By David Chiu
Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten may be an example–to paraphrase Maya Angelou’s book—of why the caged bird sings. When she was living in Tennessee a couple of years ago, an old boyfriend wasn’t supportive of her musical endeavors. As a result Van Etten would have to perform her music when he was away.
“It was kind of a rough time in my life,” Van Etten remembers. “I would go to a bar and get whiskey drunk and get enough courage to play [the open mikes].”
Fast forward to today. Van Etten lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and is now comfortable front and center as an indie folk songwriter and performer. This past summer she released her full-length debut album, the haunting and ethereal-sounding Because I Was In Love. Van Etten opens for Great Lake Swimmers on Sept. 27 and 28 at the Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg.
In person Van Etten possesses a gregarious personality, which stands in stark contrast to the melancholy in her songs and singing voice. “It’s all things I would say to people,” she says about her songwriting, “whether it would be I’m talking on behalf of my friend to somebody or talking to a lover. I want everyone to know that it’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to be reminiscent. I want it to be conversational…I want to be as direct and honest as possible.”
Van Etten draws from her own personal experiences on “It’s Not Like,” a song about Van Etten dating someone. “We were trying to be just so casual and I was trying to be cool with it,” she recalls. “My heart was ‘No you love this person, you’re totally falling for this person and he’s not at all for you.’ It was just me kind of go against nature kind of song. It’s optimistic in that made me realize that I was going against myself.”
Another song from Because I Was In Love is “For You,” which she wrote with another musical artist, Corbi Wright, in a car. “I guess it was the buzz of being on the road for the first time [from] four years ago. We were driving through Tennessee at the time. It’s a love song that one day I can sing to somebody.”
Born in Nutley, NJ (whose famous residents are Martha Stewart and The Sopranos, Van Etten says), she grew up in a music-loving household where both her father and mother brought her to concerts by the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. She played clarinet in the 3rd grade and piano at home. In high school, she taught herself to play guitar. “I really liked performing songs but I got to a point where I wanted to perform my own songs instead of other people’s,” she said.
Van Etten went to college in Tennessee to study recording but dropped out after her first year. To take her music in a more serious direction and to reconnect with her family, Van Etten moved to New York City. It was there that she hooked up with TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, whose brother was a close friend of hers in high school. The connection proved fruitful for Van Etten.
“[Kyp] ended up taking me under his wing,” says Van Etten, “introducing me to friends, and showing me new music that I didn’t know existed. If it wasn’t for him I probably would have played at a place called Zebulon, which is my favorite place in Williamsburg. I started playing more seriously and getting encouraged by people.”
Things took off for Van Etten after she corresponded with a London
fashion designer who traded her clothes for Van Etten’s homemade CD’s.
That designer, whom Van Etten visited in London, also knew the tour
manager for Espers’ Meg Baird, whose album Van Etten had previously
listened to through Malone. From there she earned an opening slot
on Baird’s tour, which also led to an introduction to Baird’s Espers
bandmate, Greg Weeks, who later produced Van Etten’s album.
“He took these songs that I was really afraid weren’t ready,” Van Etten says. “I always wanted to keep it minimal anyway. We did vocal and guitar throughout the whole album. He let me do harmonies [and] had a lot of great ideas. He made them sound so much better than I ever could.”
While Van Etten continues to perform in support of her recent album, she says that she continues to write new material. “I can’t turn that switch off. I don’t know if I want to do a rock album because I have that alter ego where I want to rock out. I want to put out a record a year. We’ll see how that goes.”
Van Etten says the move to New York has been a career highlight. “If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out,” she says, “but right now I’ve been hearing a lot of great music and getting to try it. I can’t believe I live in New York and I’m a musician!”
Sharon Van Etten: For You