terrifying but fun. I was really shy in high school so people didn’t even know I did music outside the musicals.
You did musicals?
SVE: Yes, I did musicals.
So you had done a lot of singing but not playing?
SVE: Yeah, I did like background stuff in the bigger productions, and then my senior year in high school, I had a speaking role in West Side Story.
Nice, I like that one. What’s your favorite show that you’ve seen?
SVE: Umm …
I mean, do you go to many shows just as a viewer and not a performer?
SVE: I do, I do, and I love concerts. Let’s see … Diane Cluck, I got to see solo, and she floored me … I’ve seen Diane Cluck and PJ Harvey … and Aimee Mann and The Kinks.
SVE: [laughs] Oh, no … I guess, overall concerts, at a young age that really floored me … I was in junior high and it was all these bands at once. It was at Count Basie Theatre in New Jersey, where I grew up, around there. It was all my favorite 90s bands at the time, basically, so it was The Lemonheads and The Murmurs and Frente! and Pete Droge and The Whirling Dervishes, and Soup Dragons.
That’s pretty cool for junior high!
SVE: I know! I was just in junior high and my older sister was a huge Lemonheads fan, so I got to tag along basically, and it was great. As a kid, it was awesome.
What are you listening to these days?
SVE: The new PJ Harvey record is great. The new Low record is amazing … Cass McCombs, Callers, Wye Oak … Gate, which is Michael Morley from The Dead C, they’re a New Zealand band, really great. Umm … Megafaun. And Little Scream from Canada, we just toured with her on our last tour and she came out with her first record like a month ago and it’s really, really great, you should check it out.
Cool. Any favorite bands that you’d like to tour with?
SVE: I really want to tour with Bon Iver, someday.
That would be great.
SVE: Yeah, and we toured with The National, but I’d really like to tour with them again. PJ Harvey, I really wanna play with, and Aimee Mann.
Did you ever tour with The Antlers after singing on their album?
SVE: We never actually toured together but we played shows together, just around New York. Our schedules are always off so it never works out, but that would be an amazing tour. We never get to see each other anymore because they’re always traveling, but they’d be a lot of fun to tour with. They’re great guys.
I randomly just saw some song today that you recorded with … Ghost something …
SVE: Oh yeah, Glass Ghost. Yeah!
How did that come about? [Ed. note: see the song "Like A Diamond" at the top of this post.]
SVE: They’re my friends from New York. They’re a great band, and they asked me to sing on the song instead because they felt like a woman’s voice would be better for the vibe of the song, and so they asked if I would rerecord the vocal on it. And I did, and they just put it out for fun because they weren’t doing anything with it. I can’t believe it’s gotten … like, people care about it. It’s awesome! I love them, they’re a great band. They put out a record like a year ago, it’s really killer. It’s really, like, different … you can’t really categorize it. That’s kinda nice.
Is that why you were surprised they asked you to do the vocal?
SVE: Yeah, I mean, they’re my friends so it’s just nice to be asked by a friend, you know, it’s a reason just to hang out when you hardly see each other. So I wasn’t surprised, but … I feel like I didn’t really do it justice because I love the original.
Okay, [laughs] I’ll have to check out that version. This new version was today’s featured free download on eMusic, which is where I saw it.
SVE: Oh nice! Very cool.
Do you have any other random collaboration plans for the future?
SVE: Uh, no plans, but I’m sure … I’m hoping some stuff will happen. I’m really focusing on working on my own record this summer, because it needs to be done by July [laughs].
Are you gonna play any of those new songs tonight?
SVE: Maybe, we haven’t decided what we’re playing yet.
Okay, well I’ll throw in a vote for new songs.
SVE: Alright, okay, cool.
Your album artwork has a distinct style, like, there seems to be a common motif across them all. Who does those?
SVE: My friend Rebecca and her husband Erik, they have a silk-screening studio in Indianapolis, Indiana. She does interpretive drawing to my music, when she hears the original recording, or the demo version or rough mixes of my songs. And I give her a direction, just give her a mood, and she does interpretive drawings to my songs and I use them as my artwork.
SVE: She knows me better than most people do and I just give her an idea … not even telling her what it is, but just telling her, “This is my idea” … and then she’ll actually follow through on it.
That’s really neat. I never would have thought that’s how they get made.
SVE: She’s really great. If you check out Flatland Kitchen it’s … she does a lot of different kind of things, she does woodblock prints and silkscreens and screen-printing. Her husband does a lot of the graphics stuff, so together they can actually do really great artwork, posters and stuff. It’s really beautiful.
Are there any interesting stories behind your guitar or other instruments you’ve played?
SVE: Well, I’ve played acoustic guitar up until about a year or two ago, and a bunch of my friends got together and kind of had an intervention with me, saying that my songs are getting a little more rock and I should just go ahead and get an electric guitar, but I had no idea what to do. And I guess it’s not a crazy story, but I know nothing about electric guitars, and my friend took me shopping to find the right guitar for me and I tried a bunch and the Gibson 135 that I use now was like … I mean, I wanted something that felt like an acoustic but could be electric, but it was hollow-bodied so I still felt the vibrations of it, because … having the sound come out far away from me is very different from having an acoustic where you can feel everything you’re doing, so I wanted something that was kind of a balance between the two. And then I saw the red, which … red is a very important color to me because it was my first car that I bought myself. I mean, the only car I ever bought myself, but it was a Subaru, my adult decision. Before that, I had like a $500 Dodge Ram, like a 10 passenger van that I got for $500, but you know, it was my first adult decision, getting a Subaru, and I felt like it was really kind of a statement, saying “I’m gonna go electric now!” So the color red has now been like a theme of my life, for any new decision that I’m sticking by. And they’re both called “Ruby”, my car and my guitar.
Nice. I haven’t seen any album covers that are red, interestingly. Maybe the next one.
SVE: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
I just watched your Tiny Desk Concert earlier today. How did that come about and how was it playing at NPR?
SVE: Oh, it was amazing. Robin [Hilton] and Stephen [Thompson] have been really, really supportive over there.
I think that’s where I first heard your name, actually, on one of their shows.
SVE: Yeah, I mean, I had sent my stuff and I saw them write about me and I wrote them a thank you and we kept in touch. And they came to see me in Austin at the last South By. They’re the nicest people and they said, “Please let us know when you’re coming through”, and we just kept in touch. They have … you know, they’re friends with some of my friends, and some of the bands they like, I like, too. It’s very much like we were in the same family but had just never met before. And we had a tour set up and they saw we were coming through the D.C. area and they asked us to play the show, and they were really awesome. They’re really great. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for their support.
Is there any significance behind your tattoos?
SVE: Oh! Um, yeah, these are mourning bands for relatives that passed away. This is a flower for my grandmother since we had the same favorite flower. And these are … I made up this symbol myself, but it’s a V and an E and the V represents my other grandmother, and the three lines for the E represent my three uncles who passed away within three years of each other. In the Irish culture, at a funeral, they would wear a black armband around their arm, so I thought I would personalize them for my family. And then, this is the first design … well, one of the first designs I ever did on my homemade CDs. I used to make them in very small runs. For every show I would just do whatever newer songs I was working on, you know, demo versions, just have five or six songs on a homemade CD. I just did a very sloppy circle, painted, and six black lines drawn across it, to be a very minimal guitar. But when I brought it in to get tattooed on me … for some reason, it was the first CD to get played on the radio, it was that one, so it was like when things started happening, or whatever that means. But then I brought it in to the tattoo artist in Austin when I was debating moving to Austin, and he just kind of revamped my artwork to become this.
And then you didn’t move to Austin.
SVE: Yeah, it was definitely a big decision in my life, I was either moving to Brooklyn or Austin. But I met someone in Austin that convinced me that Austin is good for settling down but not really for getting work done. It’s for sitting down, chilling out, and playing music but not really leaving, because there’s not much else around Texas right there … and that New York is the place that I should move if I wanna be motivated and productive and be surrounded by people that are motivated, as well.
How has that worked out? Pretty well, I’m guessing.
SVE: Yeah, pretty awesome. I’ve only been in New York for about four or five years, I guess, but I’ve done more with my music than I ever did before, which is pretty awesome.
Yeah, that sounds good.
SVE: I feel like awesome is the only word I’m using right now. Awesome! [laughs]
Do you find yourself writing about your family a lot, in your songs?
SVE: I feel like that’s something I’m still understanding. There’s only been a few songs that I’ve wrote about moving back home, basically, but … a lot of songs that I’ve been working on aren’t finished yet because I feel like there’s a lot of … families are complicated and I want to be able to write about it properly.
So you’re just giving it time.
Do you have, like, an idea of a feeling or an event when you start to write a song?
SVE: It usually comes from an emotion and a melody and a very, very simple guitar line, and when I’m feeling it I just kind of sing stream-of-consciousness over a simple guitar part and melody. It usually is also a melody for a chorus and then I base a song around the melody of a chorus. And then I push “record”, and I record for about 10 or 15 minutes, and then I listen to it and try to hear what I’m trying to say subconsciously and then it’s kind of like confronting myself and my subconscious and I base my songwriting after that.
What do you end up doing with those recordings?
SVE: Uh, they’re on my hard drive and no one’s heard them. [laughs]
Would you prefer to keep it that way?
SVE: Right now, yeah. It’s a lot of gibberish, you know, and I feel like only I can understand it, but there’s some parts that I will also never be able to recreate.
I’m sure if people heard them they’d find meaning in the somehow.
When you’re trying not to think about music, what do you do? What’s your life like outside of your music career?
SVE: Hanging out with my friends, watching movies, reaidng books, cooking, trying to get in shape, eat right, exercise when I can.
So, things you can’t necessarily do on tour.
Any good movies or books you’ve seen or read lately?
SVE: They’re very good, I highly recommend Just Kids, and I can’t wait for her new one.
Hmm, I’m running out of ideas I had written down … You mentioned cooking … What’s your favorite meal to cook? [Ed. note: That's the best I could come up with?! Wow, I really was nervous to meet her.]
SVE: Oh, I like salads. But my favorite meal is breakfast. I like eggs and toast and fruit and yogurt and granola and oatmeal and that kind of stuff. And I really do feel like it starts your day off right, if you have the time and the patience to have a good breakfast, I feel like you’re set for, like, half the day. And a good coffee—just one really good, brewed coffee, like a perfectly brewed coffee … If you have one, that’s all you really need for the day.
I think you’re probably right about the coffee thing, but I don’t adhere to that too often. [laughs] Anything else you want to say to the people of Pittsburgh or whoever might read this?
SVE: Well, I love your city. I haven’t spent much time here, but I love how real it is and how hard people work here, and how devoted fans people are of their sports teams, and how it just feels like … for a city, I feel like it still feels like a giant neighborhood, which is really great.
Well, thanks for chatting with me, this has been really fun.
SVE: Oh, no problem, thank you!
I left Sharon to give her some time before her set to relax or warm up or what have you, and I went back out into the theatre to grab my seat. But not before snapping a photo and getting her to autograph my copy of her rare-ish 7″ single, “I’m Giving Up On You” (I have #223/500, now with a personalized message on the front!). I had already had an awesome experience that evening, and there was still an awesome concert to come. Please check out Sharon’s records and see her live if you can. You will be amazed.
Filed under: Interviews