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Interview: Sharon Van Etten Talks Therapy, Family and Comedy

Interview: Sharon Van Etten Talks Therapy, Family and Comedy

Interview by Jerri-Rae Leef / Monday 20th May, 2019 2:48PM

Brooklyn songwriter and actor Sharon Van Etten spoke with Jerri-Rae Leef ahead of her upcoming return to Aotearoa this June. She's playing in Auckland with full band this June, touring her rapturously received first album in five years Remind Me Tomorrow, a stunning ten song collection sure to dominate 2019's end of year lists. The multi-talented artist stayed busy in the downtime between releases – she became a mom in 2017, performed on David Lynch's mind-bending TV event Twin Peaks: The Return, guest-starred in mystery drama series The OA, wrote a score for Katherine Dieckmann’s film Strange Weather, and provided music for Tig Notaro’s show Tig. Read Sharon Van Etten's conversation with Leef below, exploring the relationship between music and therapy (Van Etten is studying to become a mental health counsellor), balancing family life with touring, and what we can look forward to with her headline event in June...

Undertheradar proudly presents...

Sharon Van Etten with full band
Wednesday 5th June - The Powerstation, Auckland (sold out)

Jerri-Rae Leef: It is such an absolute pleasure to meet you, Sharon! I thought I’d start with songwriting, because you have always had this exceptional ability to articulate such emotional depth & vulnerability that connects with people through your music. And that touches on this concept of song writing as therapy, which I’ve heard you speak about before, and something that I’m really interested in. Can you speak a bit to your relationship with writing & creating as therapy?

Sharon Van Etten: Yeah, when I first started writing I didn’t realise that it was therapeutic. I was a really shut off kid, really introverted, and my mum who was a teacher picked up on that. In high school she gave me note a book that was a journal. It wasn’t until later in high school when I started to write songs, that I realised I was using the words from my journal to write music. As I’ve gotten older and realised the power of it, I realised whenever I was going through a really hard time I would sit and play, rather than sit and write after a while. So I’ve kind of used it as my form of therapy, whenever I’m going through a hard time, I work out my feelings in words before I’m able to communicate them to people.

How do you push through writing ruts and those kinds of frustrations that come with creating?

Well one of the exercises I use when I’m not making something new from scratch is, I just write whenever I write. When I’m having a moment I just let myself do that for a long time not trying to finish anything and being ok with putting unfinished ideas in a folder, so that when I’m having days where I’m not feeling inspired or feeling drawn to the guitar I’ll go to a folder of unfinished things to see if there’s new light shed on an idea that hasn’t developed yet. That’s usually a good starting point because sometimes it leads to another song. Sometimes I discover something I was going through because I have hindsight. I think its good on a personal and a writing level.

I’ve been reading about your counselling studies – how is it going? Is that something you always wanted to do?

Yeah, I think as I learned about why songwriting is healing for me and also meeting fans that have found my songs to be healing for them, I wanted to understand why that is. Why people connect so deeply to music but then, why sometimes it’s so hard to communicate your own emotions. Sometimes a song can speak more than you ever could about what you’re going through. But I’m in the very early stages, I never even finished my undergrad year at school, so I have a very long-term goal. My hope is that by age 50 I can be certified but right now I’m a sophomore so I’m in my second year, and with my current schedule I won’t be able to go back until fall next year, so… long term goals.

Do you find that it influences or shapes your writing at all?

I think one of the main interests from again my very early stages of study, is about how important your relationship with the past is. There are certain styles of therapy or certain methods where they say that it’s better not to think about your past at all, and you should focus on the present. There’s some that are goal oriented so you think mostly ahead, you live in the now but you have a goal to work towards, but then a lot of therapy is solely based on the past because that makes you who you are today so you can understand where you are. I don’t know which way is right, but it helped me look at a song from all different perspectives you know; who am I talking about, and at what point in my life? Which Sharon is it?

Talk to me about stand up comedy! Have I read this correctly? Is this a thing? Is this happening?!

[laughs] I’ve only done standup once and it was by the encouragement of my babysitter, Bridgette. In LA when I was there for 6 months at the top of last year, I was making the record and I was finishing filming The OA for season 2 and I had a lot more down time than I thought I would. I bonded super hard with my babysitter who is really, really funny. She and I even did an improv class together at Groundlings in LA, which was fun. I was in the middle of recording my record and she asked if I would be part of this variety show she was putting on. At the time I was so tired of hearing my music because I was in it. And I was like, I want to help you out and I want to perform but I don’t think I should play music. So I had this idea of putting together a monologue, and she encouraged me to do it. I did this 15 minute sketch, but I’m by no means a comedian! I tried it once and everyone’s like "that was amazing," but no, it was brutal! I think what I realised is that I like stand-up comedy, but I think what I liked more was the collaboration and improv and the writing aspect. I’m not so great at delivery, that’s not my forte for sure!

That is super cool. I’d definitely come see something you put on! Speaking of comedy, I understand you share a studio with Michael Cera?

Well we shared a studio for about 3 years in Brooklyn, but with our schedules we’d go every other day so I wouldn’t really see him that much. I had a piano and drum kit and guitars, and he had a couple of synths. He was psyched to just rock out on drums actually, so that was really cool. We collaborated once on a song that he wrote for a film and then, yeah whenever he got a new toy he’d just be like feel free to play around or whatever. He was very open.

Do you take your family on tour with you? How are finding balancing everything? Family, study, touring… interviews!

Oh you know, I think I’m constantly going to be figuring it out. My family came for about a week and a half of the US run, and it was fun but it also really hard because when my son would see me in different roles, he would get confused. I would feel guilty because I couldn’t focus on him completely. But it was a good lesson to learn. What I would need to make that better and how is he going to enjoy himself the most. He’s only 2 right now, so for the last European run I thought it was better, with the time change and everything, that the thing he needed most was some stability. His dad stayed him with him while I was on the road. He went to daycare every day and hung with friends and got to see his dad at the beginning and end of every day, you know just all these things. Before I had a kid a never thought about a routine, you know, tour is my only routine, so it’s going to be a mix and match along the way. Some tours are more brutal than others.

What influences you creatively, other than music?

I would say my relationships with people, I just feel like learning how to write outside of my own experience is something I don’t utilise enough, because I always write from such a personal place, but the natural step for me is hearing other peoples stories and relating to it on my own level, but I just don’t do that a lot in writing, I do that a lot in relationships. But as I’m trying to challenge myself and write outside of myself, then I look to the people that I know.

I’m extremely excited, and I know a whole lot of other people that are too, about you coming to NZ in June. What can we expect from your show?

Well, I’m really excited to come back! The last time I was there I brought my singer and it was super stripped down, but because it was just the two of us we got see NZ and that was really fun. But this time around I’m bringing my whole entire band so, we’ll be playing the full new record and it’ll be really fun to flesh out these songs live. They are just a great group of players, so I’ll be switching around playing guitar and playing keys and then I have two amazing multi-instrumentalists and a bass player and drummer and yeah, a real live band!


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