Sharon Van Etten tells me she feels “blessed” to have a career; she’s “incredibly lucky” by her reckoning. And the last year, the last two years even, provided “more pinch yourself moments” than Van Etten could have ever dreamed of, growing up in New Jersey, a record-obsessed, introverted diarist.
“It’s funny”, she says, not laughing, “I moved to New York ten years ago to get some guidance – I was hoping, naively, for some help; to intern and get some experience, to try to better myself as a songwriter and to spend some time with music, with other musicians and with people that know about music. What I didn’t expect out of it was to be here talking to people about my music now; to be touring, to be making records – to have a career”.
She sounds – still – somewhat overwhelmed when describing the “intense journey” of the last decade.
“I never thought I’d ever be doing this full-time, surviving as a musician – that was never the plan. It might have been the dream but it was never the plan”. And then, finally, the laugh arrives.
Her latest album, last year’s Are We There, is the most recent example of her devastatingly beautiful and powerful songwriting. She creates songs that can knock you around a bit, songs that feel like journeys in and of themselves; each one a hard-fought prize from a tough time, the take-home from a period of reflection.
She’s released four albums across the last half decade – the songs forever pouring forth. There’s an EP being readied currently and she mentions that a new album “won’t be far away” despite – or perhaps because of the fact she’s been – “touring really hard right now”.
But Are We There is a breakup album, it’s the stuff of heavy hearts. So much so that Van Etten admits she had to tell “the ex” about several of the songs. “It’s definitely a lot to take in – these are heavy songs. I’m not sure he’s all that happy about the songs existing, but at the same time I know he doesn’t begrudge me for writing them – boyfriends get to know that this is what you do” – there’s a nearly-nervous chuckle here. “It’s just part of what happens, your experiences are channelled into the songs, what’s happening to you, that’s always been the way, since I first started teaching myself songs, learning how to put down my thoughts”.
Van Etten says she was “a quiet kid, an introvert” and though she believes that not a lot has changed about her in that sense she is still “interested in meeting people – in connecting, finding a way to communicate. And that’s where playing the songs live comes in – it’s a way of having a conversation with a room, of sharing thoughts, these ideas in the songs. You feed off the energy that’s offered to you in return”.
It’s even more rewarding than that, as she’s found her songs of heartbreak have resonated to the point that she will be told stories (“the most amazing, emotionally honest stories”) of what a particular track will mean to someone; of “how it has helped them, or whatever. And that’s a pretty amazing thing. I’m hearing from people, in some cases, that are younger than me and what I’ve written about maybe comes from a time of reflection, it’s about an emotion I was feeling rather than one I am feeling. But for certain listeners it’s still current – it’s something they’re still going through, they’re having that same kind of feeling. It’s humbling to hear some of the stories from people. I’ve met some really amazing people with beautiful stories of falling in love. There are some sad stories too – of course. It’s a special honour to know from people that you’ve helped them, or just that you’ve given them a way to help understand how they are feeling. In that sense it’s a shared experience, it becomes about sharing. It’s incredibly powerful that people just have this need to tell you about their connection to your songs”.
This is Van Etten’s first trip to New Zealand – for the shows it is “a stripped back version” with bandmate, Heather Woods Broderick (“who is amazing!”) New Zealand is a place that has been on Sharon’s mind.
“You’re far away and it’s taken me a long time to get there – but I’m so thrilled that we’re playing some South Island shows, and I’m excited to see whatever I can see really. I’ve been a fan of a lot of New Zealand music since hearing it through my label. I know about some of your bands like The Bats and The Clean. I was played music from them through the label I worked at – and that I signed with [Bada Bing Records]. So I’m very excited about visiting New Zealand.”
She’s also toured with Tiny Ruins who she says “is really amazing – she’s like when you discover Vashti Bunyan for the first time, or something like that. Just a treasure, this voice and sound that comes from – really – another world. Something magical”.
The quiet kid, the introvert who “didn’t know how to talk about my feelings, didn’t know how to explain the dark times” says the guitar has been an important friend, “a way of understanding” and the songs – seemingly still pouring from her – “come from a backlog as well as new experiences”. Learning to play the guitar for Sharon Van Etten was “a way of learning my voice, of understanding my voice” and she says she’s “very grateful to now have a career, to be able to visit places and meet people and to share the songs”.
Her intimate New Zealand performances will see “plenty from the new album, but also we’ll be playing things from the other records too – we’ll play a couple of covers maybe, too. That’s usually part of the shows”.
And she’s thrilled to have Robert Scott playing support – a member of both of those crucial Kiwi bands she first heard when still honing her craft.
“I can’t believe I’m finally going to play in New Zealand. We’re so excited”.