Writer Of The Week: Sharon Van Etten

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Sharon Van Etten released her second album, Epic, in September, the follow-up to the excellently titled Because I Was In Love. As her press release puts it, Epic is an album that “lays a romantic melancholy lining over the gravel and dirt of heartbreak, without one honest thought or feeling spared.” We couldn’t have put it any better ourselves.

What was it like opening this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival?

Very strange. I am not used to outdoor venues. There was a really inviting crowd, though. And it was a real honor to be among those bands. I think it was an incredible lineup and I am still in disbelief to be grouped in with them.

Is there a general theme to the kinds of songs you write?

Therapeutic. I write when I am feeling an extreme way, positive or negative. I write about what I have a hard time communicating and I end up having a better understanding by the time I am done writing.

Tell us about your experiences living and working in Nashville and Brooklyn?

I lived just outside Nashville in a college town called Murfreesboro from 1999 to 2004. I worked at an all-ages venue where I learned a lot about music. I moved back to New Jersey and got a job at wine store in Perryville. Then I got a job at Astor Wine in Manhattan and started interning at Ba Da Bing Records in Brooklyn and eventually started working full time after I quit my job at the wine store. I learned a lot about how to do it myself.

Having lived in Nashville, what are your feelings on country music and the songwriting business here?

I don’t like the idea that a song has a magic formula, that there are certain chord changes that make the best song… but there are rules, and people still do make money off writing a perfect “pop song, “which is actually really difficult. I didn’t personally connect with that method though. I write pretty freeform without knowing rules. But that’s just me. There is a lot of great country music around Nashville. It can be done very tastefully and classy… but there is so much more to Nashville than country music. There is punk rock and folk and rock and an indie scene that is really blossoming there thanks to a small, underground scene and a few local labels that are keeping it very real, like Battletapes, one of my favorites.

Do you still have a day job?

Right now, yes. I still work at Ba Da Bing Records in Brooklyn. One of the best jobs I have ever had. A real family.

How is Epic different from your debut?

It’s more confident, more fleshed out, more direct, upbeat… but still similar territory.

What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?

“Don’t Do It.” It’s the most fun to sing and rock out to – which is definitely not what people are used to – and it is one of the most cathartic songs I’ve ever written.

What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?

“I wish I could make you right.”

How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?

Melody first.

Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?

it’s a bit of both. sometimes the album is out and I edit it for the live performance. You will always hear stuff that you want to change, but that’s what wanting to be better is all about. I write immediate and I write longterm… I have one song I have been writing for years!

Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?

Jessica Larrabee of She Keeps Bees based out of Brooklyn. She has one of the best voices I have ever heard and she has more soul in one finger than most female singers have in our scene.

What’s a song you wish you’d written?

“We Are The Champions”.

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