Sharon Van Etten interview: 'I just had to end a ten-year relationship because my career was fucking with him too much.'

The introspective local fave opens up about her latest set of sad, soaring songs

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Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten Photograph: Dusdin Condren


Sharon Van Etten’s new album, Are We There, is a majestic dissection of intimacy. It’s also the third full-length that Brooklyn’s love-song virtuoso has used to plumb the depths of a decade-long on-again, off-again relationship that just ended. Van Etten spoke to Time Out about the complications of success, the catharsis of song and her plans for the future.

Your career has really taken off in the past two years. How is that affecting you?
It’s been really intense. I didn’t think it would get as far as it has—singing love songs, or whatever. It’s grown way bigger than I expected, and I’ve had to ask myself a lot of questions. I just had to end a ten-year relationship because my career was fucking with him too much. If things keep growing, I don’t think I’ll be grounded enough to write the way I naturally write.
 
What will you do if you don’t do this?
I would like to become a therapist and do something real. That’s what I’m basically doing, how I got into [music] and why I share it with people. But when it gets to the level where it’s not personal anymore, and you don’t know who your audience is? It feels self-indulgent.
 
Has NYC made its way into your recent work?
Yes. Specifically the song “Break Me,” which is about moving to New York for a boy and having the boy make room for me in his apartment. But there’s also a dichotomy of being home, or longing for home, and traveling—wanting that life, too.
 
What does singing do to you physically?
It’s always been really cathartic. As a kid I didn’t know how to identify it, but it felt really good! My mom says I would walk around singing to myself. And now, even when I write about something heavy and I have to relive it in singing about it all the time, it’s like I’m exorcising the demons. Every time I re-perform a song, I gain some perspective. [See photos of Van Etten performing live at the Bowery Ballroom in 2011 here]

You seem to dwell in the love song. Is it intentional?
When I write, it’s for therapy. I hit “record” and I sing stream-of-conscious. I don’t listen to it right away—I give myself a couple days just to get it out, because I’m usually pretty dark. Then I go back: What was I feeling? What was I trying to say? Most of it, I don’t share with people because it’s so personal—99 percent of that stuff will never see the light of day. But there’s the ones that I feel like people can relate to. Or there are lines that are pretty that came out by accident. It just comes out—I don’t know why. I’m a sucker for a love song!

What have you been listening to lately?
I don’t know; it comes and goes. I listen to WFMU—DJ Trouble, especially, ’cause she’s just all over the place. Not genre-specific, not era-specific—just so open and spazzy and amazing and cute. I go through ebbs and flows where I just watch movies, go to galleries—I’ve been touring a lot, and I need to clear my head and just experience something else. Right now, I’m on a Glass Candy kick.
 
I don’t know them.
It’s really minimal, kind of synth-driven and weird. They have a song where they say, “This is red. / This is orange. / This is blue. / This is violet.” And then they just say “white light” for the whole verse. It’s super sexy. I start my day with that right now.
 
Have you ever heard Kishi Bashi?
Uh oh, note-taking time! [Gets out paper] How do you spell that?
 
[Spells Kishi Bashi] He plays violin, he beatboxes.… He makes me spaz in my seat on the train.
Cool! I’ll check it out. I’ve been really into dancing. I’m getting ready and running most of the time right now, so I really need motivational music.
 
Wait, do running around and dancing violate the SVE persona?
I’m not a down-in-the-dumps person. I think some people assume that I am because of the music I write. I’m a really strong person. I’ve no regrets in my life. And I’ve been through shit, but I don’t blame anyone for it. It’s like I say in “I Love You but I’m Lost”: “It’s a love that bears no cross.” I’m all right.

Sharon Van Etten plays Music Hall of Williamsburg June 12 and Bowery Ballrom June 13 and 14. Watch the singer perform live at the Time Out office here.


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