Sharon Van Etten's songs are like that train you hear in the distance at 3 a.m. The immense hush, heading somewhere, boring its horn through the dark. Knowing the conductor is also awake makes you feel less lonely. Are We There is Van Etten's fourth album, released this past May on Jagjaguwar. In her writing, Van Etten is confessional and faces fears. She knows both the pain caused by being with someone who's not right and the pain of being away from someone who is right. A New Jersey native, Van Etten spent five years in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, soaking in country and folk music after a year of college there. Her voice stretches words out deeply from her lungs. "Your Love Is Killing Me" kicks out plaster walls to be unbound. She sings, "Break my legs so I won't walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you/Burn my skin so I can't feel you/Stab my eyes so I can't see/You like it when I let you walk over me." If you're standing up when this song comes on, you'll want to sit down because of the solemnity. If you're sitting, you'll stand because of the courage and the majesty. I did, anyway. Van Etten spoke from the back bench of her tour van, somewhere between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
How's tour? Do dudes ever get too bro'd out at your shows? What do you do when guys over-bro it?
Tour's good so far. I love Jana Hunter and Lower Dens, so it's fun to be with them. And my band is great and nurturing. Last night we played a show where a fan was kind of bro-ing out and screaming at me the whole time. Even for my slow jams, hooting and hollering so much that it was super distracting. I tried to acknowledge him and make jokes, but he wouldn't let up. Security actually ended up standing by him for the rest of the show to keep him more mellow. I felt kind of bad, but it was also really loud and messed up my songs, and I think he ruined the show for the people around him.
You're playing Seattle the day after the Fourth of July. Are you a light-everything-on-fire kind of person for the Fourth? With fireworks and beer and meat?
I love barbecuing with friends and setting off sparklers. You know, like I'm 10 years old [laughs] and at a pool, and I've got blisters all over my feet. I'm tired by 8 p.m. and nap on the lawn.
Some of the instruments on Are We There were used by John Lennon and Patti Smith? Do you know which of their songs the instruments are played on?
Stewart Lerman, who I worked on the record with, works out of Electric Lady Studio a lot of the time, and he snuck me in for a day to use the grand piano they have. I played and sang live for my ballads "I Love You but I'm Lost" and "I Know." That piano was used on Patti's Horses. I don't think she played it, but I like to believe she leaned up against it or something. At the end of our tracking days, Stewart's friend from downstairs let him know that he was storing the piano from the Record Plant that was used on John Lennon's album Imagine. They moved it upstairs, and although we had most of our tracking finished, we added it to a bunch of songs. The main one being "You Know Me Well." Whenever you hear the deep, dark piano, that's the one.
Could you hear John Lennon's voice in your head when you played it? Or was it just a normal piano? It would be great if you heard his voice in your head. I love shit like that.
I know [laughs]. There was definitely a vibe. It was truly special. The hair stood up on the back of my neck when Stewart played it. He's a better player than me.
"Your Love Is Killing Me" has such a powerful pull. Where does the song come from?
We've all loved somebody. And even when you love somebody, it can be toxic and painful. That's all I'll say. It's too personal to go into.
Where were you when you wrote it?
I was about to go on tour with Nick Cave. I was in Australia on tour and feeling very torn between the road and being home.
It's so triumphant. Did you mean it to be triumphant? Someone's heart is shot up, but it makes them believe they can regain and redeem. I hate to use the word strength, but damn.
Most things I write, even if they're heavy, they feel uplifting to me because they are cathartic. I think that's where it comes from.
Has the person you wrote it about heard it? Do you know what they think about it? If they "tortured you," and "liked it when your mind got diseased," I hope they felt like shit when they heard it. Is that the person who told you your music was terrible for six years? What an asshole. I bet that person feels so stupid now. Sorry, I know you said it's too personal.
That song is not about the bad ex in Tennessee. That song is about someone I love deeply.
Moving from New Jersey to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, must have been like going to another planet.
I moved to a college town, so there was a mix of people. Most people definitely thought I talked really fast. But I enjoyed slowing down and taking my time, and having porch hangs, and walking everywhere. My friends all noticed it when I moved back north and thought it was endearing. I'm a little of both. Jersey and Tennessee. In Murfreesboro, there was the Red Rose, Digital Planet, the sewing store on the square, the diner around the corner, La Siesta, the Boro Bar and Grill, the tobacco store just off the square, and Video Culture by the wine shop by campus. Good spots.
How did you get to know Kyp Malone [of TV on the Radio]? You gave him a CD of demos? You didn't know him at the time, right?
I was invited to go see Celebration play at Bowery Ballroom about 10 years ago. When I looked it up online, I saw that Kyp was opening. I didn't know who he was or what band he was in, but I took one look at his face and saw his last name and I knew it was the brother of a childhood friend of mine. I had just moved back to the East Coast and was trying to reconnect with my past, and I introduced myself after his set. It was moving and lighthearted. He was surrounded by friends, so I just said hello really quick, and he was very polite, and I slipped away because he looked busy. But after the crowd cleared, I was still at the bar, and he sat next to me and we spoke for a while. He asked about what I was doing. I gave him a demo CD because he was so warm and welcoming. He told me he still had family in my hometown and that if I ever wanted to hang out when he was visiting, he would give me a call. And he did. And we've been close ever since.
I love that in "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" you have the line "I washed your dishes, then I shit in your bathroom." For some reason, it breaks me into the inside of the song. It gives it this feel. I don't even really know what I'm asking here, I just like that you wrote that, and that it's in the song. That line probably surprises some people. You have such a pretty voice, and your songs have this poised strength, then that line hits. And it's real, and a weird detail, but it fits.
Thank you. That's my most literal, goofy-yet-dark song. And my band encouraged me to share it with everyone to show I'm not a completely dark person. I'm glad I did.