Smile Politely

The favorable nature of Sharon Van Etten

I’ve done dozens of phone interviews in my life. That’s not a brag, just a simple fact. And still, after all of these years I dread the awkward introduction that wastes a few valuable minutes of the interview.

The struggle of figuring out how to start a conversation and make it so that the subject’s answers flow is almost Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque. What if the greeting is weird? What if they don’t answer? How do you react if they don’t laugh at your joke or are unable to direct the small talk back to the task at hand?

I envy journalists that have the ability to not obsess over that type of thing.

Luckily for me, Sharon Van Etten helped the awkwardness subside about 20 seconds into the interview. “Don’t worry, I’m fighting a bug too,” she laughs, after I confessed that my hoarseness was due to a weeklong cold.

“The tour just started and I’m looking to get it out of the way,” the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter tells me. “My band is taking precautions, I think they need to get me a bubble.” Of course, a Seinfeld reference was exchanged and the nerves subsided.

It’s been seven years since Van Etten released her first single, and with limited time for the interview the subjects we tackled were mostly related to her most recent release on Jagjaguwar, Are We There. The record was remarkably well-received, even more so than 2012’s breakout Tramp.

The music on Are We There is familiar to those who’ve been with Van Etten from the start — a hodgepodge of folk and ethereal indie rock, which showcases intricate melodies and Van Etten’s voice. For the uninitiated, her voice is reminiscent of the vocal range and earnestness of Cat Power. Some reviews have compared Are We There favorably to Nick Cave’s catalog, which is appropriate because Van Etten went on tour with the legendary Australian last year.

“Comparisons to (Nick Cave) are an honor,” she says.

Though she didn’t go into recording sessions with the intentions of making an album that would be compared to Cave, Van Etten suggests that the tour definitely made an impression.

“I liked them before we went on tour together, obviously. But I think it’s natural that I would subconsciously absorb something from his sound, right?”


Though inspirations from Cave may have come subconsciously, Van Etten’s cast of characters that helped consciously inspire her music shouldn’t be discounted either. She’s worked with the Dessner brothers from the National, Zach Condon of Beirut, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater and Okkervil River, Mackenzie Scott of Torres, and Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs, amongst a ton of others.

“They’re all my friends,” she says, again kind of laughing. 

I’m sort of laughing too, but at the absurdity of talent who helped create a musical landscape for Van Etten’s wonderfully honest lyrics. 

“I mean, the core of the record I wanted to have a live feel and I wanted to bring them into the recording process. I hadn’t been able to record with my band like this before.”

The record was produced by Van Etten but the process was aided by a friend, Stewart Lerman. Aside from contributing with production, Lerman helped her find some pretty special instruments to utilize on the record — used, or touched, by Patti Smith and John Lennon.

“Stewart heard I needed a grand piano and said he’d talk to some friends about it,” she mentions. “Some friends from Electric Ladyland got back to him with a piano and it happened to be the one used on Horses. I don’t think (Smith) used it, but I like to think that she maybe leaned on it or something.”

What was it like playing an instrument from such an influential record?

“It was intimidating! I was in Jimi Hendrix’s studio and playing a piano that was on a Patti Smith record, you know?”

I wish I knew, Sharon.

“But then someone got back to him and said they had a piano from the Record Plant,” she continues. “We found out that it was used on (John Lennon’s) Imagine and so we scrambled after tracking to figure out how to get it on the record because it has this deep, beautiful sound. You can hear it on “You Know Me Well”.”

Aside from the music, Van Etten keeps a pretty open stream of communication with fans and friends via social media. Her Twitter account is active, posting about upcoming shows or suggesting friends’ bands to see to fans in other towns.

“I think just like anybody, it’s just another conversation in a different medium,” she says of her social media usage. “I’ll respond if it’s smart and thoughtful and if I have time and if I’m given a recommendation I’ll listen. I like the exchange of information, it can be good.”

Her former career as a publicist shines through a bit as we begin to change subjects, “You can utilize social media and use it to your advantage.”

Van Etten’s latest tour is just kicking off and, though it’s a publicity interview, she seems genuinely excited to come to Champaign.

“We’ve never played a show there, but when I lived in Tennessee I knew a lot of punk bands that would play house shows in Champaign. I’m only kind of familiar with that scene there, and it seems like a pretty cool place.”

Don’t sleep on this show. Sharon Van Etten will be one of the most unique and enjoyable sets in Champaign in 2014. Give her a warm welcome tonight.

Van Etten performs tonight at The Highdive with Tiny Ruins. Show starts at 8:30 p.m.

Photos by Dusdin Condren.

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