When I reach Sharon Van Etten by phone, on her tour bus somewhere en route to Nashville, she’s just woken up from a nap (okay, I might have woken her up). Though it’s 2:30 in the afternoon, I’m not surprised in the slightest. Listening to the singer-songwriter’s stunning new record Are We There, you get the sense that performing these songs takes a cathartic release of energy that would require an entire day of recovery.
Of course, this isn’t a departure from Van Etten’s previous material. “Most of the time when I write, it’s because I’m going through something really heavy, and my form of therapy is turning the recorder on,” the singer-songwriter tells me.
“Heavy” is a word that plenty of people, not just Van Etten herself, use to describe the themes in her songs. This has much to do with her backstory, as her lyrical material has always been deeply shaped by escaping a poisonous relationship before moving to New York to pursue a career in music. But it’s also an apt adjective given the singer’s arresting voice, a dense and imposing presence in any song.
With Are We There, Van Etten has crafted a record full of the kind of [disarming] lyrical turns that critics tend to latch on to. You can’t write a chorus like the one in “Your Love is Killing Me”—“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you”—without expecting the music intelligentsia to have quite a bit to say. Sharon Van Etten
Doug Fir Lounge
July 2 & 3But Van Etten’s real talent lies in her ability to couch that sort of rawness in a conversational tone that renders her heavy topics all the more disarming, like a friend on the edge of a breakdown appearing more fragile the more you talk to her.
Are We There is also undeniably the work of a maturing artist, a record that seems in conversation with Van Etten’s earlier recordings just as it stands apart from them. It’s in part due to the production on this new crop of songs, a responsibility the singer assumed herself. The familiar vocal style remains, thickly harmonized over itself, unhurried but never languid in delivery, but the simple yet precisely locked-in rhythms of the drums and bass on many songs, and even drum machine on a few of them, lend a propulsion not found in the singer’s earlier work.
“It started because I just had a day off in New York, and I went to the practice space and recorded a bunch of demos,” says Van Etten. “I recorded a song on an organ I had and added drums to it, and it had a real sort of soulful energy.” It was a sound that resonated with Van Etten enough to drive the direction of the entire album.
But the new album also seems, quietly, to be a watershed moment for Van Etten’s songwriting. That is, since her 2009 debut Because I Was In Love, she’s been writing upfront and emotionally direct lyrics that seem rooted in particular moments and feelings from her life; it’s no surprise, then, that as those songs age, Van Etten’s relationship to them—and to the audiences that have embraced them—has changed. “I think [the older songs] change meaning the further you are from them,” she says. “In some ways I’m no longer that person. It’s like when you look back at a photo album and you know it’s you, but it’s so long ago that it’s not.”
Fittingly for Van Etten, it’s “I Love You But I’m Lost,” a song about a changing romantic relationship, that perhaps best expresses this sentiment. “I’m in Houston, I can’t read my lines/ Most of all I find it strange/ I believed them,” she sings, over piano chords that slowly gain momentum as they march mercilessly forward. The line between the songs and the emotionally intense moments that created them has always been blurred for Van Etten; now she’s coming to terms with the distance she’s gained from both.
It’s not too great a distance, though. “There’s the other side of the coin, where yeah, they’re still things that happened to me, and sometimes on a given the day, I go back to that moment and I feel that moment,” she says.
If you’re expecting a sob-fest at the Doug Fir next week, though, you’ll be disappointed: Van Etten’s warm and lighthearted stage presence goes a long way to mitigate what might otherwise be a dour mood. “I make jokes, and hopefully that makes everyone else laugh to," she says. "That’s something that’s really grounding to me if I’m feeling very intense emotions. In between songs I recenter myself by connecting with the audience."