Sharon Van Etten | Interview

An Interview with Sharon Van Etten
by Andy Whorehall

Photo © Dusdrin Condren

Sharon Van Etten released one of 2010’s little-indie triumphs, “epic”. Large on emotion, short on songs, well-crafted, produced, performed and perfect. Ironically titled, but pretty accurate. It announced the complete arrival of a gifted young singer-songwriter just 2 full length recordings into her career to the rest of the world. She graciously took time while touring Japan to answer a few questions.


epicAW: With “epic” you’ve fully realized a set of songs that seem to be a continuation of themes established on “Because I was in Love”. How does it feel to become the object of enthusiastic affection by many men like myself who enjoy being dumped to wallow in pizza, tacos and beer?

SVE: I considered this album to be more confident and less broken. I can see how you might take it as anger, but it is more of security and self preservation in honesty in love to me.

AW: Does it worry you as a songwriter to think about the next record after releasing one so focused and complete as the 7 songs that comprise “epic”?

SVE: A little, but I have many songs I am looking forward to reinterpret in a studio environment. I write constantly and i feel no obligation, so i hope my songs never come across as forced or desperate. They come at a very natural pace for me.

AW: How many, if any, of the 7 songs on “epic” did you hold out on from your debut, “Because I Was In Love”?

SVE: None.

AW: Were many songs cut from the sessions that may see the light of day? What did you feed the band?

SVE: No. We had 2 weeks to see what we could get done. Nothing was cut.

AW: Did you know going into the second record that it needed to step up from the first recording with regards to production and additional performers for the better of the songs and what exactly did you eat in the studio?  Do you like cookies and milk?

SVE: I know I wanted to step it up instrumentation wise, but i had NO idea it would be this big of band. No way.

AW: At any point writing or recording “epic”s stand-out track, “Don’t Do It”, did it stand out as the haunting centerpiece it became? Correct me if wrong (I often am), the rest of the songs seem to have been written to support a peperroni, basil and black olive deep dish pizza. Do you like Little Caesars pizza? I ate 2 dozen crazy bread sticks to the song “DsharpG” on repeat.  Did you know that that particular song would go great with Little Caesars Crazy Bread?

SVE: Actually, “Save Yourself” was the first song I knew how I wanted to record, basically… “Don’t Do It” was a song I wasn’t sure of, but Brian McTear (producer/engineer) helped me to see the light in it. The original was 11 minutes long, very slow and meandering washed through reverb. “DSharpG” was actually the song I wasn’t sure should be on the album because I didn’t think it flowed…. I love it, nonetheless. “Love More” helps balance it out.

AW: “Don’t Do it” is masterful with a side salad, balsamic dressing.  Love it! I’ve often referred to that song’s melody as the female counterpart to Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”. Your vocals, the performance by all, are haunting and beautiful. It lingers for days even after the song and the pizza goes bye bye.

SVE: I never thought of it as even CLOSE to Buckley. I do admire him, of course.

AW: “Love More” is lyrically brutal and haunting as well, suggestive of an abusive relationship emotionally and/or physically. I couldn’t finish my bowl of Cheerios because of its tone. It takes a turn at the end suggesting hope for the listener and narrator. At any point while writing “Love More”–and for this matter, the rest of the songs on “epic”–did an internal voice whisper, “Don’t go there. Stop! Head straight for the nearest TacoBell– no!  Fuck it!  Taco John Tater Tot Ole!”?

SVE: Never. I will always be honest in my music. It is very important for my songs to be personal and relatable, even when difficult.

AW: Seems like you are intentionally disregarding second thoughts and efforts to answer my food inquiries that–I believe–has much to do with complementing these songs.  LIttle Caesars Pizza, Crazy Bread, Salad, Taco John Tatoe Oles– they’re all an honest angry counterpart to the many angry ‘Dylans’ we fans of the Bard have sat through and thought about with such foods in our mouths and bellies.  (I have a nice bellie. I eat potatoes!) “epic” brings to mind Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”. I’ve tried hard to disregard this thought as being gender based, but as a listener who sees Dylan’s take on love gone wrong being his fault and telling the world about it, “epic”–to me–is an angry belated response for closure. Did recording the 7 songs that make up “epic” ever click with you this way, or am I out of my f*cking mind for loving your record with a plate of Little Caesars’ Crazy Bread so much?

SVE: I guess that is your interpretation. I am not angry. I was not angry. I love pizza. But when I wrote these songs I was tired of being broken over someone that never cared for me. I was becoming more strong and not afraid to voice it. Sometimes being a strong woman can be misconstrued as being a bitch. I assure you that these songs are meant from a positive space that nurtures growth.

AW: In regards to love and all of its forms, emotions, actions; do you denounce the notion that great art can not come from happiness and retail restaurant meals?

SVE: No.

AW: With regards to love, happiness, pizza, tacos, steak, pork, oranges, beans, pop culture and music, the Beatles covered it all. Does it feel as if they left us bitter leftovers to explore? It sure seems like it, Sharon. I’d disagree but since I brought it up I can’t. I will argue though that Paul McCartney may have written the worst, most depressing song about seeking forgiveness with “The Long & Winding Road”. Is this the worst Beatle song or is this THE WORST song ever? Is it worse than anything that hack-drunk-drugged up band, The Doors (Godfathers of Buffoon Rock), would have ever attempted? Do you agree? Or do you like The Doors?

SVE: I think Octopus’s Garden is pretty bad. I like the Beatles and the Doors. You’re coming across as rather harsh.

{Ed. Note – The Doors are the worst.}

AW: Do you see yourself now writing happier songs after getting the first 2 records out of your system? Do you ever drop everything on tour to find the nearest McDonald’s for a delicious Filet-o-Fish sandwich? Does Japan make delicious McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich? I bet they do. People live longer there because they eat fresh seafoods.  Mmm.

SVE: I can’t forsee what I write. And… No.

AW: Are you aware of Jeff Mangum?

SVE: Yes. I played with him for Chris Knox’s benefit. He’s amazing. Quite a presence and performer. To each his own. Never try to out do yourself or anyone else.

AW: Do you worry with a set of songs so emotionally honest that you’ll ever find someone who isn’t slightly afraid of you in a relationship for fears of not being able to enjoy pizza, tacos and other delicious fast foods like Tatoe Oles from Taco John?

SVE: No.

AW: If you’re seeking further observations derived from depression to write about would you ever consider Rockford, Illinois, to live in for a bit for creative inspiration? (We have a wonderful Subway restaurant tucked inside of a few Wal-Marts where I go to conduct writing experiments.) You’re a Jersey Girl- where do you stand on The Boss?

SVE: Living in TN and NJ sums it up for me. You can find anything anywhere. I am hoping to lock myself away from towns and cities and write my next record next summer. I love Bruce too.

AW: What do you think of Buffalo Wild Wings and the Gallagher brothers?

SVE: Oasis was ok. Never a huge fan… but they had some nasty pop hits for sure.

AW: You don’t like wings either, hmm. Naming the record, “epic”, did the thought of Liam or Noel ever cross your mind while saying the word, “epic”?  Try it with an accent.

SVE: Ha. No. It was a joke.

AW: Speaking of Noel Gallagher, wouldn’t you say Kanye West is alot like Noel Gallagher? He’s always saying the darndest things while ripping off influences and shredding our faces off with artistic awesomeness! Kanye is more of a scientist than an artist? What do you think?

SVE: Ha. No. I don’t think that Oasis was very collaborative, experimental, or open minded.

AW: I disagree 200%. Noel Gallagher trumps Kanye. 

Eternal questions time, two of them: 1) Bruce Springsteen vs. Billy Joel? Who wins a wrestling match for your love?

SVE: Bruce

AW: 2) Art or Science? Who wins period?

SVE: They’re the same.

AW: Cover songs & other stuff. Why doesn’t Jimmy Buffett come up more in conversations for cover song choices? Seems like many bands, musicians and songwriters are Buffett racists. Very sad.

SVE: Everything I’ve heard from Buffet is cheesy to me. My mom loves him though. Sad.

AW: Speaking of choice covers, would you ever consider doing a record of carefully planned covers, your reinterpretations of classic rock standards called: Sharon Van Etten Does Van Halen, V.1? (Make people believe there’s going to be a volume 2 and never follow through!)

SVE: The thought has crossed my mind…

AW: Anyone you want to work with next and in the future? I secretly dream of you and Justin Vernon doing a record together, your vocals together- has this ever come up? Will you marry him if you can? Seems like a smart, nice, midwestern boy.

SVE: That would be amazing. I did perform with him and Megafaun for Songs of the South and that should be released next year… Antony would be awesome. Feist would be really cool. I got to cover U2 with Junip – which was AMAZING.

AW: If you won’t marry Justin will you marry me and then according to the script you will use me for child, take child, divorce me and write a record about how f*cking awesome it was to destroy my life? Please? What an honor.

SVE: Wouldn’t that just make future interviews even more awkward?!

{Ed. Note – I doubt it. I am empty on the inside & can only be destroyed like a beer can on the outside.}

width=300AW: Thanks for turning this around. The distance between Japan and Rockford really got us off to a rough launch. Let’s steer this in and end it. Do you have an author pseudonym you’ve used to protect your day jobs (in Illinois, you need 2-4 jobs to pay all the bills so pseudonyms are required to stay sane)?

SVE: Sharon Van Halen. Seriously. I used to save my demos on garageband as that.

AW: Did you know you were always going to be a songwriter?

SVE: No. I originally thought i was going to be on Broadway.

AW:  Favorite 5 records you’ve listened to this year, no order necessary.

SVE: Lower Dens, S Carey, GAYNGS, Megafaun, Automelodi

AW: An artist we should be aware of you want to prop here?

SVE: Julianna Barwick

AW: Lastly, please tell our readers where they can find, buy more of your recorded output, merch, or not- you’re ending this thang.



{Thank you, Sharon. I hope you find the joy in crazy bread and potato oles upon your return to the States. Until next time, or never. I don’t get paid for this shit, but I do dig your records.}


Sharon Van Etten | InterviewAndy Whorehall

4 comments on "Sharon Van Etten | Interview"

  1. I guess she's not as angry as you thought she was Andy.

    • I know, bummer. I listened to “epic” again after this interview and discovered warmth & happiness throughout. I fell asleep with it playing and dreamt of palm trees, blue waters and love gone right whilst the children played in the sand. However, “Don’t do it” came on the 4th or 5th time looping in my sleep & what was a happy dream turned into a nightmare. I found my wife on the beach doing it with Hank Azaria’s character from “Along Came Polly.” I thought of Ben Stiller and woke up. I laughed, “epic” really had me fooled!

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