Sharon Van Etten: Painful, but cathartic: Interview

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Van Etten to play Saskatoon at Amigos, July 10

“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you
Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you
Burn my skin so I can’t feel you
Stab my eyes so I can’t see”

On the song “Your Love is Killing Me”, found on her latest album Are We There, New Jersey-native Sharon Van Etten describes, in excruciatingly vivid detail, various forms of self-mutilation.

But despite the imagery, the song is far from grisly. In fact, it’s stunningly gorgeous.

“I wanted things to be jarring and beautiful, restrained and explosive, wide, minimal, yet huge,” explains Van Etten, who is currently touring across North America.

“The idea of a love that can be just as amazing as heavy. Painful, but cathartic.”

The same could be said for the rest of Are We There.

Van Etten’s lyrics are carried by the sheer strength of her vocals, which are both subdued and soaring. In fact, ever since the release of her debut album Because I Was in Love in 2009, Van Etten has established herself as skillful and emotive vocalist, capable of carrying lofty heights without sacrificing the subtle nuances of her songwriting.

Having resided in New York City for nearly a decade, Are We There is similarly packed with songs that detail the downers of live, love, and what happens when the two intertwine only to unravel. Painful, but cathartic.

“Honestly, all these songs were a moment in time,” says Van Etten. “A chapter in my life that has closed. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but these songs document the last two years of my touring existence and home life.

“I’ve been very taken aback by how much people have connected to this album,” she continues. “Knowing that these songs are heavy and autobiographical, I am very aware that it could have alienated some listeners, but I just had to get it out. People have appreciated my candidness and openness and I feel the same from them in return. From people singing along, crying openly, and sharing with me their own connections to my music after the show… It all means the world.”

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten

But it’s not just the fierce storytelling or the clarity of her voice. Musically, Are We There produces a sonic wallop that is similarly vibrant with plucked guitar notes reverberating beneath lush soundscapes. With some assistance from Stewart Lerman, Van Etten produced the album herself, stating that she wanted to capture those same esoteric trails that she and her band construct from the stage.

“I’ve never had a band set before I went in to record before and I wanted to take our ‘relationship’ to the next level and prove it to myself that I would be able to communicate my ideas to them well because of how close we had gotten over the past two years,” says Van Etten.

But it’s not just relationship romance, either realized or lost, that Van Etten has captured. The album cover for Are We There, a black and white photograph of a shrouded face leaning into a summery roadtrip is similarly a striking piece of artwork that stands on its own.

“I took that photograph of my friend Rebekah, who did the artwork for my first two albums, ten years ago in Tennessee when I had my last visit there before she moved to Indiana, had kids and got married,” explains Van Etten. “I was living in my parents’ basement in New Jersey, was working at the local wine store, and taking photo classes at the local college, RVCC. It was one of the first prints I ever made. It was also the first gift I ever gave my boyfriend. He and I were off and on for ten years and I totally forgot about it. I never saw it up anywhere so I just assumed he threw it away. Last summer, I moved in with him and he was cleaning and making room for me in his room and he pulled out a big pile from under his bed consisting of mixes I made for him, postcards, early demos, and the print – covered in dust. And it really summed up where we were at in our relationship.

“I didn’t realize how sentimental he was because he never let on,” she continues. “We weren’t communicating and it made me ask a lot of questions about where we were and I knew that that photograph HAD to be the album civet and ‘Are We There’ suddenly started to make sense.”

– All images of Sharon Van Etten courtesy of Flickr user Weekly Dig – Creative Commons.