INTERVIEW: Sharon Van Etten speaks to GIITTV 1

INTERVIEW: Sharon Van Etten speaks to GIITTV

Put yourself in Sharon Van Etten‘s position. You’re putting out your third LP, the one that’s going to be the break-though even though you don’t know it yet. The album cover has a comprehensive list of thanks, and Sharon being self-less and sharing, also has detailed recommendations for further listening. But on the inside of the gatefold, pride of place, there’s an artist photo and the words “For John Cale”, dedicating it to her all-time musical hero. Wind forward a year. Things have gone really rather well. Sharon is in the UK, touring, and is slightly excited to be asked to do ‘Later With Jools Holland’. By some alignment of the stars, the afore-mentioned Mr. Cale is on the show. She gets to meet her musical hero, and to her delight he is keen to thank her for the album dedication. It’s funny how things come full circle; funny in a very good way.

We met Sharon on the afternoon of her gig at the Queen’s Social Club in Sheffield. They are a cool gang, her band, just the five of them on the road together, and that’s counting their sound guy. Drummer Zeke Hutchins is doubling up as tour manager this trip, a job he has done full-time for big-name acts in the past. As he puts it, it’s enjoyable and relaxed because there’s no need for ‘wrangling’ on this trip. Sitting down to chat with us saves Sharon from the chore of helping with loading in the instruments. She admits to being a bit woozy from the long trip in the tour bus, and is drinking full-fat Coca Cola, the ‘good’ European stuff, with proper sugar as she puts it. She’s clearly a connoisseur of caffeinated soft drinks.


How’s it going?
Everything’s great! It’s been a long year. The tour has been really good. We started in Portugal, then through Spain and France. It’s our last date in the UK tonight.

And then you’re back for, what, London, Cardiff and ATP in December?
Yeah that’s right..

I saw you on the TV last night, on Jools Holland!
Oh my God that was amazing. I’m still slapping myself (and she’s visibly giggling with delight at the thought too). It was pretty crazy.

So how does that feel? Was it a big deal for you?
Oh yes. It was an honour to do that show… it’s not something I’m comfortable doing. It’s really weird and nerve wracking, even though everyone on the show was so nice. Every single person I met was just so passionate about music. And every artist we got to meet was so humble, and so eager to hear everybody else. So it was really encouraging, even though it was stressful situation.

Are people familiar with ‘Later’ back home in States?
Yes. It must be the only hundred percent music show that still exists…. I was freaking out… I got to meet John Cale, he was really nice. He actually thanked me for dedicating the record

Sharon is giggling like a schoolgirl, clearly thrilled, while she tells me this. We then exchanged notes about where she now lives, in a suburb of Brooklyn, having apparently found just the right neighbourhood that’s not too trendy, and at the same time is not one of those that are still so ‘un-gentrified’ as to be a risky prospect. Sharon talks about the sheer effort required to live in one of the New York boroughs; just the cost means that it tends to attract motivated people, good musicians to mix with:
You can’t just sit on your ass, you have to work hard just to stay there. That helped me a lot being surrounded by people that are creative, seeing how they made it work and seeing different examples, seeing where they go, and their influence by…. That was really helpful when I started out there.
Sharon talks at some length about their touring schedule, which appears to be more or less constant since the record came out. As she puts it “thankfully my boyfriend is a very patient man”. I ask if she is intending to do SXSW again next year, given that is where I first saw her live:
Maybe, we don’t know yet

I saw your show (at this year’s SXSW) where J.Mascis came up and joined you on stage.
Oh that was just crazy…crazeee… That was the one where we just let it wail. I really like him and respect him a lot….(We talk some more and Sharon carries on) …Doug had met J.earlier that night, and they got talking. Now Doug is the biggest Dinosaur Jr. fan. So then just before we went on, Doug says that J Mascis would like to come and play with us, and would we be cool with that?… I asked what song, and Doug says “Oh he said any song you want”. I mean, how do you decide that? It’s whatever he wants. We did a Soft Boys cover, ‘I Wanna Destroy You’, that was one we ended up doing.

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When Tramp came out, there was an awful lot written about how you were…you were portrayed as being semi-homeless. I understood that was ‘personal life’ stuff. But was that overplayed, were you homeless, was that how it really was?
All of my stuff was in storage, and I had a bag of clothes, just clothes in my car. I would literally crash at friend’s houses, and then when I needed my own space I would sub-let. I wasn’t completely on the street or anything.

Yeah, I can see the difference in feeling between simply staying with friends, or you really haven’t got anywhere…
It was definitely ‘place to place to place’. I didn’t stay anywhere more than a few days at a time, so that I didn’t wear out my welcome. I literally had ten sets of keys in my bag for something like a solid year.

But while this was going on the record, Tramp, was being recorded in Aaron Dessler’s home studio?
Most of it was. Part was recorded in Philly

Tell me if I’m barking up the wrong tree, but is it easy as a female artist to be cast as the confessional soul-baring singer songwriter?
I think more when I was a solo artist, particularly as a female, I’d get pissed at that label ‘singer-songwriter’. I mean, anyone who is a musician and writes and sings, is a singer-songwriter, it’s ridiculous. But people like to label stuff. I mean, what does indie-rock even mean any more? Confessional? Okay it’s synonymous with autobiographical I guess. Sure, I’ll own up to that, most of my songs are pretty autobiographical and confessional, sure, but you know, it’s not religious! (Laughs) But people need something to hold onto, and it’s a bummer when it’s gender related.

So what about female only tours, things like Lilith, or I think you just did Ladyfest in France?
Yes I did Ladyfest. That was really interesting because there was a lesbian publication that kept asking me questions about my beliefs, how I felt about feminism and things like that. I am all for equality in general but I’m definitely not like ‘Go Women!’ They asked me about same-sex marriage, and I think that anyone that’s in love should get married. So I’m all about equality but I’m not active in female rights especially. But the festival, Ladyfest, was great, all the bands were super-sweet.

Would it be unfair to ask who you really enjoyed sharing a stage with?
Oh there’s a bunch. This is our second date with This Is The Kit, they are super, her voice is incredible. But you know, I’ve gotten to tour with War On Drugs, who were amazing, and Shearwater…

Is it ridiculous for me to ask you about influences?
No, not at all. They do say that you are the sum of your influences. I would say John Cale, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey. Further back in my lifetime, then Neil Young. But, if I’m talking current, I would say She Keeps Bees, also Scary Mansion.

I love Scary Mansion, that’s Leah Hayes isn’t it?
Yes. Have you heard her project with her sister, Little Horns? Or have you heard Angel Olsen? She is lovely, sounds like the Walker Brothers meets Diane Cluck… That’s a new one that I just found out about recently, someone played it for me.

Do you want to tell us about your band?
Yes of course. I’ve been figuring out how to have a band for two years, and they are great. Doug plays guitar and bass. We’ve been together the longest, he’s been with me since the beginning of the band. He is a songwriter as well, and he’s got a real sensitivity. He doesn’t overplay, definitely supports and highlights things. Yeah, Doug Keith. Then Zeke Hutchins, our drummer. He used to play with Portastatic, and now with Tift Merritt, who’s his wife. He is so sensitive and he’s a really dynamic drummer. We’re lucky to have him along. And then Heather Woods Broderick. She plays keys and synth bass. And guitar. And tambourine.. She plays about everything! She’s amazing songwriter as well. I know her through Aaron (Dessler). We were playing at the same festival, she was singing with us Efterklang…. She’s really amazing. Doug and Heather are both recording solo records right now and I really can’t wait to hear them.

So are you writing now for what comes next after Tramp?
Yes I’m writing but it’s hard while we’re touring. But I’m hoping to have the songs written before we go in the studio…

It amazes me when I hear that, when people say they wrote the songs in the studio?
Well actually, I like that. If you own the place, it’s awesome, but usually because of the cost… But we have a practice space, and then when I’m at home I just hit record whenever I can.

So what’s next then?
We go back to the States, and we have ten days off and then we are touring again… We are in the US and then back over here. There’s a few weeks off and we’re going to Australia, and then I’m doing a solo tour in New Zealand. And that’s it, about as far as we can see at the moment. 

By now, we really can’t avoid the fact that we’ve over-run, and there is still a stage to set up, so we decide to leave them to it. As we head out the door, the guys in the band are having a bit of a singalong while they set up; trying to work out the words to the Kaiser Chiefs ‘Oh My God’.


Sharon-Van-Etten-Sheffield-16Of course we came back later, and witnessed a stunning set. The venue was just the right mix of theatre and cozy. As Sharon had said to us earlier, and repeated on stage, it was reminiscent of the ‘Elk Lodges’ she used to play back home in her early career. The band were amazingly tight, perhaps no surprise given the time they’ve spent on the road this year. Doug Keith might have been the right mix of ‘supporting’ but to see him wielding a violin bow over his electric guitar was an impressive sight. Heather Woods Broderick is a hugely talented multi-instrumentalist, building loops and juggling microphones at the same time.

The set was drawn nearly entirely from ‘Tramp’, only one track ‘Don’t Do It’ harking back to the previous record ‘Epic’, and as if to demonstrate the point that she is writing, there was one new track. It was introduced as just that, no title yet, and marked on the setlist simply as ‘Solo’, which is how she played it.

The biggest cheer of the night was for ‘Serpents’ with which she had wowed the Jools Holland crowd the night before. It’s just as impressive tonight, Sharon’s vocals managing to be powerful and vulnerable in the same moment.

They finished with it all broken down onto the floor, Sharon, Doug and Heather crouching prone over their instruments, only Zeke upright behind his kit.

Interview photo courtesy Nikki Pinder, all other photos Mike Hughes

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.