The world of indie music has always been a second home of sorts to confessional singer/ songwriter types. Artists like Bon Iver, Cat Power, and Liz Phair all got their start on the indie scene. And, the simple do-it-yourself atmosphere has encouraged countless others to join their ranks. One such newcomer is Sharon Van Etten.
On her sophomore record and first widely distributed release, “epic,” the Brooklyn-based Van Etten mixes folky strums alongside lovelorn lyrics and even brings a full band in on the act for her album’s majestic-sounding latter half. Equipped with a voice recently described in a Valley Advocate review as something that “bleeds European, like a thick ichor of mead flowing from the pierced heart of an injured goddess,” Van Etten maintains the perfect mood throughout. Whether on the bitter acoustic opener “A Crime” or the country-tinged gem “One Day,” she shifts flawlessly from spurned lover to avenging spirit and back again with ease.
The Underground recently got the chance to catch up with Van Etten via e-mail before her appearance at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass. on Friday, and asked about her thoughts on deciding to become a professional musician, how her time in the south influenced her songwriting, and what it was like to go on tour with indie rockers the National.
Underground: First off, what led to your decision to become a professional musician?
Van Etten: I knew it was the only thing I was good at and enjoyed doing.
How much of an impact do you think your time spent in Tennessee has had on your approach to music? Some critics have noted a subtle Southern sound in your work.
The biggest impact is in the immediacy of the songs. I wrote so much in a small time and I was held back for so long while I lived in Tenn. It only helped the urgency of my content, I think. That, and of course a lot of music I was exposed to was pretty influential - from indie music to hardcore music to country music, which I didn't really grow up listening to.
What was your first impression of playing live in New York?
Nerve-wracking. People hanging out, playing pool, talking loud, not caring about what I was doing at all.
What went through your mind at the time?
"Why am I doing this?"
What do you make of the city’s influence on your career?
Surrounding myself with people that are supportive and productive and "get" the struggle is what helped me.
How would you describe your songwriting process?
Stream of conscious.
How would you characterize the influence other artists have had on your music?
Who are some of your favorite bands/ artists at the moment?
Little Scream, Wye Oak, Callers, Megafaun, Pontiak, Small Black, Ty Segall, James Blake, Lady Lamb the Bee Keeper
What might audiences expect from your show at the Iron Horse Music Hall on April 15?
What might they not expect?
What do you think of the songs on your record “Home Recordings” now?
I still believe in them. They will always be a big part of me.
What did you make of the material on “Home Recordings” while you were completing the album?
They [the songs] are very confessional.
How do you feel about playing solo as opposed to with a band?
Both are cathartic in different ways.
What are some of the differences between the two experiences?
They are very similar, surprisingly. I just rock out more with a band.
What was the recording process for your album “epic” like? Some of the songs feature studio chatter and other informal sounds or “flubs.”
Very natural. Just me and a bunch of friends re-realizing songs.
How would you characterize the decision to leave such moments on the final release?
I wanted it to be real as possible and set a time and space
What was like going on tour with the National?
Great. They treated us so well. They are all such gentleman. Really took us under their wing and went above and beyond to take care of us. Their fans are so awesome too. Nothing got thrown at us.
What led to multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dessner landing the job of producer for your latest record?
My friend Brad Cook (of Megafaun) showed me a video of him covering my song “Love More” with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and I was just starting to set dates to record a new album, so I wrote them "on a whim" to see what their schedules were like. Turned out they were busy, but Aaron offered up his space for the next time I wanted to work on some new songs. He kept to his word. It's been heaven ever since! He's an absolute genius. I have a lot to learn from him.
How has the experience of working with Dessner been going?
He pushes me outside my comfort zone a bit, which is what I need. I don't want to keep doing the same thing, and I don't want to surround myself with people that keep agreeing with what I am writing. He has an amazing ear for the counterintuitive and outside the box kind of production that doesn't come as second nature to me.
How would you describe your former job as a sommelier (aka a wine steward)?
I never became one. I was on my way to be one, but I was afraid I was becoming too much of a snob and wanted to enjoy the wine more.
Do you still maintain a decent knowledge of wine?
I enjoy wine often.
I grew up listening to Liz Phair. “Whip-Smart” and “Exile in Guyville” I still love very much. Cat Power I didn't listen to until the last year or so. I can't believe I missed out on her when I could've seen her at a more intimate space. Thank god her recordings convey that really well. She's a rare bird.
Watch video of Sharon Van Etten performing "Save Yourself" off of "epic" here:
What are some of your plans for the future?
Finishing my record this summer.
Finally, what advice would you give to other aspiring artists and musicians?
Be honest. Listen to your friends. Have a support system and only trust people you trust. Start with what you believe in.
Words of warning?
Avoid "cool" at all costs.
Sharon Van Etten with opener Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, April 15, 10 p.m., $10-13, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, www.iheg.com/iron_horse.