How Sharon Van Etten Freaked Out and Bossed Up for 'Are We There'

The singer-songwriter explains how she took control of her latest album and why she might not be making many more.

Sharon Van Etten
Photo by Dusdin Condren
Sharon Van Etten
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Sharon Van Etten's Tramp was one of the biggest breakout indie records of 2012. Produced by the National's Aaron Dessner, it featured liner notes jammed with bold-faced Brooklynites from bands like Wye Oak and Beirut and pushed Van Etten from tiny venues to huge clubs. There was just one problem: She wasn't that into it. "I ended up feeling like the cast of characters who played on the record overshadowed the songwriting," she now admits. "Like there was a stamp from them."

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Van Etten is definitely running things on her fourth album, Are We There. The self-produced Tramp follow-up finds the singer-songwriter turning her darkly intimate investigations of romantic trauma into music both rich and spacious. Now on a tour that's going to last for rest of the summer, Van Etten talked to Rolling Stone about the ways in which she's changed as a songwriter and if there could be life after music.

Touring sounds really stressful. Do you find it's something you have to mentally prepare for?
Well, it's funny. I think leading up to the tour is the most stressful part, because you barely have any time home. We're usually gone nine months out of the year, and you have to make sure you're nurturing other relationships outside of your work when your work takes you away from home so much.

Once we're on the road I feel like that all goes away, though. Touring feels a little more normal now. With other records, I would think, "This is not real life!" But now it is, for me, because you can't have a normal schedule. Even when you're home, you keep weird hours all the time.

What goes through your mind in the period before an album comes out? It's not your first time at the rodeo, but do you still get nervous about how it's going to be received, or can you kind of put that part in a vacuum?
I'm of different minds about it. I used to work at a label, I used to be a publicist, I used to be at a management company. I've sung with a few people and have my own band now. Of course I want people to like the record, and I'm nervous about it. But I think it's also the first time I've made an album where I don't care at the same time. I'm really proud of it and it's everything that I wanted to do. I know there's a chance that people won't like it as much because it's so different from my other records. But I worked on each of those with another person who had their influence on it. This is the first time that it's all me, and how I want it. I could make weird choices and include mid-tempo stuff, and I didn't think, like, "Where's my pop song?! Oh, this song is too heavy, let's not put it on there." I'm just layin' it out there.

And this is the first time you've felt that kind of ownership?
Yeah. I've been pretty hands-on in past releases, but this is the first time I led everybody.

Being the boss lady.
Yeah! Boss! I don't know how to be the boss, that's the funny thing! I'm very democratic about stuff. I know what I want, but I also like getting opinions and people sharing ideas.

You've said you felt insecure about Tramp, in terms of the collaboration with Aaron Dessner. Insecure in what way? Like you had to butt heads in order to be heard?
I feel like, as a female, I am maybe hyper-sensitive to feeling pushed into a corner, or somebody taking a song a different way. Like your big brother is trying to help you, but also it's his sound, it's his space. I love what we did, and it's more of my own thing. I'm like a middle child, "I can do it myself!" And I can! But I felt really comfortable around half the people who worked on that album – because it was half his friends and half mine – and the other half I felt intimidated by and I felt strained, a little bit. Like, "Why do you want to work with me?"

So at what point in an album's cycle do you start thinking about what comes next?
Well, if you think about it, Because I Was in Love came out in 2009. Epic came out in 2010. Tramp came out in 2012. I finished touring that in July 2013 and then I started recording in August, and I wrote songs during that time. And up until now I've been trying to write and live and figure out if I can really do this. As we developed more of an audience, I started getting freaked out. Everything grew way bigger than I thought it would.

Just in four years, I went from playing to 50 people to 800 or more. And it freaked me the fuck out. I've had people tell me, like, "Oh your next record is going to be amazing, based on your trajectory." And I thought, "Ew! Fuck!" I'm not thinking about that, I'm thinking about what happens organically. And I know you have to think of music as a business, and I get that, and that's what kind of freaks me out. When people ask me, "How big do you want to get?" I think, "No! I want to stay!" 

If I were on my way to being a pop star? It doesn't make any sense with what I do, if I'm relating to people on a personal level. My writing all started out from coming from a therapeutic kind of standpoint, for me, the natural progression is to stop, go back to school, and actually become a therapist.

Do you think you're going to do that?
I want to! I'm still letting things happen. I'm definitely going to see this record through and I still have another album with Jagjaguwar, who have been amazing and I want to live with them for awhile. They're friends, they're family, and they do really great business. And I couldn't be with a better group in the music industry right now.

I mean, I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't had help, and I'm still learning to communicate. I'm just asking myself a lot of questions right now. But I know I should think about it. I'm in my thirties. I want a kid. I can't tour all the time if I want to be a good partner and a good mother. I know people make it work, but I think I want a little more normalcy. I'm sure that sounds really dorky.