ABOVE: SHARON VAN ETTEN. PHOTO COURTESY OF DUSDIN CONDREN
Even though Sharon Van Etten is in her 30s, her music’s logic approaches something that people often forget: you’re never quite done growing up. The New York-via-New Jersey songstress’ work often reveals the battle between having a work and a personal life—something that is seen across the board with musicians. Are We There is Van Etten’s fourth studio album—a follow up to 2012’s Tramp—which proves that it’s okay to be a work in progress with regards to life, love, and your career. Her gorgeous, haunting vocals hang over each emotional lyric, much like a journal Van Etten has been keeping her whole life. The record— produced by Stuart Lerman along with the singer herself—dissects every struggle a relationship faces with backing vocals from Torres’ Mackenzie Scott and Efterklang’s Heather Woods Broderick.
Van Etten has been able to tour and play shows with the likes of Father John Misty and Nick Cave over the past few years, where she’s been able to challenge herself musically and performance-wise. We spoke with her about New Jersey, getting personal with fans, and balancing life and love.
ILANA KAPLAN: It’s nice to talk to someone from the “908” in New Jersey.
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Oh, nice! I can’t let go of it. I was born in Belleville. Then I grew up in Nutley and in the sixth grade we moved to Clinton. Where are you from?
KAPLAN: I’m from Westfield, and I went to Rutgers in New Brunswick.
VAN ETTEN: Oh, nice! My sister went there.
KAPLAN: Very cool! So, this has been your first record in a while, since Tramp. How have you changed and evolved since that album?
VAN ETTEN: I feel like the last couple of years I’ve been touring with the same band and because of that, I learned a lot about how to write with a band and how to communicate with a band. I feel like it was the center of this record for sure.
KAPLAN: I know that the last record was really dark and from a darker time in a personal relationship. Is Are We There more lighthearted or positive than Tramp?
VAN ETTEN: This record is kind of bittersweet, because I wrote it over the last two years while touring for the record Tramp. It was written during the time home in between and just all of the time I’ve spent with the band, as well as my relationship. It ended up happening in the last two years of us growing apart because of my music and his insecurities that came out because of me being gone so much. It’s a blessing and a curse being in music because once things start going well, you need to tour all of the time and be gone nine months out of the year. How do you really nurture your relationship? I mean, it takes a really strong person to be able to deal with that. There are love songs on the record, but there is also a lot of struggle on there too.
KAPLAN: Do you think your fans are going to find the same kind of comfort as they did on Tramp? I guess, more specifically with regards to relationships.
VAN ETTEN: I feel like this record is more honest and raw, for sure. I think that’s what people like about my music: how it’s honest and relatable, while also being pretty personal. I hope they get that.
KAPLAN: Definitely. With regards to the songs from Tramp, were they very reflective of the state of your previous romantic relationship and how it affected you? How did you deal with that time in your life?
VAN ETTEN: Well honestly, that record, I loved it, but it was really spazzy. I was not in a very good place because I was traveling all the time. We were recording it very touch-and-go. In a way, I felt because Are We There was recorded when I had a home, I had an idea and I was in control that I was in a really good place when I recorded it even though the songs were pretty heavy.
KAPLAN: I can totally understand that. So, what’s your favorite song from Are We There?
VAN ETTEN: I actually really like “I Love You But I’m Lost” because it’s a ballad and very simple. I’m very proud of that melody. I also really like “Tarifa” because it’s a love song even through all of the stressors of love. It’s a really nice and classic kind of song, but “I Love You But I’m Lost” is my favorite song.
KAPLAN: I can see why—it’s beautiful. So, what was the best show you’ve been able to play during your time touring?
VAN ETTEN: Well, that’s tough. Honestly, I’d have to say out of everything I’ve ever done, touring with Nick Cave. That was during March and April of last year. It was incredible. It was an honor and a challenge. It was really fun too.
KAPLAN: Nice. What was the songwriting process like for Are We There?
VAN ETTEN: It’s the same kind of style I’ve always done. When I write, it’s very therapeutic in a stream-of-consciousness style; so it’s everything I’ve been going through. I hit record whenever I’m going through a really hard time. I don’t listen to it for a couple of days, so I have some perspective. If it’s too personal to share and I feel like would alienate the listeners, then I usually don’t share that stuff. I only share the stuff that I feel has soul in it. Hopefully the stuff that is way too personal that I record and keep—people won’t hear it because it’s way too personal.
KAPLAN: Your lyrics are pretty raw. Have any of your exes reached out to you after hearing a particular song?
VAN ETTEN: Well, people definitely talk to me and write to me about how songs struck them. Sometimes I get really intense and personal stories about it, which I encourage and which is why I do it. Sometimes the stories are really intense, though. I’m still friends with most of my exes. There are only one or two people that I’ll never talk to again. I’ve had old friends come out of the woodwork, which for the most part is really nice. It’s really easy to lose touch with people, and it’s nice to reconnect.
KAPLAN: What are you most excited for with this record coming out? Is there something you’re excited to share with the world that you haven’t yet?
VAN ETTEN: I am really excited to be able to play these songs with my new band. I feel like it’s been forever. I just miss them so much. We just started rehearsing last week, and the songs are sounding really good. That’s really exciting to me.
KAPLAN: Cool. How did you get the title Are We There for this record?
VAN ETTEN: It ties in with the cover really well. The theme of the record is trying to balance your career, how to have a family and have a real life while you’re working so much: the struggle. I took a photo of my friend while she was screaming out the window and that was the last time we hung out before she moved to Indiana, got married and had kids. I moved to New York to pursue music. We were both on very different paths and our lives changed. The idea of transitions, movements, and just traveling are on the record. I thought it would be funny, like “are we there yet,” like a kid in a car.
SHARON VAN ETTEN’S RECORD ARE WE THERE COMES OUT TODAY.