Success isn’t always measured by four-star record reviews or packed South by Southwest showcases. For up-and-coming Brooklyn indie chanteuse Sharon Van Etten, something as simple as being singled out on the streets of New York can make her feel like she’s started to arrive.
“It’s a very new thing for me to try and get a handle on,” the easygoing singer says of her growing profile, speaking on a cellphone from a Maryland highway. “I got recognized on the train a while ago, and I just started blushing. Like, ”˜How does this person even know who I am?’ It was really cute, how they came up going, ”˜Um, are you Sharon?’ I was like, ”˜Yeah,’ thinking that it was someone I didn’t recognize. But they said, ”˜I really like your last record,’ which totally made my day, even though I also got super embarrassed.”
Random strangers aren’t the only ones who’ve discovered the brilliance of Van Etten’s two releases to date, 2009’s Because I Was in Love, and last year’s follow-up, Epic. The albums cast the New Jersey–raised singer as an artist who’s determined to evolve. Where Because I Was in Love was all subdued guitar and hushed vocals, Epic has her boldly rebranding herself, the songs shooting off in new, often mesmerizing directions. Standouts include the spine-chilling “Save Yourself”, which works a smoky soft-country vibe, complete with lilting pedal steel, and “Love More”, which lands in classic art-rock territory thanks to droning Velvets-issue harmonium.
Self-deprecating as she is, Van Etten will cautiously allow that Epic is a leap forward artistically. To that, she credits a spike in her self-confidence.
“I’m proud of my first record, but it was such a downer,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to show people that I could go beyond that and do something different. It was still really cathartic, but in a different way.”
The soul-cleansing that she speaks of relates to a part of her personal story that’s already been revisited enough to make one wonder when people will drop the subject. Van Etten moved to Nashville after graduating, eventually hooking up with a guy who was, by all accounts, as controlling as he was emotionally abusive. She wrote songs hoping to carve out a career as a performer, and he continually told her that they weren’t good enough for anyone to hear. The relationship gradually became poisonous.
It was when Van Etten finally extricated herself and returned to New York that she began to find fans in the likes of TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone. Eventually, she was able to start making sense of it all, her songwriting becoming an invaluable form of therapy. Today, it’s a given that people are going to read all sorts of things into numbers like the gorgeous “A Crime”, on which she sings, “To say the things I want to say to you would be a crime/To admit I’m still in love with you after all this time.”
Van Etten is okay with that. After all, it’s one of the reasons she’s starting to find herself singled out on the streets of New York.
“It’s a big part of who I am, and the reason that I write,” she says of her time in Tennessee. “Anything that I’m going through, or have gone through, I’ve probably written about. It means a lot for me to be transparent, hopefully because I can maybe help other people, and I’m not going to do that if I’m not being upfront. Ultimately, though, I can’t believe that I’m even doing this for a living. Sometimes I think, ”˜Wow—how in the hell is this even happening?’ ”