If Sharon Van Etten were a bird, she’d be something tiny and fierce; something unsuspecting. A small black bird, that’s so black it’s actually blue, and green, and dark purple, with feathers that shine most when it’s grey out. Yeah, that’s the kind of bird she would be.
It doesn’t happen often that I stumble over a song that fills me up. That’s what Van Etten’s work does to people. She acts as this sort of surrogate that gives the most basic human emotions a living, breathing song, with the right words, and the right beat, like she pulled the thoughts right out of you, any of you, and gave them a name.
What makes Van Etten such an extraordinary artist is her keen ability to accurately translate emotion into sound. Her actualization of emotion into material is what makes her work so astonishing – each song a perfect representation of her emotional realizations.
The singer/songwriter was born and raised in suburban New Jersey in a large family of five children. She currently resides in New York City.
Here’s the interview I conducted with her over email because there are quite a few miles that stretch between Florida and New York.
ME: How are you? Aside from your 2015 EP, I Don’t Want to Let You Down, Your latest album, Are We There, came out in 2014. Anything in the works for the near future?
SVE: I am so good. Spending time at home in New York with my man. Going back to school and writing a lot. Having some perspective after being on the road perpetually the last 6 years. Working on my first score to a film.
ME: Your previous work tends to be fueled by emotional turmoil; do you see this theme playing out in your next album?
SVE: I always write from a therapeutic place. When I write it’s because I need a catharsis. Even when I am in a good place emotionally, I still have creative needs that need to be met and filled personally. If I don’t play or write for a week, my mood suffers. The emotion seems inherent to my style.
ME: As a writer of poetry, I find a great deal of creativity that arises from chaos, and even find it hard to be inspired within a calm. Do you have this same problem? As humans, I think we generally all want peace, at least for ourselves, in which arises a predicament – the pull for peace, and the push that pain produces to create, and make sense of all that chaos. How do you balance these opposite forces? Or do you?
SVE: I don’t like banging my head against the wall. When I feel the need to write, I write. And I sing. And I play. If it isn’t going anywhere, I am okay with that. The goal isn’t always to write something to share. Sometimes just the act of release is enough for me. On the other hand, I go home from my work space frustrated when I feel like I didn’t accomplish anything – but I think that’s ok too. As long as you are working – on something, towards something. It doesn’t have to exist immediately.
ME: Tell me about your creative process a bit. Do you write the lines first, and then the music, or is it the other way around, or both?
SVE: My average day in the studio involves picking up my guitar and finding a cool, simple, chord progression in which I can freely create a vocal melody. I hum and I make up sounds and words that don’t make sense. I sing stream of conscious as I explore melodic ideas. When I like the progression and melody, I hit record and let my mind wander as I find a form to the song. It isn’t necessarily about anything yet. It becomes something later.
ME: Do you carve out time to write each day, or do you write things down, only as they come to you. Do you ever have to “force it”?
SVE: I have two set days where I go to the studio. One revolving day. I have a guitar and a piano at home if the moment just comes to me. I really try not to force it. Sometimes if I am in a bad mood I make myself write to feel better. Sometimes it works, sometimes it makes me feel worse if I don’t create anything.
ME: One of my favorite things about your music, is your ability to pack a tremendous amount of emotion into such simple lines. How do you ensure your lyrics are understood without sounding too literal?
SVE: I write lyrics the way I talk, because I am usually talking to myself as I am singing. If words that come out of my mouth don’t sound like something I would say, I examine it and shape it to words that I would say.
ME: You wrote a line that really resonates with me in I Love You, But I’m Lost “I’m in Houston, I can’t read my lines. Most of all, I find it strange, I believed them.”
Do you ever write things that you look back on, and wonder who the hell that was? Do you find those snapshots of who you were, in contrast to whom you are now, embarrassing? And furthermore, does that affect how you write, and how honest you are with the blank sheet, a representation of me, and thousands of other unforgiving strangers, including your future self?
SVE: I am not embarrassed about who I was. Yes, there are definitely times that I am not proud of, places I have been, people I’ve been with – but I am who I am because of those experiences. Have you ever been back home to find your parents saved your letters, journals, stories, etc? Do you laugh at what you wrote when you were 5 because your ideas were so simple or strange? It’s a sign of growth. That isn’t anything to be embarrassed about. People connect to music out of a personal connection themselves, whether or not they can identify why. I only connect with those people who desire to connect.
ME: A little about your beginnings, I understand you grew up in New Jersey, and found your voice in a choir called The Mini Singers. Once you received confirmation of the impact your voice has on others, did you believe it? Does your success as a singer feel surreal?
SVE: Growing up I didn’t know what I was doing with my singing. I knew I loved it, I knew it felt good, and singing in choir helped me feel a part of something bigger when I was in school and felt like the outsider. It still blows my mind that people buy my records and see me play live. I don’t take it for granted. It overwhelms me. The attention makes me nervous, actually.
ME: What are you listening to lately? Would you name some artists that inspire you?
SVE: Lately, I’ve been listening to Julien Baker, Hotel Lights, Big Thief, Katie Von Schleicher, Kate Davis, Leon Bridges, William Baines, Heron Oblivion, Bouquet Music
ME: I have a few favorites when it comes to you; Kevins, I Love You But I’m Lost, Your Love is Killing Me, and Every Time the Sun Comes Up. Of your own songs, which is your favorite?
SVE: I Wish I Knew is the melody I am most proud. That, and All I Can.
ME: What is a strong woman? What advice do you have for women that have not yet realized their own strength?
SVE: Strength is so subjective… Letting yourself make mistakes. Acknowledging when you do. Surrounding yourself with people that support you, and you them. Taking criticism. Leaving it. Being yourself. Loving yourself. Letting yourself be loved. Letting yourself be anything you know you can be. And more.
ME: Is there anything I didn’t ask you in this interview that you wished I had? If so, would you please elaborate?
SVE: My favorite dessert is Strawberry Shortcake and my favorite writer is Anais Nin.
Thanks again to Sharon Van Etten for accepting this interview. If you haven’t heard her music already, visit her website at www.sharonvanetten.com and get yourself familiar, you’ll be happy you did.
Image courtesy Sharon Van Etten