In 2009, for one week, Sharon Van Etten locked herself up in the basement of her Brooklyn apartment complex, armed with votes of confidence—from critics, from TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, from The Antlers, who even invited her to contribute vocals to last year’s critical darling, Hospice. She also had a harmonium.
Van Etten once feared playing with more than just an acoustic guitar. Anything else, she thought, would interfere with the intimate conversation she wanted to have with her audience, one of heartbreak and agony, and how she fell out of love with her boyfriend of five years. He had, after all, told her not to make her music so confessional.
But with that harmonium, plus a few select collaborators—vocalists Cat Martino, Espers’ Meg Baird, and She Keeps Bees’ Jessica Larrabee—Van Etten created epic, an self-assured sophomore release that’s abandoned the bedroom for a Nashville hole-in-the-wall (“Save Yourself,” “One Day”) or, as she envisions, a mountaintop.
Van Etten performs tonight at the Black Cat with Bowerbirds, and she spoke with Arts Desk about those basement rehearsals, the drums she wanted for the album, and why her music has grown louder, fuller, and now requires a full band.
You’ve said often that while your mother loved folk, your dad loved rock ‘n’ roll. Why did folk music appeal to you more and, ultimately, inform your music?
The way I was raised, it was a lot of choir, a lot of harmonies, and it just kind of lent into I play guitar. I mean, I’m not a very good guitar player—I’m more of a singer. That just made more sense to me, so I would be able to focus on vocals.
I understand that you went to a lot of Broadway plays with your mom growing up. What was the turning point, from wanting to be a Broadway star to a singer-songwriter?
Well, I guess I realized that I’m not a very good dancer, and [laughs], I just realized I wanted to write my own songs. I didn’t want it to be like, audition, audition, audition. I just wanted it to be my own thing and then let other people decide whether they liked it and not have to audition for a part that’s already been written, and for a play that’s already been done. I’m not a good actor either. I realized that if I could only sing, then I should just do that.
So it was like a process of elimination.
What was in your mind as you were writing epic?
I was a lot more confident, and I wasn’t as heartbroken as I had been before. I always felt like I had so much more control—just personally where I was at with my heart. I was in the basement underneath my apartment, and my roommate is a baker, and I would always wake her up. So I’m writing these really intense songs, trying to be confident, and trying to be okay with being single, but also trying to be really quiet on my electric guitar because my roommate has to get up at 5 a.m. to do baking. I was doing these really intense songs but having the volume really low. That was my process at the time, for writing them anyway.
Since your roommate had to be up at 5 a.m., I’m guessing you must have been up pretty late.
Yeah, because I have a day job. I would work all day and I would write all night, basically for two years. I mean, she was so patient with me. She’s really, really cool—but she had baking hours, so she had to be up at 5 a.m. There were some days when she was just like, “Please, not tonight?”
What is the basement below your apartment like?
It’s actually not that bad; it’s the whole size of the apartment above me. It had two really small windows, and there was a refrigerator and a bathroom, so I could have a six-pack of beer and just hang out there all night and be self-contained. There were cement walls and cement floors, and it had like, two ceilings. It was really weird, and I had to fix it up a lot because, you know, it’s a basement. But for the most part I kept it the same, because the acoustics ended up like a natural reverb. It was a basement, but I didn’t mind.
How did you meet Brian McTear?
It was three different people from three different worlds of my life who connected me to him. He’s with the Weathervane project, which is a series he was about to start. He takes an up-and-coming musician that isn’t really recognized, and pieces together this two-day documentary of the writing, collaborating, recording process of the song. They film it, record it and promote it to WXPN, and they premiere [the song] as a single. But the day he asked me to do it, I ended up bailing at the last minute. Then I got an e-mail from my friend Lisa, and within five minutes I get a phone call from my old label Language of Stone, and then my boss even forwarded me an e-mail. It was three different people that were just like, “Somebody asked to do this at the last-minute. Are you up for doing it like, a week away?” Within an hour I had confirmed to do it, and I did that song “Love More,” and it was amazing. I had never gotten to do that—write in front of other people and record a song like that, in the studio and with so much at your disposal. That shaped what I wanted for the record.
Can you tell me more about the making of “Love More?”
One of the bands I work for is a band called The Brunettes, from New Zealand. They had to go on tour, and they had all this stuff out of their apartment, and they just asked people to house it while they were out on tour. They just let instruments be borrowed, and asked to put them in storage, and they lent me a harmonium. I had never really spent that much time with a harmonium before, so I had locked myself up in my basement for a week and just wrote all these songs on my harmonium. I ended up with an 11-minute song of just me singing with the harmonium—and I had to have a couple of friends listen to it, because I did save a lot of room for harmonies, a lot of room for percussion, and I thought I had a really positive message, which was a little more than, “I’m just brokenhearted.” It’s more of an optimistic song for me. So then my friend Jessica helped me map it out, and we had to cut out six minutes to make it an actual song, because it was really just a stream of consciousness. [My friends] helped me write it and add a little more structure to it, and helped me add lyrics and build with it a little more. I didn’t even know that build would be helpful for that song, but then—it happened.
Did you use the same approach the other songs in epic?
The only difference with this was that I actually came with songs that were pretty much songs themselves; I didn’t have to cut them back or add structure. It was more like, I wanted instrumentation on them, and I don’t know how to explain drums to people. I ended up having to play some Fleetwood Mac songs and be like, “This is kind of what I want,” but I would also make mouth noises—like, “I also want like, ‘choo choo.’” I was probably the most annoying person to talk to about drums. But it was mostly my friends that worked on the record, so it was really easy to talk to everybody.
You’ve been careful in the past to keep production minimal, because then as a solo artist, you figured you’d easily be able to perform them live. What made you come around to using a band?
I write in a way that’s pretty confessional, and I know it can be kinda personal. At times I feel naked in front of people. Obviously, you know exactly what I have gone through recently. The last one, [Because I Was in Love] it was very, very personal to me and very cathartic—because I wanted it to be a conversation with people, and I wanted it to feel like they were leaning up against the wall of my bedroom as they were listening to me play. I never thought I would change my mind, but now that I feel my writing is a lot more confident—even though it is confessional—I feel like the instrumentation choices that were made on the record only helped the songs feel more climatic and more cathartic. I feel like the full band just makes the songs feel more confident as well.
What’s your favorite song off of epic?
I guess I’d have to say “Don’t Do It.” It is one of the most cathartic songs—and I know that’s real cheesy to say, but it’s so much fun to sing and it’s such a relief. It was the one song that I didn’t really want to do on the record, but then Brian heard the demo and was like, “Sharon, can we please have a crack at this song?” and I’m like, “It’s not done yet, I don’t know.” I was really iffy on it, and then finally at the last minute I was like, “Okay, I’m going to finish writing this song for Brian.” Then I brought it into the studio, and just for fun one day I said, “Let’s just play around it with and see if we can find a beat to it,” because the original was super slow and really sad and full of reverb. Brian was on drums, and then halfway through messing around, he came up with the drum beat. I had never sang so loud in my life. I realized that this is what it is like to have a rock band—like, this feels amazing. It felt so good to play with a drummer, and I just went crazy on it. It turned out to be out favorite song on the record, because it was the one that we didn’t think would make the album.
Exactly what grudges were you holding against “Don’t Do It?”
I definitely didn’t think the lyrics were good enough, and I felt like it was really long and meandering. I’m learning that a demo is just a demo, and to stop being self-conscious over a demo. That’s the point of a demo; it’s sharing it with other people and talking about it that helps you turn it into something else. A demo doesn’t have to be a finished song. But I don’t know, I’m just weird. I don’t know how to talk to people about my music, and then they’re like, Help me analyze this to the point where I don’t want to do this anymore. But [Brian] was so confident in the song that he made me look at it in a different way, and now I’m really proud of it.
You’ve called your songs “sad prairie folk music.” But in epic, the setting seems to be different. What are your thoughts?
I feel like a cheesy Kate Bush. … It’s just that saturated, that wind-in-your-hair mountain music. Oh, that’s so silly. I would say my version of ’90s music. Like, epic ’90s music.
The lyrics in Because I Was in Love were inspired by journal entries you had written. What about the lyrics in epic?
Actually, it started with me experimenting. I got an amp and an electric guitar, and I plugged in my electric guitar into the amp and locked to reverb. I’d work out the guitar part, and then I would sing over it and find the rhythm. It was more stream-of-conscious, because most of the songs started out being really long and meandering. I had three different versions of every song, probably—longer versions. I didn’t go back through many journal entries this time. Instead I was talking about how I was feeling at that moment.
Is there anything else about epic that you’d like to point out?
One thing that I know sounds really stupid, but I like to make a little joke on every song or every album or whatever—and my joke here is that I lowercase epic. It’s really, really stupid and I know people will always capitalize proper things, but I like stupid jokes and my friends know me for being into puns, that kind of humor. That’s kind of what the album is a shout-out to, because I know people are going to be surprised with the transition from the last record to this one. It’s very different. So epic, lowercase, is my joke, even though it’s stupid.
Okay, lowercase epic. Got it.
No, that’s good. For all I know, someone will have to fact-check this and ask me, “How do you know it’s lowercase? Are you sure, because it’s listed here as…” Now I can say, “Yes, we talked about this. Don’t worry about it.”
Yeah, it’s weird.
Well, there are plenty of people who have decided to stop using capitalization or even punctuation.
Like tUnE-yArDs—I bet writers hate writing that out.I love that so much. I still do the heart, like I do the lowercase heart and comma. I spell out heart, comma. That’s my sign-off.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m getting ready to start recording a new one in October, and I may be going out to Spain at the end of November for a festival. There is a chance that I get to tour Japan in December, and I’m kinda freaking out about that right now. I have never been there, so that would be incredible.