Sharon Van Etten on New Doc, Springsteen and Leaving New York - Rolling Stone
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Sharon Van Etten Talks New Doc, Springsteen and Leaving New York

Amazon Music documentary Departure captures Van Etten saying goodbye to her home of 15 years

Sometime in 2016, Sharon Van Etten was heading to her rehearsal space when she stumbled upon her past. “I walked by an old bar that had closed and I saw these kids living in a neighborhood that I couldn’t afford anymore,” the singer-songwriter said. “I started feeling old, but then it made me mad at myself for even saying shit like that. I got to thinking about who I was when I hung out there, who I was before I moved to New York.”

The experience inspired Van Etten to write “Seventeen,” a synth-heavy standout from her new record Remind Me Tomorrow. With lyrics like “Down beneath the ashes and the stone/Sure of what I’ve lived and have known,” she reflects on her youth in New York while looking towards the future. “The song still resonates with me as I’m a mom now,” she says. “It constantly changes meaning and perspective.”

Fifteen years, three boroughs and nine apartments later, Van Etten packed her bags and moved to Los Angeles in September. Departure, the new mini-documentary from Amazon Music, captures Van Etten’s final days in the city, where she played her last performance as a New Yorker at Webster Hall on May 4th. “I still feel like I have a lot to live and a lot more work to do to have a full-on documentary,” she says. “In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t been around that long. But I do feel like this is a really special moment in time.”

A heartfelt element of Departure is when Van Etten describes how moving to the city at such a young age shaped her as a musician as clips of her performing in front of people for the first time flash across the screen. “I moved there in my early twenties when I needed my ass kicked, and I got my ass kicked. I worked really hard, I had multiple jobs and I said yes to every show. I always struggled to find the next neighborhood that I could afford and constantly move further and further out.” After Van Etten gave birth to a son in 2017, she and her partner — her once drummer and now manager Zeke Hutchins — made the decision to leave. “I realized that a one-bedroom apartment is up to my maxed rent there,” she says. “But also, I was done hustling.”

 

For the Webster Hall show, Van Etten asked Norah Jones to join her onstage for a poignant “Seventeen.” “I thought of all the people that represented the big change in my life over the last few years, and Norah was someone that I grew up admiring.” Departure shows footage of Van Etten and Jones in the studio after the performance, cutting a swaggering version of the song “She’s just so easy to be around,” Van Etten says. “I think it can be really stressful in the studio when you have time constraints, everyone’s squeezing it in. But she didn’t make me feel like that. She made it feel like she appreciated being asked to be a part of it.”

Van Etten and Jones’ duet may sound more laid back and folky than the studio version, but it still contains a heart-wrenching yearning for youth. The song’s nostalgia has drawn comparisons to Springsteen, and Van Etten is more than okay with that. “I’m from Jersey,” she laughs. “I admire him very much. I think he represents the working class in a way that a lot of songwriters of his caliber don’t really pay attention to. I love the idea that someone like the boss is still every man, every person. I’ve never gotten to meet him, but I just feel like he would be the nicest guy.”

As Van Etten unpacks her new home in Los Angeles  — “I have to learn how to get used to nature,” she says — she thinks about what Departure really represents: a love letter to New York. “You don’t have to hate New York to leave it,” she says. “It will always be there, it will always be changing. I’ll go back. It might be more of a see later and not so much of a goodbye.”

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