Interview: Schmoozing with Sharon Van Etten.

Lingering a smidgen of oblique street beyond the odious ostentation of Regent Street lies Liberty. Probably the finest shop of this fair city yet one that is somewhat inexplicably, somehow, in some way humble it therefore serves as a quite apposite location at which to first encounter Sharon Van Etten. For like Liberty, she is the lusciously remarkable gem lodged barely beneath the bloodthirsty claw of the mainstream – or indeed right beneath the nose of the maddening crowds beyond these practically antiquated, single-glazed shutters. "I never wanna shop but then when I go out, it's like 'danger zone'", she mutters between faint huffs and puffs. Her demeanour expertly unassuming; her voice slouchy, she is the epitome of humility and arguably the antidote to the brazen stupidity surrounding the cult of celebrity and the more generic world outside.

For although her status still remains more cult than celebrity, the proverbial beaks and rather more literal telephoto lenses have been irremovably jabbed into both her life and lifestyle since the release of third effort Tramp earlier on in the year. Has such slight intrusion become in any way problematic? "For the most part, um, no", she soothingly reassures. "I get nervous about it just 'cause there are elements of my past that are dangerous but... you know... I had a friend who lives in Tennessee that I used to work for and some press person called them to enquire about certain elements of my past, with specific people, and that freaked me out. That's kinda invasive, but for the most part there's no problem. It's weird to be out there; it's weird to be recognised."

By this point in time we've relocated to a cell in the backroom bar of the swankiest of swank hotels. Well and truly well padded, excluding the "cigarette ash"-stained, rock-blocked toilet in the corner every perch and pedestal is smothered in denim. Were the world "collapsing around us" right here would surely feel like the safest of havens. A mild irony does, however, invade our secluded situation: drinks of an intoxicating variety arrive, although their bearer fails to bat even a solitary eyelash at the presence of Van Etten. "You know, I'm not that known", she mumbles beneath a thick fug of exhale, swizzling glistening ice cubes with a straw gradually distorted throughout the duration of our time together. "It's still weird to sense any kind of acknowledgement whatsoever."

If she may yet be a paragon of modesty, there's undeniably a morbid attraction to the underlying tales of disgruntlement; of her jailbreak of sorts from the abusive and ultimately oppressive relationship within which she was snared. Against her so-called lover's every disparaging comment, her songs became the shovel employed to excavate an escape route, while they've also become the keys to a greater cultural consciousness. Again, we return to the topic of Tramp: amid the consummate amalgam of intriguing lyrical humility, brilliant musical simplicity and incontestably sublime vocal could the record be said to be born of a deep-seated resentment? "For me it was always about getting to be at peace with a lot of things. Namely, it was the first time I'd written about a host of different people as opposed to just one person. My first record was about that one person, whereas the second was about coming out of that and just moving on. This time it's about being OK with sensing resentment but also anger and sadness."

However irony here returns, for subjectively the back catalogue carries a great capacity to unite – amorously or otherwise – despite the relational tragedies, break-ups and make-ups intrinsically entwined. "I mean hopefully people connect to it. A lot of the reason that I write is that it's healing for everybody. I wouldn't wanna share anything that wouldn't benefit other people – otherwise it's kinda selfish..." Conversely, it has thus far been proven a joy to innumerable hordes: a greatly honest record (even down to its cover – "I didn't want it to be a pretty photo, you know?"), it stands out as a rare shard of unadulterated integrity within a current musical climate oft immoderately concerned by conceit and it is through candour that Van Etten achieves catharsis.

Yet one may anticipate feelings of having perhaps divulged a little too much... "Well, you know, it's easy to feel vulnerable when you're talking about your emotions but at the same time, a vital part of this record for me was that feeling of ownership. No matter what I wrote the songs about back then, me and my current boyfriend basically agree to not talk about it. So if he's like: 'Which songs are about me?', it's just like: 'No!' He'll never know. But if I ever felt that something was maybe too personal then I'd never share it: I think also that'd maybe alienate the listener. I think there are things that personally, I know that are particularly personal but I try and make them seem as though they're not. I think Give Out is probably the most personal song that I put on that record but I did that predominantly because I think it's good in that it has its own story and that's relevant both to where I am now and where I was at that point in time. But I don't think it's too personal. Hopefully..."
It's an intriguing and indeed stark contrast to the way in which she'll go on to introduce the song the following eve at a sold out Scala where it is introduced as a "story song" concerning her reconvening with the learning of love; with allowing herself to tumble back into its cloying, periodically mawkish clutches. However with the passing of time is spawned hindsight and somewhat significantly within the bristly writhe of Serpents ("a song written in my basement when pissed off having listened to too much PJ Harvey") lies the lyric of holding the mirror "to everybody else". Yet were she to divert its impenetrable gaze back on herself and reflect back on recent histories, would she have approached anything done in any way differently? "I would've spent more time with my parents; I'd definitely hang out with my family more. Over the past few years I definitely feel as though, because I've been so focussed on my music, I've neglected my friends and family to a degree. My career's great; my relationship's great, but perhaps because of all that I've not been a good enough friend. They understand, but...", her gurgled sentiments washed back down her throat with a healthy gulp of Campari and soda.

Another great quality to Tramp is, arguably, the sort of fictitious friendship with she that it seems to kindle. So open and acute are its emotions that they lead you to believe in some deep and enduring affinity; as if you were round Kevin's back when the track was written or something. It has a distinctly homely feel to it and there is a quite discernible difference between now and then, then being the record and the process of. She'll later admit to still being within another process of discovery; of finding out that vast numbers have been and of course still are enjoying her latest effort immensely, even if she is ultimately aware of its facilitating of "more touring, there's more reach, there's more interest, there's more attention. Yes, there's been all those things. I don't know; I feel pretty lucky right about now", she proposes. However the manifest variance on circumstance would be that she now has a place to call her own. Over in Brooklyn, "it's pretty far and away from everything 'cool' – it's kinda out in the suburbs", she volunteers a little self-effacingly. "It's peaceful; there are plenty of trees; it's quiet! It's everything I needed."

Her jejune ebullience, albeit perhaps momentary, is entirely infectious and regarding her domestic setup she suggests: "It's like being an adult or something." Does she not feel like an adult? Not that the question of age is ever posed but at thirty-one, she nigh on triumphantly proffers: "In some ways yes, and in some ways nope. I now know when I need to slow down and when I need a rest. But I mean I can hang out and have fun, and I can do music, and think about my future and all that stuff. I'm doing what I want and I think I'm helping other people, and that's it." And "all that stuff" of course entails these sorts of interviews and a thankfully increasingly frequent stream of UK shows in venues increasing exponentially in capacity (although she contends that "bigger does not mean better"). Thus another irony arises with Tramp being the record to drag Van Etten out of house ("a place to rest") and (the place where she spends the majority of her time stateside: her boyfriend's) home.

Transmogrified once again into journeying vagrant – albeit one who "can afford an apartment and still be able to tour" – she subscribes to some quite delightfully ethical touring habits: "I wanna treat my band with respect as I know that both physically and mentally, you can't just keep doing this. I mean we've all toured a lot, both separately and collectively, but we try to do tours no longer than three weeks; no more than five nights in a row; having at least two weeks off in-between tours. You know, I wanna be intense and touring's the most important element of connecting with people; of having them hear your music. As it's so important I'll keep doing it whenever I can but I absolutely don't want anyone to resent me", the theme slipping back into conversation rather congruously.

The word signals a return to the inescapable subtext that has become all but inextricable from her waking realities. Certainly at the subsequent Scala showing Don't Do It is delivered via an utmost vitriol, sounding as though spat from snarled lip. It has, seemingly, become a little too prominent. "Well I guess this was the first time that I wasn't writing about that", an air of slight groan pervading the pronoun. "On the one hand, people are gonna read into it what they want and then they can talk about whatever if it keeps them happy. I mean it's obviously about relationships but for the most part, it's about a variety of different people. It's categorically not about one person, but about me moving on from that one person", her reiteration of such sentiment to a certain degree responding to the inquisition in tone alone. "I don't know; I just wanted to document going through being in a relationship and how that makes you feel. People will always then drag things out of proportion. I don't even know what people are saying about this sorta stuff, apart from when I hear things back during interviews..."

Another inescapability is Van Etten's inclination toward love, or anti-love song. The reasoning behind such proclivity however is a little less lucid: "You know, I still don't get why I naturally gravitate towards that. I mean love's obviously a pretty universal thing; everyone has somehow experienced it. I just love classic folk and classic rock, and I've always loved the romantic ideas involved but most emotions come purely from being in a relationship, whether that be with a friend or with a lover; whatever. I usually write when I'm going through a hard time, which is usually when I've just come out of a relationship. It's the best way I've found to deal with it." From indignation, through discontent and eventually arriving at acceptance, her lyrics are particularly shrewd when it comes to the appraisal of she herself and the role she may have played in the dissolution of romance, and certain intricacies are nigh on impossible to neglect as a consequence. Take Leonard for instance, on which she insists upon being "bad", and then "bad at loving", and finally "bad at loving you". Even through puffed and teary eyes her vision remains worldweary; her articulation astute: "That song is a combination of me talking to myself and talking to somebody else. It was basically an admittance to myself that it wasn't me; that I wasn't a bad person. 'Cause I've definitely gone through feeling that way: 'we all make mistakes'; we move on; we do what we can." A slightly idealistic approach perhaps, although one she's had to dedicatedly instruct herself to assume: "If you're trying to get out of a really bad situation, it's hard to be idealistic and positive. And it takes time. I mean it took me five or six years to find peace with certain things that happened. But if there's anything I've learnt it's that there's not enough time in the world to dwell in these negative moments. It is maybe idealistic although I'm kinda living in a dream world anyway at the moment..!"

Given our insatiable thirst for the latest this or the newest recording of that, artists operating concurrently are arguably compelled to produce and reproduce with relative haste. For the compulsive creative that Van Etten is, how are things sounding within this purported "dream world" she's currently inhabiting? "Well, I'm just always writing although for the first time I'm really excited to get home and restart writing properly. I've never written nor recorded as a band proper before and I want us to feel as though we belong together rather than just being a touring band per se. But at the moment new stuff's all over the place: like I have piano songs, and I've got some more electronic stuff I've written whilst on the road. I dunno... what it's gonna be like... I always wanna push myself and attempt new things though; I don't ever wanna put out the exact same record..."

Few could plausibly contend even the slightest qualm were she to follow up Tramp with a recording analogous in all but name and there were some big names inscribed into the credits of that one. The likes of Julianna Barwick, Aaron Dessner, Zach Condon, Jenn Wasner and Matt Barrick all thrust a hand or two in to varying depths of involvement although not only has her approach to the scribing of the follow-up seemingly been altered irrevocably, but she voices minimal intention to reproduce the record as was. "Pretty much the most fun part of playing live is that it's not the record. I mean I think there are certain things that I miss about it but the more I think about it, I just wanna let the record be the record. I hear some of that sorta stuff in my mind but, you know, the enjoyment in playing a show is that it'll never be the same ever again. You don't know how you'll respond to any which crowd; you don't know how you're' gonna be connecting on whichever night. No one moment will ever be the same. I'm really happy and really excited by how things have turned out in terms of reinterpreting and recreating the record right now. At any rate to fly out, like, ten people..? Have a reunion of sorts..? I've thought about getting down a bunch of people just for like one New York show" she defiantly affirms, an unabashed confidence accenting her voice for the first time. "But as a normal thing, it's not exactly practical. Logistical nightmare."

However, again there's a both admirable and inevitable deference at play: she drops not a solitary name; none of that frivolous nonsense. Sharon's selling your nearest and dearest venue out without ever selling out: "You know, when I started out it was just me and a guitar so Epic was a step away from that a little bit, whereas now I'm using instrumentation to help my vocals out much more than I have in the past. And obviously with Tramp there were a lot of friends involved so there was a lot more support for the sound." She continues, her attentions shunted to the evident impetus she places upon the live aspect: "It's not just support either; it's about connecting with people that understand what it is that you're doing. It's about keeping the show on the road; about the ability to mix things up when you're onstage. It takes a while to figure out though! Like Nick Cave's had his band for like thirty years, you know? And the first step is to find people that you trust. I'm just building and hoping everything doesn't then all fall down."
"I'm still kinda like a baby when it comes to playing shows; I'm still learning. I get nervous... I disguise my fear with comedy: if the audience is really great then I get freaked out but at least if the audience is great it gives me material and I can start riffin' or whatever." Witty "banter" is certainly becoming a cornerstone of her performances and her voice resounds at ever greater volume as this interview progresses. A method of deflecting the hefty emotivity located within each and every song aired each and every night of her seemingly excessive touring of our verdant counties perhaps and the next night she's insolently urged to shut up and sing by a faceless, quite feckless heckler. However confidence is building: "Balls-out London!" she yelps, taken aback yet seemingly prepped to take to task. For if she may be slight in stature and this afternoon in attitude too, Sharon Van Etten effortlessly magnetises attentions and unites opinion. With next to none polarised, Tramp is the record of the year thus far and it looks as though such statement shan't crumble prior to the interminable listomania of December. So with the house in order and now an apartment to her name, any construction embarked upon ought not "fall down" for the foreseeable.