After turning heads with the understatedly powerful, Epic, back in 2010, Sharon Van Etten once again has the attention of the music world—the smarter, cooler corners of it, anyway. Her most recent effort, Tramp, comes out on February 7, and it features guest appearances by such esteemed artists as Zach Condon and Julianna Barwick, plus production work and much more from The National’s Aaron Dessner. Also among the album’s guests is Wye Oak singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner, who talked to Ms. Van Etten for this feature, covering everything from how best to handle the constant scrutiny of the Internet to the struggle to find one’s own voice as a singer. They also made plans to have dinner in Greenpoint, but they didn’t invite us, which is a drag.
Jenn Wasner: First thing I wanted to ask you about, my dear, darling lady, was what your experience with the Fallon show was like. Because that was a first for us this year too, and it was incredible and pleasant and enjoyable, and also just the most terrifying experience of my life. So I’m curious to hear how that went for you.
Sharon Van Etten: Yeah, it was totally nuts and nerve-wracking and thrilling and all of those things. Everyone that worked there, though, was so sweet and really helped me to not be so freaked out. They’re so chill and they don’t push you to do stuff, and they’re not super entertainment types that you’d think they would be on that kind of show, where they’re like, “Get it right! I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, blah blah blah…” They’re like, “How are you doing? Anything you need, let us know. Take your time. If you don’t get it right the first time, you can do it another time.” I had to do it a second time. I ended up getting stage fright, and I forgot the first line, and then I mouthed the word “fuck” really loud, and then at the very end I got so flustered that I hit my head on the mic.
I feel like they do such a good job putting you at ease throughout the whole day that you’re almost unprepared for how actually intimidating it is once you get out there. I feel like where you are with your record is a funny spot because you’ve finished it, and obviously that means you spent a ton of time with it, and yet you have very little public or critical response yet. So, I think of it as this little time capsule moment that you’re in. I’m curious… before all that shit goes down, and you start really hitting it and the record comes out, are you in a good place with the record?
It’s kinda funny because the main thing I was nervous about was teaching the songs to my new band and seeing how we could reinterpret them live. I’m really proud of the record, but I’m not used to arrangements like we did on this record. So trying to figure out a way to do it live and to give the songs the amount of dynamics that you get when you have all these instruments and all that time and all those tracks, and you’re like, “Alright, cool, how do we do 20 parts with four people?”
I hear you, girl.
Then you go through those days when you start second-guessing. For me, I second-guessed, like, “Oh, maybe I did over-produce this song. Maybe I didn’t need all this stuff.” But for this record, for the first time ever, I decided to let go of the idea that it was going to sound the same live, and just learn to have fun with the band and stop taking myself too seriously and just enjoy it more, because whatever people experience at a show is gonna be much different than them listening to the record. So on that level, that’s how I feel about the record right now. But this in-between time of not knowing what other people might think of it, I’m enjoying it right now, before the chaos hits. You get good and bad reviews, you have great and shitty shows… I’m having fun just being home and having a kind of normal life, being sheltered before I’m gone forever.
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. You have to get right with yourself and really figure out exactly where you stand with everything, because everything that you think and feel is under fire when you’re on tour for as long as you’re about to be. And you know that.. you’ve done it before. It’s a good time to kind of take stock. For the record, too, I’ve seen the band you have, and I think it’s really, really killer. I think it’s a totally accurate and fulfilling representation of what’s going on on the record without being a complete duplication of everything.
So, we’re both singers, and we’re both female. Personally, when I was growing up and first starting to play music, a lot of my favorite singers were male, and I kind of had this weird love-hate relationship with my voice, and I have for my whole life. Because sometimes I feel limited, and I feel like because of my female voice, I was incapable of exploring certain territories of the human voice, like screaming or… I dunno. I guess the grass is always greener, but I’ve always had this strange relationship with my own voice.That’s crazy talk!
Well, yeah, it’s crazy talk, but I’m interested in what your relationship is to your own voice. I think of you as one of the most stunning singers I’ve ever seen in person. Not to gush all over you, but the only reason I’m your friend is because you stopped me in my tracks with your voice. I would have never met you otherwise. I know everyone has their issues and their hang-ups, and so I’m just interested in how you relate to your own voice. Do you ever wish it was different, or are you totally comfortable?
Yeah, I’m still figuring that out too. It probably sounds stupid, but I don’t want my voice to sound super feminine all the time. I can sing super high, and I have that kind of a range, but because I did a lot of choir growing up, I get nervous that it’s too affected or that I’m too proper. I’ve been challenging myself to sing lower. Voices are just really crazy because you can train them to do anything as long as you try and you practice. I don’t know, I feel like I quit smoking and I feel like my voice has changed. I don’t even know what my voice is. I feel like I’m still finding my voice. But I’m having fun trying all different kinds of ranges. I just don’t know where my natural center is.
Yeah, it just occurred to me when you were saying that, that we both struggled with vocal issues this year. For me, my voice was something I took for granted, and it was one of the scariest things ever to lose it and to be uncertain about it and to feel like it’s something to have to be super mindful of. And I know that you went through a kind of similar experience. What do you do to deal with that sort of thing?
Well, I learned how to do some vocal exercises, and I’ll probably be warming up as much as possible before shows, and I’ll set rules for myself. I lost my voice after SXSW last year, after, like, a six-month run, and then for four days it didn’t come back, and we still had three weeks of touring to go. And it’s like, “Well, what do you do? I’m not gonna talk, I’m not gonna smoke, I’m not gonna drink, I’m not gonna have coffee.” But you’re on tour, and it’s like, those are the perks! So it was like, alright, well, I’ll see if this helps. And, you know, it helped me to have a healthier lifestyle on the road and in general.
That’s so hard, though.
Yeah, smoking was the big thing. But it took me probably six months to recover once I was done touring. I took voice lessons. I took acupuncture. I took an adrenal supplement. I did everything that I could to rest, and I slept as much as possible.
What’s the best meal you’ve had recently?
There’s this amazing restaurant in Greenpoint called Anella, and it’s super fresh food with really beautiful arrangements on the plate and pretty affordable prices. It’s very different than anywhere I’ve eaten in a really long time, where you almost don’t even want to touch the plate because it’s so beautiful. It’s like, “Is that a monarch butterfly, but also a steak? That’s crazy!” We should go there when you come back here.
I have a theory that most songwriters are either lyrics-first people, or music/melody-first, and my theory is that you’re a lyrics-first person. Am I right?
Hmm. Interesting. Usually I have one line that comes first, but the whole entire melody usually comes with it. But it’s funny because I base stream of consciousness singing around the one line I wrote first, and then the whole song is based around that. Then I end up going back to edit the stream of conscious lyrics with the melody because I feel like the melodies are usually more interesting than the things that I write about.
If you could say that you have a favorite thing about touring and a least favorite thing, what would those be?
My favorite thing is getting to know everyone you’re playing with a lot better, and having stories and private jokes that when you get home no one will get. You’re like, “Yeah, this just happened to me!” And everyone’s like, “That’s really not that crazy,” and it’s like, “I guess you had to be there, there was this clown in the street, he said ‘hi,’ and there was this thing…”
Yeah, none of your stories end up working in real life, I know. It’s a bummer, they never translate.My least favorite, I would say, is when you don’t have time to be outside, and you’re just driving all day long, and you get to the venue and you don’t get to experience anything outside that routine. And not being able to have a decent meal and just feeling like you’re 500 pounds every day because, like, the best breakfast you can get regularly is at Starbucks.
It’s totally tough. Eat a Starbucks turkey bacon breakfast sandwich again, sit on your fat ass for eight hours again, drink an entire bottle of red wine before 7pm again…I’m thinking of getting a Thighmaster for the van. Like, Shake Weights and Thigh Masters. And like, a crock-pot or something so that I can make vegetables and rice, but I know that in reality, they’ll just collect dust.
No, man, Lower Dens does it. We played some shows together, and they had a hot-plate in their van and all kinds of spices. We played in Knoxville, and they busted out their hot-plate, and they were cooking, like, grilled chicken and shit. So it can be done if you’re determined.You need a support group, and you need to have a plan. I’ll have the SVE band list of how to harden your ass on tour. It’ll be like, “I haven’t had an ass like this since I rode my bike every day when I was 12!”
Sharon Van Etten: Woman On the Verge
Outtakes from our shoot with Sharon Van Etten
Photos by Ysa Perez