When Sharon Van Etten carefully suggests that she’s on a weird journey that often makes little sense to her, she’s not talking about the trip from Boston to New York City. On a completely literal level, that’s exactly where she is when the Georgia Straight reaches her on her cellphone in a tour van. But as for the bigger journey she’s on, consider that she’s just come from a sold-out show in Beantown, and is now headed home for a three-night stand in NYC that will have her playing both the legendary Bowery Ballroom and the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
That she’s in demand these days is where the sense of strangeness comes in. Those who’ve been following Van Etten since the 2009 release of her fragile yet somehow self-assured debut, Because I Was in Love, have long predicted big things for her. The proudly New Jersey–raised artist seems, on the other hand, amazed that she’s got to where she is today.
“I started just writing stuff for myself,” Van Etten says with a laugh. “Then I started playing open mikes just for fun. And it’s been a 10-year-journey of going from open mikes to where I am now. I only really ever wrote songs for myself, so the fact that I’m able to live and work, and help other people live, because of these songs that I wrote for myself is really quite crazy to me.”
As Van Etten is evidently well aware, her songs have indeed resonated with others on a level deeper than mix-tape-worthy hooks. Her adventurous latest, Are We There, continues to establish her as a keen observer of the human condition, the songs guaranteed to resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves racked by self-doubt and loathing, and yet somehow made it through to a better place. Mixing dream-hazed guitars with reverbed drums and church-service organs, the devastating “Your Love Is Killing Me” has her singing such lines as “We’ve been through better days, and you’ve tasted all my pain.” Powerful, meanwhile, doesn’t begin to describe “Afraid of Nothing” lyrics like “You told me the day that you show me your face/We’d be in trouble for a long time.”
Are We There finds Van Etten continuing to grow as an artist, as seen in the fact that she decided to take the production reins herself.
“I feel like every record has been me wanting to try something a little different,” she says. “The first record, I had somebody holding my hand to help me record the songs properly outside of the internal mike on my laptop. That was step number one. Step number two was bringing a couple of my friends into the studio to help me have a little bit of a band. And it’s gone on from there.”
As part of that journey, connections were made, and high-profile artists signed up for the Van Etten fan club, including the National’s Aaron Dessner, who produced 2012’s Tramp, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who has covered the singer’s “Love More” in concert. In-studio collaborators have included Beirut’s Zach Condon, as well as members of Shearwater, the Walkmen, and Wye Oak.
“What I’ve taken away from everyone that I’ve worked with is ‘You know what? I want to try to do this myself,’ ” Van Etten says. “I’ve had people holding my hand for so long that I felt, ‘I can do this.’ ”
And perhaps more to the point, that she can do it while having fun. Van Etten reveals that a loving and complicated relationship coloured much of Are We There, which explains why the record sometimes seems dark, but is never depressing. She adds that she’s in a nice place today, and not just because of things like three-night stands in New York.
For some minor proof of that, look at what happens after the winsome final track, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”, containing the lines “I washed your dishes then I shit in your bathroom,” that says more about the reality of relationships than a million songs about flowers and sweet nothings. The song ends with her singing, mantralike, “Every time the sun comes up I’m in trouble,” this eventually driven home by a guttural voice that announces “Yes she is.” But keep listening, and you’ll hear Van Etten crooning, “Maybe something will change,” then laughing and saying, “Sorry—my headphones fell off,” the light suddenly cutting through the darkness.
“I tend to write whenever I am going through something that’s super intense,” she says. “Often I don’t even know what I’m writing about at the time. I’m just hitting Record and then letting my mind wander after I’ve had a few glasses of wine to exorcise the demons. I wrote this record over the course of two years while touring the album Tramp, being on the road sometimes, and being at home sometimes, in this constant state of transition. I had no idea what I was writing about, but now I realize it caught a lot of different emotions.
“Some of it is me being sad and lonely on the road,” she says. “Some of it is me being sad and lonely at home, and missing the road. And then there are moments of real clarity where I had a really amazing time with my lover, the two of us reconnecting after me being gone for so long. And then times when my career and work tore us apart. So there were a lot of emotions, but I feel like the album is really human and hopefully captures all those different human emotions—happy, sad, dark, contemplative, and furious. And also not afraid to make fun of myself.”
Sharon Van Etten plays the Rickshaw Theatre on Sunday (July 6).