Sharon Van Etten: ‘I don’t share 99% of my music: sometimes it’s too dark’

·10-min read

The singer-songwriter answers your questions, including the live performers she’s learned the most from, her favourite grape varieties, and whether her mum is still concerned for her wellbeing


Your music has helped me in understanding times of my life and what I thought were ineffable emotions. What records or artists were the first to make a lasting impact on you or helped to immerse you in the musical world? carolinemurray

I started listening to a lot of classic records via my parents – the Everly Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – but the first records that I found on my own that I connected with deeply were Elastica’s Elastica, Liz Phair’s Whip-Smart and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. I was in junior high when I first heard them. I was a pretty angsty kid – but quietly anxious, a door-slammer – and I would blast music so loud and write in my journal. I did not know how to express myself at all, and I’m still working on it; my journals have turned into my music. Elastica was so driven and playful and sexy, Liz Phair was tough but poetic and I loved her angular guitar playing. I loved the industrial nature of Nine Inch Nails and it was definitely the epitome of teenage angst. I was just like: “Wow, maybe I am depressed? I didn’t even know!”

Your impassioned live rendition of Seventeen continues to burn bright in the memory. Which live performers have left the biggest impression on you? VerulamiumParkRanger

Nick Cave is probably No 1. I got to tour with him in 2013 and he completely changed the way I looked at a live performance. The way that he engages with the audience and immerses himself in the crowd – it feels like church, it’s really magical. When I used to engage with audiences, it was more dialogue and banter. Then I stopped doing the jokey part and started to intentionally make eye contact with people. Then it evolved into the height of the set where I do Seventeen: the whole set I’m trying to think who upfront is the person who needs to hear this tonight, and I’ll pick someone out and will engage with them during that song as much as I can depending on the setup of the stage, and I’ll feel that energy and I’ll pull them in. That’s definitely something I took from Nick: choose when you do engage and do it really intentionally; you connect with that one person but it also affects everyone around them.

Your song with Angel Olsen, Like I Used To, has become one of my desert island discs, and me and my mum frequently belt out the last high note in the car. Apart from Angel, who would be your dream collaborator? EmmasZygoticMynci

So many. PJ Harvey, Sinéad O’Connor, Beth Gibbons. Geoff Barrow who works with Portishead, who is an amazing producer and drummer. Also I would love to work with Warren Ellis: he’s such a wizard and lives in so many different sonic universes.

Like I Used To was such a joyous collaboration, both musically and visually. I remember you saying your mother always wanted you to write “happy songs”. Do you feel like she would be happy now? Kirmoblue

Whenever my mom hears a song that sounds intense, she’ll be like: “I thought you were doing OK?” I have to explain all the time that when I write I’m going through a thing to get it out. I think she’s understanding that more and more. I’m nervous for her to hear the new record. But she’s also proud of what I do. I know she knows I’m OK even when I do struggle.

Did playing Rachel on The OA have any effect on your music, lyrics or stage performance? I know your new album title, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong, also appeared as a line in The OA, although I understand The OA wasn’t the actual inspiration for the title. anthonyfarthing

I’m grateful to Netflix and [The OA co-creator and star] Brit Marling for having faith in the only non-actor who was part of the cast; it was my first time acting and I was terrified. I think if it affected my music at all, it’s just helped me dig deeper emotionally in my lyrics. I don’t remember that line being in the show and I don’t know if that has been embellished by others – but it’s definitely taken from the movie The Sandlot, where the kids are trying to get the baseball from the lot next door. It happens to be my son’s favourite movie and we watched it a million times over quarantine. There’s a scene where they make this contraption with a vacuum and it explodes in this kid’s face, and he looks at his friends and says, so deadpan: “We’ve been going about this all wrong.” In the height of Covid, clutching my son and my partner on the couch, feeling completely disconnected from the world, I teared up and wrote it down. There was something about that feeling of: every time we get through this one hump, something else fucking happens – there’s no end in sight. Sometimes you just have to do something differently to feel better.

I first heard your music when your song Tarifa was on the Twin Peaks soundtrack (and in the show). What was it like working with David Lynch? KobayashiAndSon

I still can’t believe I was part of that production: to say David Lynch is a legend is not doing him justice; he’s a visionary. I was really shy and quiet. It was very last minute: catch a red-eye from New York, find some place to have a coffee and wait around until you get the call. They were shooting all the artists back-to-back in the Roadhouse. David Lynch was sitting in his director’s chair with his megaphone, smoking, exactly how you think he would be. Such a gentleman, very specific in his directions.

Your songs helped me get over a divorce! Are you more creative when sad or happy? Katkatjusa

I tend to write whenever I’m feeling anything intensely, so that’s usually from a darker place. How I naturally work is: I’m feeling something intensely, I play and I sing stream-of-consciously and record for 10 minutes without making it about anything. I’ll listen back days, weeks, months later and try to understand what it was I was going through at the time. Ninety-nine per cent of what I do I don’t share: sometimes it is too dark and sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense.

Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten on stage in Leeds, 2019. Photograph: Andrew Benge/Redferns

Epic was the first album of yours that I heard and it’s remained a favourite ever since. What made you decide to revisit it and release Epic Ten? Splazsh

Funnily enough it was my partner, who is also my manager. He was like: “You’re coming up on an anniversary of Epic, that’s such a big deal, you should do something for it.” I was like: “Does anyone care? It feels like I’m tootin’ my own horn.” But the more I talked to people about it they were like: 10 years is a big deal, that’s a real mile marker for any artist. The album was remastered and then there were covers [of the original tracks] by some of my favourite artists, old and new. I’m so floored that they wanted to do it because it’s a lot to ask – for all of them to have made the time and made such beautiful versions, I’m still really dumbfounded.

You joined Fountains of Wayne [for a tribute show] when Adam Schlesinger sadly died in the early days of the pandemic. I always thought they should have been a huge band as they wrote some sublime songs. Which other artist(s) do you think didn’t, or don’t currently, get the success they deserve? ArthurSternom

I’m a Jersey kid so it meant a lot to be asked; we had a mutual friend in Sarah Silverman and lots of other mutual friends through people I work with. It was a challenge because I don’t play bass in front of people and I hadn’t ever done a livestream in that way. And it was emotional because it was mourning someone everyone in my circle admired so deeply. I never got to meet him, but everyone I knew spoke so highly of him.

I have so many friends who I think have the best bands ever but nobody knows them: Forest Fire, Scary Mansion, Heron Oblivion. There’s a band from Chicago called Speck Mountain, they’re really incredible. I think there is a total randomness [to who makes it] sometimes. Bands that don’t want to tour, that’s a huge part of it; unfortunately you’re very reliant on touring to sell your records. I also think the artist has to be driven, no matter what. Some people lose their drive after a while, which is totally understandable because it’s exhausting. I’m in my 40s and I think I’m doing well but it’s still a constant battle. I feel like I have to put myself out there all the time.

I’m in awe of your productivity. How do you manage so many different creative projects? laurasnapes

Learning how to use a Google calendar and then setting parameters and goals and deadlines – I thrive on deadlines. Becoming a mother and having to work within schedules, you learn to maximise your time. [My son is] only in school for this long and when he’s home, I can’t do any of it; no offence to him, it’s just true. He needs my attention, he needs my partner’s attention. He’s an only child, and we want to be there for him.

Every Time the Sun Comes Up is one of my all-time favourite album closers. Is it difficult to decide on songs’ positions in an album? peasywease

Sequencing is so hard. There are songs that don’t make it because of the way I transition from one song to another. It’s like, song number eight has to be more upbeat and lighthearted after this really intense setup; there are two songs that could fill this role and I have to pick between the two. And it breaks my heart sometimes when songs don’t make the record because we use them later as B-sides and people assume that they’re fluff. So when I was planning the new [album] rollout I was like: I’m going to take songs that would be considered B-sides and release them ahead of the record so that people think something’s coming but I’m not giving anything away, either.

Riesling might be my favourite grape, particularly German producers. Do you have a favourite? Gassy_Jack

[Working as a sommelier] was my first job in New York, but I’m out of the game. I had to stop working in wine because I felt I was becoming more of a snob than just a wine drinker. And I’m trying to curb my drinking so I try not to have it around all the time – because I will drink a bottle. There’s two I really love, one is Pineau d’Aunis, a very light, very feminine, floral grape. The other one is Cab Franc, tends to be on the cleaner side, fairly affordable, sleek, peppery. They’re good with food, they’re not overpowering; they won’t stain your lips.

• We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is out now on Jagjaguwar

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