Music & clubs

A chat with… Sharon Van Etten

INTERVIEW. After vagabonding around Tennessee and NYC, Sharon Van Etten's slurred, vulnerable voice finally broke through on 2012’s indiestar-studded Tramp (Jagjaguwar). She’ll be stroking those magic chords at Privatclub on June 2.

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Photo by Veronica Jonsson

Post-folkie Jersey girl Sharon Van Etten used to be too shy to even play in public. After vagabonding around Tennessee and NYC, she and her slurred, vulnerable voice finally broke through on 2012’s indie-star-studded Tramp (Jagjaguwar), cracking the Billboard Top 75 and basking in the largess of the New York Times Sunday magazine. Back in confessional mode with new album Are We There (Jagjaguwar), she’ll be stroking those magic chords at Privatclub on June 2.

You must have been happy with the way people responded to Tramp.

Yeah, I mean, it was like mixed emotions, as it was a very cathartic record, and it was the first time I had worked with the band that intensely. This one is very different, so we’ll see. 

You go full-blown romantic with the artwork on the new album.

I was using this photograph that I found in my apartment that my friend had given me a long time ago from a book in a library because she thought the person in the photograph looked like me. And it was this woman looking in the mirror with, like, a pile of reels and I never thought about who it was. I hung it on my wall for all those years, and the heat in my apartment made the photo disintegrate throughout time. So, I had a friend of mine who was helping me with the artwork scan it to preserve it. This was, like, 10 years ago. And he looked at the photograph and he knew the woman in the photograph: it was the film director Agnes Varda, and it ended up tying into the artwork for the new record. 

“Sharon from 5 to 7.”

It ended up being such a beautiful image because the girl who gave me the photograph is the girl on the cover. A whole separate thing is when I asked my friend to do the video. And the first treatment they gave me without knowing anything about the artwork: they wanted to base the video on Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. So it was a complete parallel, it was like the universe was giving me a wink or something, you know, like you’re on the right path. 

Your approach is closer to new wave film than new wave music, referencing the confessional over the arch.

Well, I think this is the heaviest one, though. It’s the least censored. I used to edit a lot more, so the songs weren’t too personal. I mean, they’re all personal, but they’re usually edited in a way where they try to make a more universal idea – I just kind of have a masked version. Or at least, it’s just a mask that looks like me. I mean, it’s still me, but this is the most me. 

Not heavy like Black Sabbath, then.

There’s only one real rock song on it, and it’s really aggressive. But, like, slow-aggressive. And unrelenting. 

Like living in New York.

All my friends are moving away. The area where all the musicians used to live is now the most expensive neighborhood in all of New York. It’s cheaper in Manhattan than Williamsburg right now. I couldn’t find a studio apartment for less than $2000. It’s outrageous. The average age in Williamsburg where everyone lives is like 22. Half of them don’t have jobs, most of them are not artists – they’re kicking out all the artists. 

You can’t avoid being emotional.

 Yeah yeah, everything I do is just – you know, when I get to a dark place I pick up my guitar, or a keyboard or whatever. So I can’t really censor that. I’ve made my bed, you know.

Sharon van Etten w/Ly la Foy Mon, June 2, 20:00 | Privatclub, Skalitzer Str. 85-86, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Görlitzer Bahnhof

Originally published in issue #128, June 2014.