Zebulon.  Brooklyn, NY.
Interview: James Passarelli

Have you ever been driving home from work or school during rush hour traffic, flipping through ten or fifteen obnoxious car commercials, finally finding solace in the tender caress of your local classical station?  Nothing hits the spot quite like a soft piano solo, and those beautiful string sections are the perfect ally against this month’s MONSTER 0% APR FINANCE DEAL.  But there’s something even more soothing than this, something no instrument can reproduce – the palliative sound of a female folksinger’s voice.  And they don’t get much more soothing than Sharon Van Etten.  The New Jersey-born twenty-nine year old has just one album under her belt, and its simple acoustic style is almost as modest as its creator.  Because I Was in Love features little more than Van Etten’s voice and her soft guitar strings, but her follow-up promises to leave that simplicity in the dust.  Epic, due out October 5th on Ba Da Bing! Records, was recorded with full band and backing vocals.  A few days before the Pitchfork Festival, Van Etten played a free gig at Brooklyn’s famous Zebulon.  She talked with IF’s James Passarelli beforehand.

Inflatable Ferret: You’re originally from New Jersey, and then you spent some time elsewhere.

Sharon Van Etten: Yeah, after high school I moved to Tennessee, and then I moved back to New Jersey, and now Brooklyn.

IF: Where did your love of music come from?  Were your parents big into music?

SVE: Yeah, my dad was really big into vinyl, so he always played me Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Jethro Tull, The Kinks, all that kind of stuff.  And my mom was really into folk music.  She also took me to Broadway shows and stuff, and my dad would take me to big arena concerts.

IF: What were some of your favorite musicals?

SVE: I really liked Westside Story and Fiddler on the Roof and Peter Pan.

IF: For your first album, Because I Was in Love, how did the writing process go?  Lyrics then music, or together, or what?

SVE: It was a lot of stream-of-conscious writing.  I had melodies and everything, and I guess the lyrics came later.

IF: Would you just think of them and remember, or did you have a notebook all the time or something like that?

SVE: I had a notebook, I had a hand-held recorder, I had a laptop that I used the internal mic on, so I had many different things that I had to filter together.

IF: One of the great things about the record is that it’s so simple.  Was that something you knew going into the recording process, or was that more of a production choice?

Van Etten at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival

SVE: It was kind of both, because, you know, all the songs I wrote for just voice and guitar.  And then when I went into the studio I wanted to keep it simple, because I’d never had a band or anything.  So, I didn’t want to create something and then know I couldn’t reproduce it live.  But by accident, when I recorded the record, I forgot to tune my guitar – it’s only in tune with itself.  So, when we tried to add stuff over it just for fun, we couldn’t figure out what it was tuned to, because it wasn’t ever a whole step or anything.  It was always, like F sharp and a quarter, or something.  So, we couldn’t really play much on it anyway, so that kind of made us stick to our rule of keeping it simple.  But we wanted to do that anyway.

IF: You talked about your parents, and you’ve also cited Diane Cluck and Meg Baird as influences.  Who are your other main writing influences?

SVE: Well, it’s constantly changing, but lately She Keeps Bees – who are local band that I love.  Scary Mansion, who is probably the first singer-songwriter out of Brooklyn to start a band.  And it was kind of jarring at first, because she’s always so soft that when she formed the band it made me think, “Oh yeah, I want to rock out too.”…um…I’ve been really liking Tiny Vipers – loved her last record.  Also, Lower Dens.  I don’t know, that’s what I’ve been listening to lately.

IF: It feels like there’s a kind of camaraderie between a lot of Brooklyn bands.  Besides those bands, are there a lot of artists with whom you’ve kept in contact?

SVE: Yeah, besides those ones, Rain Machine has been really supportive, and Matt Pond has been really supportive…Ariel East, Michael Leviton, Shilpa Ray, there have been so many people who have been really supportive.  And we try to do shows together when we can, but lately our schedules have been so busy that we’re never in the same city at the same time.

IF: You did play at that benefit for Chris Knox, though.

SVE: Yeah.

IF: How did that go?

SVE: Really great.  We raised over $40,000 for him.  And my friend made t-shirts, and we sold a lot of those.  I got to meet Jeff Magnum and Claudia Gonson.  Everyone was great – Kyp [Malone] played, and The Clean played.

IF: Yeah, what’d you think of The Clean?

SVE: Great!  So good – I love New Zealand noise stuff so much.  And the band Coasting – they’re actually from here.  And it went really well – everyone was really happy.

IF: Because I saw the tickets were $75, and they sold out so fast.

SVE: Yeah, we were really struggling, because we were like, “Well, it is a benefit – we want to make a lot of money for this guy.”  So, everyone agreed it was a fair price – I mean, for that bill?  Yo La Tengo?  It was amazing.

IF: And you’re also playing at the Pitchfork festival coming up.  And I’ve talked to friends about this – whatever you think about Pitchfork as a blog is fine, but you can’t deny that their lineups are always stellar.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a bad artist on their lineup.

SVE: I’m pretty nervous.  I’m the first artist on the first day, so it’s a little nerve-racking.  But it should be fun, and there are a lot of bands I want to see.

IF: Touring-wise, have you gotten around the West Coast a lot or the Midwest?

SVE: I haven’t played the West Coast in a really long time.  I’ve been through the Midwest a couple times.  I’ve been mostly doing East Coast lately, and this is my favorite place to play.  This is the first place to ever ask me back in New York.

IF: Really?  I’ve seen a few shows here, and it’s always a good time.

SVE: Yeah, this place is my favorite, and number two is Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia.

IF: They’re playing this movie The Builder tonight before your set.  And what’s the deal with that?  They used your songs for the soundtrack?

SVE: I wrote a song that they’re using for the film.

IF: Just that song?

SVE: Mhm.  Bon Iver, I think, did most of the soundtrack.  And I haven’t even seen it in its entirety yet.  I felt bad, because they sent me the DVD, but it skipped, so I couldn’t watch it.  It’s like, “I’m an asshole!”

IF: Well, there’s nothing you could do about that.

SVE: Yeah, I tried, I tried.

IF: Alright, I’m going to put you on the spot.  But, who are your three favorite old-time artists.

SVE: Neil Young, Doc Watson, and Loretta Lynn.

IF: Wow, well played.  Yeah, I’m hoping to see Doc at the Newport Folk Festival this year.

SVE: Oh, cool.  I got to see him play with Roger McGuinn.  Roger McGuinn was kind of cheesy, but you gotta love The Byrds.

IF: Of course.  And I do have to confess, there’s one down side to your music that I noticed on the subway the other day is that you can’t really listen to it all the time.

SVE: [laughs] I know, I know.  It’s kind of a downer record.

IF: Well, it’s not even that it’s a downer, it’s just soft.  And I kind of wish I could turn it up louder.

SVE: Well, that’s what this is the beginning of.  The new record I just finished is full-band.  And this is my first time playing with a band tonight – well, live.  I mean, Megafaun backed me up live once, but this is my first time with, like, a drummer and a bass player.  Just to see if I can reproduce the songs I wrote on this – it’s kind of the opposite of my last record.

IF: And when does that come out?

SVE: October 5th

IF: Great.  I’ll be sure to get it.


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