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Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten

Interviewed by
Danielle Street
Thursday 5th March, 2015 1:21PM

Last year Brooklyn-based musician Sharon Van Etten unveiled her incredible fourth album Are We There, a record that was punctuated by the goose-bump inducing single 'Your Love Is Killing Me'. The track, in which Van Etten lyrically wears her heart on her sleeve, describes a time in her life when she fell down the rabbithole of an ultimately destructive relationship while trying to establish her musical career. As a whole, the beautifully constructed and dark record marks a high point in a successful struggle for the New Jersey native, who has worked extremely hard to get where she is.

The 34-year-old initially started writing music on the sly while working in hospitality and living with a partner who was verbally unsupportive of her passion. After six year she left the abusive relationship and moved back home, where she plucked up the nerve to pursue a full-time music career. She eventually returned to Brooklyn and hustled her music, gaining the encouragement of Kyp Malone (TV On The Radio), and working up to releasing her debut album Because I Was In Love in 2009,  a release that gained positive critical attention and set her on her current path. With her impending visit to New Zealand next week, UnderTheRadar caught up with Sharon to talk about her new album, horoscopes, healthy cooking and unhealthy relationships...

Hi Sharon, how are you?

I’m good, how are you doing?

I’m good, the weather here is pretty warm here.

Oh, lucky! It’s disgusting here today.

Are you at home in New York at the moment?

Yeah, it’s pretty bad.


It was raining earlier, then sleeting, then freezing rain, and then snowing. And it will probably turn into ice overnight.

What do you do on days like that, do you hibernate and write?

Oh I am cooking chicken.

I was just looking through your Tumblr page and you seem to be quite the chef…

I’m learning. I'm learning how to get in the habit of cooking. I’m not great but I like learning how to do things.

It’s something new that you’ve taken onboard?

Well, growing up I was more into baking, but now that I’m an adult and can’t eat cake for every meal of the day I’m trying to learn how to cook healthier and wholesome things.

I like your Tumblr page, it’s nice to have that insight into a musician’s life. It’s a nice way of feeling connected…

Oh thanks, yeah it’s fun to do. I always have to figure out what I’m going to put up for the day. I try to do something once a day.

I was also reading something from an interview with you last year, and you talked a bit about your interest in horoscopes… so do you read your horoscope everyday as well?

Haha, I don’t read it every day but I check in to see if anything has been vaguely accurate. My little sister got me into it, and it’s the one way we connect because we are kind of opposites, so we laugh at what it usually says about us. But I actually haven’t been keeping up with it lately, it’s probably been a few months since I’ve looked, that’s unlike me.

You’re a pisces right? You’ve got your birthday coming up soon…

Yeah! I think I'm going to have in Australia when I’m there. Right before I head over to New Zealand.

Do you align yourself with many of the attributes of a pisces?

Yes, I think it’s accurate [laughs]. I’m kind of spacey, like my head is in the clouds, I’ve always been a daydreamer. I’ve always been into some kind of creative form and like I’m a very emotional person. I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert, and more of a listener than a talker.

It sounds like your creativity started when you were younger, you grew up in a musical environment and sang in the choir. When did you realise music was something you wanted to take seriously?

Not until my adult life really. I never thought it could be a career, basically. I always had fun doing it, but I thought I should probably have a back up plan, my parents kind of ingrained that in me as a child, which is what a parent should do. So it wasn’t until my early 20s when I thought “I should just try this”.

And you worked as a music publicist for Ba Da Bing for awhile, what did being on that side of the coin teach you about the industry. What did you take away from that experience?

I was so lucky that I got to work at Ba Da Bing. I reconnected with an old friend of mine who was the assistant to Ben Goldberg [label founder], and they hired me as an intern to start. I was working at a wine store at the time, not really knowing much about the scene in New York or what went into putting out a record, I was pretty green to say the least. I excited to learn from a smaller label point-of-view, it was pretty much being run out of Ben’s apartment and we were sitting in his living room working together on things like The Dead C reissues, records that people don’t put out unless they are really passionate about it, you know, because you’ve got to work really hard to put out something, it’s just hard to get people to respond to it, so you have to care about it. And I was very lucky to see it from that side, because that doesn’t happen with every label.

So do you think it set you in good stead as a musician to align yourselves with labels who do care?

Yeah, I’ve been lucky that everyone that I’ve worked with I’ve been friends with, and we have grown a lot together. And I know it sounds kind of dreamy and overly optimistic but I really lucked out.

Your new album Are We There is just so striking and I wanted to ask you about the single ‘Your Love Is Killing Me’, the lyrics are so incredibly vivid. Can you tell me a little bit about what that song is about?

Well, I started writing that song when I was going through a hard time in my relationship, and my career was being challenged because of how difficult it was to maintain a healthy relationship while touring all the time. I didn’t realise it then, but I was very frustrated about not knowing how to deal with this really unhealthy world I was living in, and how to have my career plus be a good partner. I was in a state of limbo. And I started writing it before I went on tour on March-April 2013 with my drummer in support of Nick Cave, and we started developing that song on that tour. It might be obvious, but Nick Cave was a huge influence on that song during the writing process.

Because it’s so close to your heart, do you find it difficult to perform live?

Yes, absolutely. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ve definitely had shows where I’ll cry during the song, and I’ll be absolutely shaken. I’m usually pretty strong but these are real things that happened to me, and I don’t really sugarcoat that. If I didn’t feel the songs I probably wouldn’t perform them but it can get pretty emotional sometimes and I need a break.

The video for the song, which follows this captivating Geena Davis-like woman, has such a simple yet emotive concept. Where did that come from?

Sean Durkin, who directed the video, he and I have been trying to work together for years now but our schedules have been so insane that it didn’t work out. But we became friends over the years because we are fans of each other and we kept checking in. And he heard that song, and from the beginning he was like “that’s the song I want to do something for”. His style is so dark naturally he gravitated towards it. And when we finally got to meet we talked about that song and what it meant, and I basically told him what I told you about the song, and the part which I didn’t really talk about is that when you are in an unhealthy relationship it’s still real and it’s still beautiful and it’s still a struggle, and just because it’s unhealthy doesn't mean that it was wrong or that you shouldn’t have tried. The struggle is maintaining that balance, so learning when to let go and when it’s not good for you anymore. So, I trusted him from there, knowing that he understood the song. And then he told me that he met this actress Carla Juri, who was just in a movie called Wetlands, which is a really incredible film. Her facial expressions just say so much. I feel that sometimes there is an emotion and you can’t put a story to it, and we weren’t going to try and create a story around this song, but we wanted to evoke an emotion. And Sean and Carla just took it and ran away with it.

I think it was very successful in that goal of creating emotion, it’s so well done. And in other projects you recently previewed new single ‘I Don’t To Let You Down’ on Ellen recently, are you an Ellen fan?

Yes! I think she is hilarious and beautiful and a really kind person. I think she’s a positive role model for people everywhere, specifically women, but anyone.

Is the song from an upcoming release?

Well, we are doing a 7-inch, and we are also working on an EP and trying to get that out but I don’t know when yet. It actually hasn’t been announced yet, but hey.

Watch the incredible video for 'Your Love Is Killing Me'...

Sharon Van Etten is playing four New Zealand shows starting with a performance on Thursday 12th March at Kings Arms Tavern in Auckland, head over here for full dates, details and to buy tickets.

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