BEAUTIFUL HEARTACHE Sharon van Etten

There’s
a bare-bones power to the indie chanteuse’s music. Ask her fans Damon &
Naomi if you don’t believe us.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

She stands alone at the mic, clutching a bright red guitar
that seems too big for her. Dressed in a sensible cardigan and khaki pants, she
is small and sharply drawn, all cheekbones, flashing eyes and little spikes of
pixie hair falling forward over her eyes. She looks like a girl you might share
a cubicle with, quick, bright, young and eager to be friendly. And yet, when
she looks sideways, lifts her chin and lets loose with the crystalline croon of
“Much More Than This,” the girl next door disappears, and Sharon Van Etten
joins a long line of mournful songwriters, unearthly, tragic and cutting right
to the heart of the world’s saddest love stories.

 

This is the last day of January, a bitter cold night in Cambridge, and Van Etten
is opening for Damon & Naomi, the local slo-core progenitors who are
premiering their tour video, Song to the Siren and rekindling their collaboration with Ghost’s Michio Kurihara. Damon &
Naomi have been vocal supporters of Van Etten’s debut album Because I Was In Love, ever since their
manager Ben Goldberg from BaDaBing Records made the introduction. (Van Etten’s
day job is managing public relations for BaDaBing.)  

 

Krukowski recalls, “We
were in the BaDaBing office, and Ben Goldberg nudged Sharon. ‘Give them your record,’ he said. Sharon demurred, but Ben
instructed her like the good manager he is. 
‘This is what you do!’, he told her. So as we were leaving a couple
hours later, Sharon
shyly handed us the CDR she had burned for us at Ben’s insistence. A day or two
later I put it on at home, and was floored. Nothing in her attitude prepared me
for that voice, those songs.”

 

Krukowski was
taken with the bare-bones power of Van Etten’s songs, as well as arrangements
that were spare but never austere. He said, “I like the way the lyrics seem
more like prose than poetry, but then she twists them around her melodies until
the poetry emerges. I also love the way she sings harmony vocals to her own
lead line — like she’s her own twin sister.”

 

To him, her record
sounded more like a long-lost folk reissue than the work of a nice girl from New Jersey. “Greg Weeks
did an amazing job of producing this record in a way that it could have been
made at any time in the last 30, 40 years — Sharon is in a long line of folk chanteuses.”

 

Krukowski included
Van Etten’s record on his top ten for 2009, appearing both here and at Pitchfork,
and he and his partner Naomi Yang began to talk about playing together with Van
Etten at some point. The calendars didn’t line up until late in January 2010,
for a set of back-to-back New York and Cambridge shows
celebrating the new documentary.

 

“These are special
shows for me and Naomi,” says Krukowski. “We are screening Naomi’s tour diary
film from 2001, Song to the Siren, before the performances, and then we are
playing as a trio with Michio Kurihara, which we haven’t had the chance to do
in some time. In the film, you see some of the musicians we asked to share
bills with us in the past — the Clientele, Richard Youngs — and we wanted
someone to open these shows, whom we would have been happy to have in the movie
as well.”

 

***

 

Van Etten is
visibly nervous on stage at the Brattle Theater, looking down and away from the
audience and sipping tea from a paper cup in between songs, but gaining
confidence as she goes on. She dedicates “Keep” to her father, saying that it’s
his favorite song, even though her parents both wish she wasn’t always singing
such sad ones, and then admits that she’s thrilled and a little freaked out to
be opening for Damon & Naomi, after admiring them for so long. For
“Tornado,” she brings up guitarist Jeffrey Kish up on stage to accompany her,
and with him, she seems to relax into the music for the first time, a lovely
dense mesh of her guitar and his – and her breathily pure soprano.

 

It’s a long way
from Van Etten’s beginnings as a musician, singing in choirs and playing every
instrument she could get her hands on at her New Jersey elementary and high schools. She
began writing songs and picking them out on borrowed guitars – one her brother
would occasionally leave unattended and another that had belonged to an uncle –
early on. A detour to Tennessee for college (Middle Tennessee
State) didn’t work out
the way she’d planned. She ended up dropping out of school after only a year. Yet
this was also the time when she writing material, much of it around the subject
of a difficult, unsupportive relationship.

 

Van Etten had
become involved with another musician, an emo-punk, who continually undermined
her confidence. “My boyfriend would tell me that I needed to be a
better writer before I started playing out in front of people,” she remembers. “Which
is why I never really played out when I was in Tennessee.”

 

Her song “Much More than That” with its lyric “Please don’t
take me lightly” and its mournful promise to “be a better writer” deals with
this relationship directly. A more metaphorical take can be heard in “Tornado,”
which compares love to the force of a cyclone. Van Etten says that she
gravitates towards conversational language – and usually shies away from
obvious poetics and similes. “‘Tornado’ was my one attempt at metaphor,” she
admits. “That kind of thing doesn’t come naturally to me. But I was driving
through Texas
with my friend and we just had a conversation about how the last relationships
we both were in were really tumultuous, like a whirlwind, and we came up with
some imagery together about relationships being like tornados.”

 

Van Etten eventually moved back to the East Coast, living
with her parents, hitting the open mic circuit and laying down the demos that
eventually made up Because I Was in Love… A penpal who lived in London invited her for a
visit and offered to set up a few shows while she was there. Van Etten met Meg
Baird and Greg Weeks during this trip. Baird offered her an opening slot on the
rest of her European tour, and Weeks expressed interest in recording Van Etten
for his Language of Stone imprint.   

 

Weeks ended up producing Because
I Was In Lo
ve, showcasing Van Etten’s voice and songs in spare, evocative
arrangements (and adding one lead guitar line to “It’s Not Like”).  Yet while the end result sounds 100% Van
Etten, the songwriter says that Weeks helped her shape her songs in subtle ways.
“There were a couple of songs where he helped me, where he found a couple of
notes that sounded weird and we talked about how to do it differently,” she
said. “He would always help me come up with something a little better.”  

 

Van Etten has been touring hard since the album came out
late last spring on Language of Stone, and says she has not yet hard much time
to demo new material – but that she’s got a lot of ideas percolating. For one
thing, there are likely to be more people involved in future Sharon Van Etten
recordings. She’s already working with another singer, Cat Martino, and she has
plans to begin writing second guitar parts for some of her songs, so that she
can play live with a band.   And, looking
ahead, she says she’d like to try a more country sound, something that you can
hear live in the little trills and slides that embellish some of her songs. “I’m
thinking more old school country,” she says. “I have some older songs that I
wrote when I was still in Tennessee
with old-time harmonies and pedal steel. I’d like to try something like that.”

 

But for now, Van Etten is enjoying a modest bump of success,
with appreciative reviews for her first album, opening slots for artists she
respects and a real interest in whatever she might decide to do next. “I feel
lucky. Especially for a first release, especially since I decided to keep it
minimal and solo, to get the response that I have been getting, is really
great,” she says. “I’ve met a lot of nice people and I feel really blessed. I
don’t know what I did get to where I’m at right now, but I’m not going to
complain about it. ”    

 

[Photo Credit: Katii Durrell; view more of her images at her Flickr page or contact her via email at katii.durrell@gmail.com]

 

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