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coverpic flag US - New York - Full Moon 199 - 11/28/12

Sharon Van Etten
An interview with...

Like summer camp - an interview with Sharon Van Etten

"She is the music you have always wanted to hear but could never find" - okay, that's just something someone wrote on a YouTube channel about Sharon Van Etten, but there's no denying that 2012 has been a great year for the beautiful American singer/songwriter. In February she released her third album, the Aaron-Dessner-produced Tramp via Jagjaguwar, and since then, she has seen critics rave about the record, had fellow musicians like J. Mascis and even Lou Reed fall in love with her (music), has shared the stage with many musical legends at this summer's "Big Star Third" events in London and Barcelona, had Bon Iver cover one of her songs, and by now even her grueling touring schedule seems to pay off: recently, Sharon and her fantastic band - Doug Keith on guitar and bass, Zeke Hutchins on the drums and Heather Woods Broderick on just every instrument you can possibly imagine - finished off a US tour at the venerable Town Hall in New York City and when she returns to Europe in December, she'll play the similar sized Shepherd's Bush Empire in London.

So in just a few short years, the 31-year old went from being a shy, insecure young lady, writing sad and fragile indie-folk songs in her parents' New Jersey basement to distance herself from a somewhat destructive relationship with her ex-boyfriend (which resulted in her 2009 debut Because In Was In Love), to being a celebrated presence on the indie rock scene, who's breathy voice matches her wonderfully plaintive songs perfectly. Yet, as she explained to us when we met up with her this summer in Cologne, Germany, her success is the result of hard work, rather than luck.

Luna Kafé: Are you surprised that your third album is making a much bigger impact than the previous two, Because I Was In Love (200) and Epic (2010)? In other words: Do you really consider it to be that much better?
Sharon: "I think I'm just growing as a writer. I've been touring for five years now and I feel that with every record my audience is growing and there are a lot of things going into that. I toured my first record on a small scale. Like, I played in Köln four or five years ago, with the Great Lake Swimmers. That was a small tour, well, it was a big deal that I got to open up for them, but I didn't do much touring back then. For the second record, my audience built up more - and I could see that. It's more of a grass roots thing, as far as the live shows are concerned. Also, I had distribution and I had a publicist, which I didn't have before. Now for the third record, that's more band orientated, I think it's more appealing for the listener to have a band, but also I toured like crazy and my new label has more reach. I have representation over here, which I didn't have before outside of distribution. People also know the name of the label more and they have some clout, you know, because people respect them and they know who they are - but it's still not major!"

Luna Kafé: But are you okay with that or are there times when you come to a small-ish place like tonight's venue and think: "After all these years I would have hoped for something bigger?"
Sharon: "Oh, not at all! I think touring is the most important thing an artist can do and I don't ever want to become known for no reason, because someone is playing out my record or someone is recording on my record. I have a lot of dues to pay! This is only my second time in Köln, so I don't expect to have a huge crowd (laughs). I think it's important for it to grow and I think in order for it to do that naturally, touring constantly and meeting people and doing interviews is important."

Luna Kafé: With all the touring already behind you and still ahead of you this year: How do you make touring fun, or at least bearable?
Sharon: "It's all about the people I get to travel with. Playing the songs live is fun, but tiring sometimes, but my band is really fun to be around and most of the audiences that we play in front of are really sweet and they respond to it. You realize that half of the time for a show to be really good, it's not just how you play, it's how the audience reacts to you. You never know sometimes, but we all have fun together. It's like summer camp!"

Luna Kafé: What would you say makes you the happiest as a musician right now?
Sharon: "Well... just getting to play with my band, these guys are really great! I've never been able to play with other people before and I'm looking forward to getting home and writing with them. It probably won't happen before next year, but we are already talking about writing a record together, which I've never done before. Usually I have an idea and I flesh it out myself and then other people learn the song. So I'm excited to have an idea and then bring it to them and we can work on it together. Growing with each other is going to be really exciting."

Luna Kafé: You obviously put a lot of yourself into your songs. Do you ever think while writing your lyrics, that you'll have to sing them for a year, kind of reliving them on a nightly basis?
Sharon: "When I write a song, I don't think about what it's gonna be for. When I first sit down and write it's just for me to get through something. I never plan on it being a song for other people. I just start it for me as a therapeutic thing and most of the time those songs don't see the light of day. It's usually when I feel that, even though it may be a personal song, if there's a positive message in there somewhere that I want to share it with people, because I think it'll help other people. When I try to turn it into a proper song for other people to hear, it's not selfish anymore, otherwise I think it is (laughs)! I play and perform with the mind that hopefully people feel you. And if you don't put yourself into it, then people are not going to feel that, you know. When I play, I try to go back to those moments when I wrote the song, and what I was going through and hopefully people can feel that with me."

Luna Kafé: So it's all about feeling then?
Sharon: "Yeah!"

Luna Kafé: There was something that Robin Gibb once said, and it was that he didn't consider himself to be singer who sings with his voice, but one who sings with his heart. Could you subscribe to that idea?
Sharon: "Yeah, like when you sing with feeling! But there are people who are head, who think about things too much and some who are heart, and I'm more of an emotional person, I'd say, than an analytical thinker. I go by feeling a lot of the times and I think that's how I sing as well!"

pic Luna Kafé: You say melody usually comes first, however, it seems that with every new record you're getting more into the arrangement and production side of things. Is that just your way of moving on, or do you feel that you can let go some of the responsibility, after you had everything under your own control on the first or even first couple of albums?
Sharon: "I think it's both of those things. The more I'm comfortable in my own skin, comfortable with my writing, comfortable with the people that I'm playing with, the more I'm able to let go and collaborate with other people. When I first started writing songs and recording, I was scared to work with other people, because I didn't know how to do it yet. The more I do this, the more I'm comfortable with who I surround myself with and trust the people I'm working with, that they understand where I'm coming from. But I also don't want to put out the same record twice, so I always try new things. I don't want to build up a song just for the sake of building it up, but I also don't want to write another solo record on guitar, like I did with the first album. I hope it never seems to anyone that I'm just trying to do something for the sake of doing something different. I think I'm growing with my band and I trust the people that I work with to help me flesh out the songs more."

Luna Kafé: You took quite a while to put your latest album together, yet you managed to deliver a very coherent record. Was it a lot of work to get to that point?
Sharon: "I think what helped to give the songs an umbrella was recording in the same space, in the same studio the whole time. Even though the songs were many different emotions and from many different time periods, I think it really helped that there was a constant: It was constantly me and Aaron in the studio. We had some songs we didn't put on the record, because they didn't really made sense and as we progressed in the recording process, we realized that some of the first songs we started recording didn't really made sense as a whole with the rest. I think we recorded 16 or 17 songs and only 11 made the record. After you've recorded half of the album you realize that some of the earlier songs don't make sense and you try to turn it more into a story. It kind of takes a life of its own."

Luna Kafé: There are lots of stories floating around about how you basically lived at Aaron's studio while you were making the record, so I guess the fact that you've found a real home recently is a big deal?
Sharon: (laughs) "Oh, it definitely was a big deal... cliché also! I toured so much over the course of two years that I couldn't afford a proper home, so I crashed with friends, I crashed with my family and when I felt I was putting other people out too much, I would sublet an apartment, like, just a room or something from somebody... New York rent is sooo expensive. I wasn't living out of my car like Jewel, but all my clothes were in my car and all my belongings were in a storage facility. After I finished the latest record, I awarded myself by getting an apartment in October 2011, although I haven't really been there so much this year."

Luna Kafé: I'm sure not having a home affected the writing and recording of Tramp (the title being an obvious reference to her "homelessness"). Do you think having a real home again will have an impact on future songs?
Sharon: "I think it will give me more perspective. I live alone, which means I can write a lot more often and more freely, so I think I'll have a lot more to work with when I get to the studio, but I'm also not really playing guitar at home right now. I'm writing more on synthesizers, so I think that will change everything. I'm writing piano songs and electronic stuff."

Luna Kafé: Is that more by default, because you have those instruments at your home or is that again a way of challenging yourself to try something different?
Sharon: "I'm just trying new things. I could easily play guitar at my apartment, but I've decided to separate my work more and because of that I got a practice space for my band now, so if I want to be loud, I can go over there, but if I'm home I want it to be quiet and a real "home". I don't want to work too much there, if I can help it. And if I do, it should be something quiet, so that I don't bother my neighbors. Keys was my first instrument anyway, so I'm going back to that a little more now."


Luna Kafé: Do you need a specific atmosphere, a special frame of mind, to write?
Sharon: "I usually... I like to pick up an instrument just to have it be a good practice to pick up and try, but I don't like forcing it, because then I feel you force yourself into having a writing formula. For me it's really like: I hear a melody in my head and then I HAVE to write. It usually comes out of the blue. Sometimes I'm screwing around on an instrument and I hear a chord progression that sounds interesting and then I hear a melody in there. Then I just work on the melody. It takes me a little bit of time though, if I just sit down and force myself to write. I'm not naturally that kind of a writer. It's fun to try sometimes but if I feel I'm forcing it, I just stop, because I don't feel that's how I work well!"

Luna Kafé: Generally, has writing songs become easier for you, with the experience of three albums behind you?
Sharon: "I think I'm more aware of what I'm doing - but I don't have it figured out yet (laughs)! I'm more aware of who my songs reach and why and where I need to improve, but in the end it all comes from a place that I don't understand yet. The melodies just come, but I don't know why and how to control them and I don't know how to manipulate them. I'm just trying to interpret them in my mind, but I can't explain them!"

Luna Kafé: What do you feel you need to improve?
Sharon: "My lyrics! Eventually, I'd like to be able to tell more of a story, than be confessional. I don't always want my songs to be about what I'm going through or what my friends are going through. I'd like to be more of a storyteller and separate myself a little more from it, but that's not my strength. I need to work on that!"

Luna Kafé: That also might prove to be risky, as the directness and truthfulness might be exactly what people love about your lyrics...
Sharon: "I think you can have both! You can write about something really personal and be able to tell a story as opposed to just tell someone how you feel. In a way it would be more universal to people and more people could relate to it, if it was a story that's a not obviously about me."

Copyright © 2012 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

Photos copyright © Dusdin Condren / Elisabeth Vitale

© 2012 Luna Kafé