Drunk in Love with Sharon Van Etten
In preparation of her new record 'Are We There,' we spent the night at the bar with the singer songwriter trying to make sense of love and all that comes with it.
It’s about an hour into our conversation when I realize I’ve had a little too much to drink.
“Do you feel your music is…?” I trail off, lingering. Sharon Van Etten looks at me with her big, deep brown eyes. I try again. “Do you feel your music is… Well, do you feel like your music is…”
Another moment passes.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” she says, grinning.
I apologize, because I’m embarrassed, because it’s my job as a journalist to know what to say to people I’m interviewing and at this point I’ve had more beer than I can count. But I’m frustrated, because I cannot find the words I need to ask Sharon Van Etten in order to figure out where her wonderfully tragic love songs come from, and it’s something I’ve told myself I need to know to understand her, even though it makes sense I can’t figure out how to ask that question, because that’s a question you cannot ask someone, because no one knows the answer. Where does it come from? What does it all mean? Why does heartbreak exist? The answer to these middle-of-the-night cliché questions we all have is always simpler than it seems—we’re all just human beings—despite none of us ever having it or being able to put it together in words.
“Look at a song like ‘Your Love Is Killing Me,’” I say, placing my hands on the wood before me. “Where do you get the courage to write something like, ‘Break my legs so I can’t run to you?’ Something like that is so shamelessly earnest.”
It’s early March, beyond freezing outside, and we’re the only two people in the bar, a quiet cocktail lounge in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Sharon had arrived a few minutes late, apologizing repeatedly for keeping me waiting. Dressed in all black—coat, scarf, and sweater—she requested the bartender serve her a tequila-based cocktail of his choice. She wants to drink like it’s summer so we forget feels like Antarctica outside.
The 33-year-old pauses for a moment after my question, gathering her thoughts so she can be precise and clear with the message she’s trying to get across. After a moment, she opens up.
“No, no. It’s good. It’s good. Let’s get real,” she laughs. “When I sit down and write, it’s not like, I’m going to sit down and write now. I’m going through shit and it’s my therapy for myself. That song you quoted. It’s about… like… unhealthy love, you know? It’s trying to visualize looking for somebody, even if it’s emotionally battered and you’re waiting for that person. Who hasn’t gone through that? Who hasn’t loved someone so much and yet knew that it was wrong?”
That’s the question Sharon Van Etten’s music has always asked—and her fourth record, Are We There, out May 27 via Jagjaguwar, continues with these same inquiries. Who hasn’t been in a terrible relationship full of bad decision after bad decision after bad decision? Why are we sometimes so dedicated to making aligning ourselves with people who ultimately make us miserable? The record’s opening track, “Afraid of Nothing,” sets the tone for this longing to break out of something we know we need to escape—but we’re unsure how to do it. “I can’t wait / too afraid of nothing,” she yearns, the words acting like a thesis statement for who she is as an artist. “I can’t wait / till we hide from nothing.”
It’s in our nature as human beings to constantly look for different ways to make the things in our lives stay the same—even if we recognize how poisonous they can be. Sometimes, being a person really fucking sucks. Sharon Van Etten understands that.
“I write really intense songs, and it’s therapeutic to people,” she says. When she speaks about her music and her emotions, she’s uses the words like “we” or “us” or “everyone.” It’s like she wants the whole world to know that it’s okay to feel the Emotions that you Feel. This strange life happens and we’re all together inside of it, whatever our individual paths might be. We shouldn’t feel shame.
“We’re all a little bit fucked up, you know?”
“We are all a little bit fucked up,” I repeat.
“We are,” she says, flatly. “And it’s okay.”
And the thing is, it is okay, which is something we often forget. We’re all constantly caught up in our daily lives of trying to figure it out, trying to understand why certain things happen and why certain things don’t happen. And if there’s one thing Sharon Van Etten knows, it’s about feeling fucked up. Her debut record, Because I Was in Love, released in 2009, and on top of illustrating her talents as a vocalist and songwriter—this bizarre, audacious display of gutting emotion—she used the record to process the toxic relationship she found herself in for three years while living in Tennessee after college before moving to New York to start her a new life (originally from New Jersey, she’s now lived in the city for a decade). She’s never spoken too candidly about it, but many people who are familiar with her story suspect it was problematic in ways that you’d prefer to not reveal to a journalist. When I ask about that time, she speaks with authority.
“I’m actually not a victim,” she says. “I rose above it and I’m stronger because of it. Even though my songs are dark and heavy, they’re uplifting. That’s why I wrote them. That’s why I feel better. I want to be more open about talking about my past, but then there’s that question of the victim role. I’m much more interested in the process and how music, in general, can help people. It’s not about the story of what’s behind it.”
The story behind Are We There is one of establishing individuality, one that’s both abandoning and embracing the past and where she’s come from as a songwriter and an artist. “This record is probably the most of what’s going on with me right now,” she tells me. Many of the songs are revolve around the lengthy, on-and-off relationship she’s struggled with over the past five or so years. “He’s supportive,” she notes quietly. “But he’s torn because we can’t have a real life right now.”
Musically, Are We There is her most solo effort yet. While her previous records had relied on the help of others—in particular, her friend the National’s Aaron Dessner, who’d produced her third album, Tramp—she took lead on this record, handling all production herself.
And so perhaps that’s all why this album, which was recorded over a nine-month period, feels the most illustrative of her as an artist. There’s something about Are We There that feels focused. It’s more complete than anything she’s ever recorded, but at the same time it’s the most hollow—it’s all her, and that feeling of honesty reveals itself throughout.
“I’m not a sad and depressed person,” she says. “That’s why I do this or else I would be.”
I laugh at her dismissiveness of it all—there’s no point in me trying to make sense of her thoughts. She’s funny, sort of in the way that life is funny. She tells me how before she picked up the guitar, she originally wanted to be a comedian. “I like riffing,” she says. She’s good at it—there’s something so effortless about the way she tosses around her feelings in conversation.
“It’s OK to be sad,” she says. “It’s OK to feel dark. It’s OK to question what’s going on in your life. I feel like so many people are shut off emotionally and I think, in a way, that’s normal with how we live. But I’m a really emotional person and I like to talk about my feelings, especially with my friends and my family.”
She goes on, telling me how The Glad Game—that approach to life from the novel Pollyanna about finding something good no matter what the situation—has “been an institution” in her life. I smile, taking note of the tequila she ordered because of the 14-degree weather.
“I just don’t think there’s any room for negativity. When things happen, it’s not like, ‘that was supposed to happen to you.’ Fuck that. I had a friend commit suicide recently. And I was just like, fuck that. But what was the reason behind that, though? Her fucked up family. She was the product of neglectful, shitty parents. Just thinking about that and how you grow from that and relate to that, it’s all you.”
I wobble to the restroom, but leave my recorder running. The bartender, a musician himself with slicked back dark hair and wearing a denim jacket, comes over and introduces himself. Well, technically re-introduces himself.
“We met awhile ago at a show,” he says, which I imagine is through a grin. His name is Mikey.
“I thought I knew you from somewhere,” she says, which I also imagine is through a grin.
He asks how the interview is going, if it feels weird being bombarded.
“I’m vulnerable and emotional and still learning how to talk about [the record].”
He agrees: “I feel like it’s hard enough trying to get the sound out of your head.”
“I don’t know how to talk about it right now,” she says, sounding somewhat exasperated. “Writing it was heavy enough.”
I’m back from the restroom, and they both smile at me upon my return. Fleetwood Mac plays in the background, and I’m reminded of this old video of Stevie Nicks I’ve watched too many times to count. It’s from the early 80s, her backstage at a Rolling Stone photo shoot. She’s getting her make up done. Her hair’s in a perm. White dress. In a quick moment, a fluttering piano picks up and Stevie acts like she’s playing air guitar, before starting to sing along, repeating the refrain of “Wild Heart,” one of the most vulnerable songs of her career full of very vulnerable songs. “Where is the reason / well don’t blame it on me,” she croons in the only way that Stevie Nicks can, “blame it on my wild heart.” At the end of the video, she laughs, clapping and pointing around the room, completely unaware at how arresting her voice is. She smiles. There’s a captivating feeling surrounding her presence. She’s confident, not arrogant; charming, not pandering; lovely, not precious.
I sit back down at the bar, and my wandering thoughts are interrupted by Sharon telling me about the horoscope app she checks regularly. “It’s stupid, I know,” she says. “But it’s always right!”
She’s a Pisces (“Pisces are really emotional”) and convinces me to download the app. I do, and we check my horoscope, which is Gemini. Before reading it, I joke that she shouldn’t trust me because my sign means I’m two-faced. One simple line pops up: “It will all become clear soon.”
“Heavy,” I smile. She looks at me and, too, smiles.
“How do we relate to each other? Be good. Be nice,” she says, once again referring to all of us in the same breath. “I don’t know what it means, man. I just write love songs.”
Eric Sundermann is the Managing Editor of Noisey. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy
Jessica Lehrman is a photographer who lives in Brooklyn. She's on Twitter — @jessierocks