“I like pushing myself,” says Sharon Van Etten, in the midst of a conversation characterized by the grace you would expect based on the songwriter’s music. “Otherwise why are you going to keep doing this? It’s fun to try new things, especially when you are around people that encourage you to do that. I mean, you gotta grow…right?”
Van Etten’s “right” at the end is as much directed at herself as it is at me. And the idea seems so simple. Of course everyone wants to get better, to improve upon themselves. Right? Well, no, they don’t. Plenty of people actually don’t think in these terms. They are fine the way they are and don’t think there is any growing to do. They would hear a question like the one posed in the title of Van Etten’s fourth full-length release, Are We There, and answer with a straight-faced affirmative. But not Van Etten.
“Up until a few years ago, I never had a permanent band,” she says, which makes sense considering her first two albums were very stripped down and her previous release, 2012’s Tramp, saw Van Etten completely transform into an all-in rock band, thanks to the production of The National’s Aaron Dessner. “I like working with friends because you feel more confident working with people that you know. After touring a lot the last couple years, I became really close to my band and really wanted me to make this a band-centric record from the very beginning until the end, from when I was writing the songs in soundchecks to sending demos to them on the road, to see how the songs grew through the whole process. This is just really nice to be playing with the people I’m playing with. My first real band. I’m in my 30s and I finally have a band. I’m a late bloomer there.”
Besides never playing in a regular band until relatively recently, Van Etten also never recorded her own music. So it is no small feat that Van Etten self-produced Are We There and wound up with a record that in no way sounds like corners were cut in terms of arrangements or complexity.
“I learned a lot making those first records because I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “As I said, I was a pretty late bloomer as far as really pursuing music seriously. The first one was just working with one other person. I just wanted him to help me figure things out and record the record as minimally as possible. Every step of the way, I feel like it’s really been a learning process, a natural progression for me to take over. Even working with one other person, you’re still collaborating. There is compromise involved in the back-and-forth between two people, and somebody else has been there to be the translator because I’m not really a technical person. I work from the heart and try to find the vibe of the song, and I can motion with my hands or play them just minimally what I want, but time signatures and keys, I have no idea.”
“To spend time with my band and train with them,” she continues, “they can understand how I can communicate it now. That part is easier than I thought it would be since they got it. But the workload and the schedule has been really intense and really testing my organizational skills. I have multiple notebooks with notes and lyrics. There is even a table of contents in one of the books. I was getting in office mode most of the time, which was actually pretty fun. It was a lot of work, but I’m really proud of what we did. Everything was my decision as opposed in the past when everything was somewhat compromised.”
“I’m still finding my sound,” Van Etten says later about her music, and Are We There is not meant to be a definitive statement on her direction or intentions. Van Etten stayed away from recording studios and producers to develop her own sound, which she sees as a continual process.
“I loved working with Aaron [Dessner] and I wouldn’t take it back for the world,” she says, “but I felt that working with him buried the songs in these intense sonics, a wall of sound. It was really fun hearing my songs in that way and learning how to play them live with my band. I really learned a lot from Aaron that way, but what I do is the melody and songs, and I don’t want to bury the songs. I still wanted to maintain the band-oriented album, and I learned that from Aaron.”
Rarely would you leave a Sharon Van Etten song wondering what it was about or needing more information. Sure, you might not know the specifics of when and where and who, but the action is usually explicit, and the emotions are not veiled. The lyrics and, ultimately, the feelings that Van Etten’s songs evoke are how we think of her, and so I refrain from asking her insight into the narrative of the album. People forget that Sharon Van Etten is not just a songwriter; she is a musician. Not only did she write the lyrics to the album, but she wrote the music, guided the entirety of the recording process and produced the endeavor. Hearing that, the tendency would be to think that the project was not really collaborative, but that is also untrue. It was just a collaboration with one decision-maker.
Still, we can’t completely avoid getting philosophical and musing on life as it relates to her lyrics. Summing up for Van Etten is not nearly as orderly as her notebook with the table of contents.
“This record is about the last two years and not only having a band,” she says, “but having a life, and wanting to figure that balance out. The relationship versus career saga. Finding stability and someone you can trust and that trusts you and being able to let go and be open, even when it is really hard. For everybody. Because it gets really hard, and your insecurities get in the way. But in the end you are just trying to find yourself and be yourself. To find people around you that support you and encourage you, because that is a positive thing. It’s scary to people to be vulnerable and open. I mean, that’s what I do in writing. It’s the constant pursuit of trying to do that.”
“I feel like my songs are really, really personal,” she adds, “but hopefully still universal enough that people can relate to them.”
One of the aspects of her lyrics that helps invite listeners into her world is the absence of pretense in her language. “Tarifa” features the brutal line “chew me out when I’m stupid,” while “Afraid of Nothing” mixes in the word “lame” into its chorus. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but that isn’t what she is going for.
“I’m not a poet and I want to speak pretty rawly,” she says. “I want to talk like I would normally talk. Especially, knowing the way I write songs and the way my band is and the kinds of arrangements I like; they are usually pretty. But, my content isn’t. That’s what I get a kick out of. I’m a really goofy person and the songs seem really beautiful, but then you’re just hearing me talk. There is some kind of irony in that, or something that people feel is real. The power of the way I talk. The only thing I haven’t said yet is ‘dude’ in a song, but I probably will down the line.”
Despite her claim that she’s no poet, there is no doubt that there is poetry in her words, in her songs. The idea that poetry can come from ordinary language and conversational tone is not something new, but it does require a bit of faith from the audience, to trust their own experiences and the effect a song has on them.
“Every record is me after a couple years,” Van Etten says, “and it’s growing up. The older you get, the more you know what you want, and the less you care about what other people think. In learning that lesson as I get older, I feel like I get more confident. I mentioned before that I hope to grow as I get older and learn from my mistakes. Hopefully I’m a stronger person because of it.”
Van Etten’s artistic and personal journey isn’t all internal, though.
“I have a home now,” she says, sounding surprised and proud. “So when I get back from touring, I have a home to go to, which I’ve never had. I’m in my 30s, and I finally have a home. I’m growing up.”