I asked several people to watch the Galapagos video and tell me that I was not overreacting, and the verdict was unanimous — this was a uniquely talented woman with a gifted voice with subtle and poignant songwriting. I reached out to Sharon with a request to record one of her shows. We ended up capturing three of them, in June at Pianos and at Zebulon, and an amazing show in August at Cake Shop.
In person, Sharon is quite friendly and unassuming. That personality comes through quite clearly in this interview, as she answers my wordy and obtuse questions with class and patience. Expect the same on stage on Thursday.
Please tell us about the new album. Is there a specific release date, will there be new songs on the album, and if you could describe the arrangements — is it Sharon-and-guitar or will we hear other instruments, bass, drums, strings?
Sharon Van Etten:
The album is set for release in April off of Language of Stone. The love child of Drag City. Run by Greg Weeks of Espers. He recorded and played on my record. There will be minimal accompaniment such as guitar, bass, percussion, and synthesizers (all played by Greg Weeks) and vocal, guitar and added harmonies by me.
There seems to have grown up this folk scene around the Zebulon regulars of which you are a core person. Can you talk about the venue, the other artists and the “scene” (if there is one!)?
Zebulon is the most accepting, open venue in Williamsburg. They have a broad range of bands that play there. From Folk to Jazz to Indie to Funk to Experimental noise. You name it. I have played with Scary Mansion, Forest Fire, Ivana XL, Drew Victor, She Keeps Bees, Beastheart, Matt Bauer, Twi the Humble Feather, Meg Baird, Xylophone People, W-S Burn, The Shivers, — When I play they let me curate the whole night, so it usually revolves around folk, indie, country…. but every other night is different there. That’s why I love it. And I’ve never been disappointed. It couldn’t be run by more loving people. I always feel welcome, which is why I will always come back.
Frankly, the song “Consolation Prize” gives me chills every time I hear it. I think it sort of encapsulates the character of your music — poignancy and brutal honesty accompanied by a simple melody and ultimately presented in this sweet voice. This kind of juxtaposition of manner separates a basic singer-songwriter from an authentic folk singer. I know I’m over-analyzing,
but I guess the question is whether this is a natural approach or do you consciously approach songwriting with an idea of contrasting sweetness and bitterness?
It’s not my initial intention. My songs come mostly from my journals, where I create a dialogue with a memory of mine and come to terms with my past through song. (sounds cliche, doesn’t it?) But I come across writings that were at one time bitter, and now that I am passed those times and want to sing about them, I am at peace with those times… so I guess that the sweetness comes from closure, and the bitterness is from truth – but I hope the outcome is bittersweet and human.
I’ve heard you say several times “I’m not a pro”, which I interpret to mean that you want to retain your authenticity. With the new album coming, a long tour under your belt, constant local gigging, and now a CMJ show, the shows are going to get more crowded and the venues bigger. Do you still believe that you can’t both be authentic and “big” at the same time?
Ha. Funny… When I say “I’m not a pro… It’s because I’m always nervous. And I always mess up. And if there comes a time when my shows get crowded and the venues get bigger, I assure you that if anything, I will be more nervous, and more clumsy, and less pro than ever before.
What are you listening to these days, like in regular rotation in the I-pod, that kind of thing?
Fleetwood Mac, Diane Cluck, Meg Baird, Festival, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Sandy Denny, Neil Young, Jana Hunter, Phosphorescent, Forest Fire
Last question, and this one is about “taping”. I appreciate you have permitted me to record several shows and present them “warts and all”. Interestingly, my first experience with your music was the excellent video made by Arin Crumley of one of your Galapagos shows. So I pretty much never would have heard your music if it wasn’t for “taping”. I know that Joly from punkcast has recorded you too. I guess I’ve sort of answered my own question, but can you describe your approach and your thinking behind permitting all these live recordings?
Through all my home recordings and studio recordings, I always feel that a live show is best. Even with it’s flaws because you cannot replicate that. That is one moment. To be there, to see the expression on the artist’s face, the energy of the room that the artist feeds from, there is no better substitute than taping it. (other than being there, of course.) For people that haven’t seen me live, at least they can hear me live. Hopefully it creates more of a personal connection to the listener and maybe want to see me live one day.