Sharon Van Etten explores the harmonies in her head

A youth spent singing madrigals and other choral music shaped Sharon Van Etten’s layered approach to songs

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      There’s one thing you need to know about Sharon Van Etten, and we have this straight from the horse’s mouth: she might live in Brooklyn, but she’s not from Brooklyn.

      “I’m from New Jersey,” she stresses, on the line from her home. “I know that Brooklyn is really cool and everything, but I never want to be mistaken for someone from New York.”

      Okay, that’s good to know. And now that the 29-year-old singer-songwriter has successfully drawn a line between her suburban roots and her rising-star status in the capital of cool, it’s possible to read the fine print on her just-released CD, epic, as more than just another hipster shout-out to a band that used to be terminally passé.

      “Dedicated to Fleetwood Mac. You changed my world,” it says, and Van Etten means every word.

      “Outside of choir, they were the first band that had harmonies and melodies that really stuck out for me,” she recalls. “So it was cool to listen to them, comparatively.”

      Van Etten doesn’t discriminate: she enjoys the earlier, Peter Green–led version of her favourite band just as much as the later, poppier crew fronted by Stevie Nicks. On first hearing, however, neither seems to have made a massive impact on epic, although Van Etten’s teen years, which she spent singing madrigals and other forms of choral music, come through loud and clear.

      “Every time I hear a melody I just hear harmonies in my head, because of choir,” she explains. “Sometimes I think it’s kind of a curse, because I can hear how the harmonies could just keep on going and going. Maybe I’ll just slowly eliminate band members and only have a choir on-stage. I’m sure they’d really love that!”

      For now, the singer-guitarist will just have to make do with a microphone, a looping pedal, and her two bandmates, bassist Doug Keith and drummer Ben Lord. “They’re best friends, so they have a really awesome connection as a rhythm section,” she notes. “And I usually bring my friend Cat Martino, but she was asked to be a backup singer for Sufjan Stevens. Which is really annoying, but I totally get it. So this tour is going to be bare-bones, which I’m kind of excited about, because I think the songs stand on their own really well.”

      The live setting might, in fact, reveal extra layers of depth in Van Etten’s songs—not sonically, but in terms of their content. It’s so easy to get lost in epic’s cloud-castle arrangements that it’s possible to overlook the naked emotion implicit in, say, “Don’t Do It”, which could well be aimed at a suicidal friend.

      “There are a lot of messages in that song,” Van Etten explains. “Suicide is definitely one of them and drugs, definitely, is another one. It’s probably about four different people, just kind of put into one. And it’s also about people, like friends, giving up in general—giving up on their lives or their relationships or their career.

      “It sounds kind of cheesy,” she continues, “but I think people just need hope. Through everything that you go through, you can become better because of it. That’s my main message.”

      Or, as a certain pop-rock quintet said way back in 1977, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”

      Sharon Van Etten opens for Junip at Venue next Thursday (November 11).