Sharon Van Etten Recommends the Red



“If you want something a little funky, then try a Provence wine,” Sharon Van Etten says, somewhere en route to Toronto. “Its flavor is very ‘barnyard’. But I don’t know—sometimes I just like a weird wine.” It’s a quarter after 10 on a Monday morning, and we’re talking alcohol. From an outsider’s perspective, such chatter of sweet relief so early in the week might appear a bad sign for two people who are, in essence, on the clock. But we take our wine advice any way we can get it.

Our steward this morning is the Brooklyn-based (by way of New Jersey and Tennessee) singer-songwriter behind the sumptuous album Epic, which appeared last autumn. She’s been on the road ever since, spending those grubby winter months getting around the world. Once we dial her number, only a minute passes before we realize we’re talking with one of those exceptionally curious people, the likes of whom we run into less frequently as we get older. In her lyrics, she stares gallantly inward. But in conversation, Sharon reaches out, traverses, pokes, cajoles. And, occasionally, she suggests a funky red wine.

ANDREW STOUT: Hi, Sharon. How’s the tour going?

SHARON VAN ETTEN: We’re doing pretty well: no fights, no break-ups, no drama. We’re on our seventh week right now, so we’re finally in the homestretch.

STOUT: Is that true? No fights after seven weeks?

VAN ETTEN: Well, we all have our grumpy days.

STOUT: [laughs] That’s a good way of putting it: “Sharon’s having a grumpy day.”

VAN ETTEN: [laughs] Other than that, I think we’re all used to doing this.

STOUT: Well, you have been playing music in one form or another since you were very small. You started singing in choir, right? What kind of things do you learn about the voice when you sing choir?

VAN ETTEN: I learned a lot about harmonies. I can’t read notes well, but I can hear something and sing a harmony to it automatically. But I also learned how to stand properly, so I could build some muscles to actually have the posture to project. Also, I learned different exercises that give me a clear sound when I sing. It’s funny. I talked to Julianna Barwick about all this recently. She did choir, too.

STOUT: Oh, really. That makes a lot of sense. I love her new album [The Magic Place], too. How do you know Julianna?

VAN ETTEN: We played some shows together in January-she lives in Brooklyn, too. She’s one of my favorite singers, and she’s really fun to be around. She was a blast to tour with.

STOUT: Besides choir, some of your earliest music experiences were listening to Broadway shows, which on the surface is very different from what you do. Are you aware of any way musicals have seeped into your own work?

VAN ETTEN: There’s something to writing a hook and something to writing a memorable melody. That’s what I liked about musicals. Then I realized I could write my own songs and I didn’t have to sing other people’s. I’ve always liked to learn how to do things-I’m a hobby person. So I’ll learn something at a beginner’s level, then usually move on to the next thing.

STOUT: Being a rather expert songwriter, what, in your mind, makes for a good lyric?

VAN ETTEN: I think when it feels like the singer is talking to you. You return to an album like it’s a friend. All the records I keep are like friends I visit. So when I hear a lyric that really speaks to me, it’s because I feel like it’s been talking to me. It can be a melody that I feel changes me as I listen to it.

STOUT: You say the melody changes you?

VAN ETTEN: Sometimes. Even a guilty pleasure, like that band Keane. They have a song “Somewhere Only We Know.” Somehow there’s a key change where the singer does something with the melody that always made me feel so good. I totally geeked out to that song for, like, ever. It’s such a pop song, but it’s a great pop song.

STOUT: I read somewhere your first favorite chord was C9. What drew you to this particular chord?

VAN ETTEN: It’s funny. The chord itself is happy, but also kind of sad-it’s not quite minor and not quite major. It was the first chord I learned where I would sit down and strum it forever. I remember playing it, but not knowing what it was-just endlessly strumming and picking at it. And finally my brother came downstairs and said, “Why are you so obsessed with this chord?” He told me it was called “C9,” and since then I’ve always loved it-this great, ambiguous chord.

STOUT: You’ve put out a couple releases now that have hewed closely to a folk-based sound. But it seems to me your musical life is much more eclectic than that. What kind of sounds do you feel are still in you that you want to put into new songs?

VAN ETTEN: Now I’m beginning to explore guitar pedals. I’m also going to get more of a live show together, try to expand the band a little bit so we can be more dynamic onstage.

STOUT: Was there anything that happened on this current tour to focus your attention on these things?

VAN ETTEN: Well, we went on tour with The National, and I took away a lot from them. They’ve been doing it for so long and their live shows made me feel like a freshman, you know what I mean? On top of having lights and brass and transitions between songs, they make their show so climactic. It’s just incredible: they switch amps and guitars and they change the tone for every song. It makes me want to experiment a little more with that kind of stuff. I’m really proud of our band. But touring with a band like The National, it makes me realize we have a lot to learn. It was humbling, you know.