For all the heartache found in her songs, Sharon Van Etten comes off as remarkably cheerful. Perhaps the L.A. sun is helping.
“It’s my first day off in a little while,” she tells Seattle Weekly in a recent phone call. “I’ve just had a wonderful Mexican meal, and it was perfect.”
The New York–based songwriter is on the West Coast on the first leg of a North American tour that will dip in and out of Europe before ending in December. “It’s pretty aggressive,” she says, “but you kind of have to hit the ground running. I have two new band members, and we’re getting into a groove. The shows are only going to get better.”
It’s a new setup for the artist. For one, she’s touring with a group of pros that she hand-picked herself (“I’ve always just brought my friends with me,” she says). For another, the songs her ensemble are interpreting—from her latest full-length, Are We There—are the first batch she’s self-produced since her critical breakthrough in 2012 with Tramp, an album bearing the unmistakably lush production of the National’s Aaron Dessner. “I ended up feeling like the cast of characters who played on that record overshadowed the songwriting,” she told Rolling Stone recently. “Like there was a stamp from them.”
She elaborates on the thought. “I’m a middle child, and I feel like I have control issues. I had a lot of people putting me under their wings, and it was time to take the training wheels off. I was ready.”
Making such a move was a long time coming. Van Etten’s first release, Because I Was in Love, a sparse, mournful folk album in the tradition of Vashti Bunyan, was recorded after a painful breakup. “I was so broken when I wrote that. I moved into my parent’s basement, and learned how to record on GarageBand.” Her producer for that album, Greg Weeks, took the job because, she says, “his heart went out to me.”
On her latest, songs like “I Love You But I’m Lost” are still filled with self-referential lyrics and lean toward the introspective, even morose. Yet there’s a distinct break from Tramp’s professional-grade polish, with the songwriter merging the intimacy of her stripped-down bedroom recordings with a few well-used production techniques.
It’s a superb vehicle for her songwriting style—an intensely personal one that comes from a place not easily shared with others. ”I write whenever I’m going through a dark time or don’t know how to communicate my feelings,” Van Etten says. She then tries to make that material relatable to others, to keep her music from being self-indulgent or “me just being brokenhearted.”
And then there are her vocals, which seem to relish in their new freedom, fluttering and soaring over lyrics like “Break my leg so I can’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.”
“Growing up, I listened to a lot of doo-wop music, but a lot of it was out of my range, so I noticed that I automatically sang harmony to sing along,” says Van Etten, an alto, who was also in church choir as a youth. “Working in the choir, it’s really incredible to sing with a group of people and work together and not be competitive.”
Ultimately, collaborating as part of a larger artistic community with musicians like Dessner, Julianna Barwick, and Beirut’s Zach Congdon gave her the confidence to go solo. “It’s a little emotional looking back when I was starting, writing songs in my parents’ basement. Just recording in the studio is a trip to me,” she says. “But as soon as I started to pursue music seriously, as soon as I learned to trust people, it slowly started to happen. When I started doing that, I saw things grow organically.”
It’s no coincidence she’s happier now, too. “I’m more stable, more competent, more confident,” she says. “I’ve made peace with my past.”
SHARON VAN ETTEN With Courtney Barnett, Jana Hunter. The Neptune, 1303 N.E. 45th St., 682-1414, stgpresents.org/neptune. $18 adv./$20 DOS. All ages. 9 p.m. Sat., July 5.