NATURALISMO: Through your music, I feel like we’ve already met, like we’ve already talked out the hours over midnight tea. But I don’t know much about your past. Where did your journey begin? What turns did it take before it arrived at the person you are now? What about your past influences the type of music you make today?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: The journey began in the house i grew up in, in Nutley, NJ. The day we moved into 525 Prospect Street, I got lost under a piano and my parents later found me crying under the piano.
Ever since, I have been playing, writing, singing… And my parents were always supportive. My parents were greatly influential, musically, as they played me folk and rock and roll growing up. My first concerts were The Kinks, Jethro Tull, and the Rolling Stones (with my dad) and my mother and I had an annual tradition of going into NYC in celebration of our birthdays and watch a musical together. (i used to want to be on Broadway and was in many musicals and choirs in high school).
I was in a relationship for 5 years with a rock “guy” in Tennessee who didn’t allow me play music, as he thought I needed improvement. After I left him and moved back up north I started recording songs in the bedroom I grew up in in NJ. I shortly moved to New York after.
My friend Kyp Malone took me under his wing and showed me his favorite venues and played me a lot of music that has changed my world. Mostly Diane Cluck and Meg Baird.
There are some bands that have been truly supportive to me in NY. Forest Fire, She Keeps Bees, Glass Ghost, Scary Mansion – these are my “rocks” in the city. A place that is really hard to remain your true self and not get swallowed up by the undertow of the city. Beautiful honest people that have stuck by me and I have nothing but respect for.
N: How was the recording process for Because I Was in Love? Did you learn anything about your songs while in the studio that you had yet to discover?
SVE: Recording with Greg Weeks at Hexham Head is one of the best experiences I ever had. He really has taken me under his wing and has really gone out on a limb for me.
I have never played with any one else or collaborated with anyone with my own music. He had such an open mind and such good ideas. It was such a healthy give and take process I was never priveledged enough to have in the past… (i don’t think choir counts…)
I had so much freedom. He let me do all the harmonies – that was something I was very specific on, and keeping it minimal, since I am a solo performer I really didn’t want to disappoint people that bought my record then saw me live… He made songs more complete that I wasn’t too sure of. He lushed out songs and added a bit more dynamically with keys and bass that I never thought possible. Still so much to explore. I am looking forward to work with him again.
N: You’ve said before that Vashti Bunyan and Sibylle Baier are big influences on your work. There is a tragic quality to their backstories — a romance that often outshines the music itself. Some people enjoy their music as a complement to the mystique and some find mystique in the music itself. Why do you think their stories, not to mention those of other female soloists like Linda Perhacs, appeal so much? And why do they appeal today more than they did during their actual output?
SVE: That’s hard to say. The feminist movement is a turtle. There are still a lot of hurdles for female artists, I think. Female singers in general from the 60s really had challenging vocals to me and the scales were so much closer to yodeling and odd intervals almost medieval-like. I really wanted to challenge myself, in that way. Females are so much more loving and romantic and calm. You don’t find these kind of sensitive lyrics often in male fronted bands. It is usually disguised as a story or fantasy. I strive for being personal and writing as if I am speaking to someone. And this is something I feel like I have been learning from Vashti and Sibylle and Linda and the likes…
N: Janis Joplin once said, “Audiences like their blues singers to be miserable.” As a musician that has made her reputation in singing melancholy songs, you explore emotions that are, at the very least, uncomfortable to the average music consumer. Do you think that audiences use performers as human, vicarious vessels to explore emotions that they might otherwise avoid?
SVE: Definitely. I think it starts as a child when you don’t know how to feel or how to express yourself and you can’t explain why a song touches you, but it does… it hs taken me years to look back on music I listened to, but it saved me many times, when I didn’t know how to communicate my emotions to people. I don’t know what I would’ve done without music.
N: A lot of people are suffering these days. When the outside world isn’t offering answers to the problems of life, people turn inward and sometimes find themselves in the process. Do you think that, at least artistically or spiritually, the current socio-economic meltdown might prove more boon than burden?
SVE: It doesn’t take much money to be home and be creative. I think that with stress levels high and challenging economic situations music might get more political, or relationships might get more stressful, and it could be read into in music… only time will tell, I suppose. I can say, personally, the music I have been writing is a bit more agressive than I have ever written before.
N: You’ve spent a lot of time playing music in both the United States and Europe. How would you describe the artistic atmosphere of a city such as New York versus a city like, say, London or Paris?
SVE: New York is challenging. I have often felt like the annoying little sibling trying to demand attention… but I have found a couple venues where I always feel at home and try not stray from them. In London, people are very attentive, quiet, polite, and much more responsive to folk music than in New York… Unfortunately I have not yet played in Paris… but that is a dream of mine.
N: As a performer of introspective, intimate songs, how do you get your message and your music across to audiences that are probably more accustomed to bass lines, drum kits, and synth loops? How does any modern soloist achieve this feat?
SVE: I try to be honest in my music, sing my best, enunciate my lyrics, and not let my frustrations of talkers in the crowd affect my performance. I think keeping your cool is very important. I believe in my music and people see that, and that is what they seem to be responding and relating to.
N: Which contemporary musicians are getting the most airtime in your life right now?
SVE: Diane Cluck, Meg Baird, Glass Ghost, Forest Fire, Beirut, Great Lake Swimmers, Hologram, She Keeps Bees, Hundred in the Hand
N: If Because I Was in Love came with a plane ticket, where would that flight take me…and what time would it land?
SVE: A field in the middle of nowhere, no specific time, no specific place…
Because I Was in Love will be released on May 26 through Language of Stone. Sharon is currently touring Europe with Great Lake Swimmers, so if you’re on that side of the pond be sure to check her out.
[ download ] For You from Because I Was in Love