MUSIC: Sharon Van Etten shelves softer side for ‘Epic’Sharon Van Etten’s first album, Because I Was In Love, explored the darkest time in the young singer/songwriter’s life: six years in an ever-escalating abusive relationship. The scars-and-all honesty, coupled with compelling arrangements, made for one of the most achingly beautiful albums of 2009. Two years later, she’s touring in support of her follow-up, Epic, a louder, electric affair. As she tells WE, she’s finally ready to rock out and melt some faces.
WE: How does it feel to have a full band?
Sharon Van Etten: It’s fun. They’re just fun to be around. It’s a different way of performing and it’s cathartic in a different way. I’m learning how to rock out a little more. There are some people who prefer my solo stuff, because it’s mellow and sad and not as loud, but it’s nice to do something different for a little while. You get bored when you sing the same way for years.
You can really change it up on stage, I’d imagine, too.
I’m learning the balance. People don’t want their faces melted the whole set — well, some people do, I guess — but it’s nice to have a dynamic throughout the set, peaks and valleys, so to speak.
So faces will actually be melting on this tour?
As much as I can do. (Laughs) Just seeing heads bob is a big thing for me. I’m starting to use my pedal, but it’s funny, I don’t really know how to use them properly yet, so I mess up half the time live, and it’s either too loud when I hit it or nothing happens at all. In my mind, it’s like a joke, like Amelia Bedelia trying to rock out or something. But it’s fun to start learning stuff I always wanted to do when I had a band.
You come from a choir background. That’s as different from what you’re doing now as can be.
(Laughs) Yeah, totally. I always loved singing with other people and I didn’t really write much music in high school, but it was really fun to sing harmonies and hear moving parts and hear a cappela versions with voices acting as different instruments. It was always really interesting to me, like you don’t need an instrument to actually perform a song... That was the beginning of using my choir background to start writing songs. You can have dynamics with just vocals.
You’ve been open about your first album’s source material: leaving an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, for many women, there’s still so much shame attached to abuse. Were you consciously trying to change that?
If I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it in a healthy way. A lot of it is therapy in hindsight... Even though I was hesitant at first to talk about being the girl in an unhealthy relationship, writing songs about it, it’s not as simple as that. I came to terms with knowing that it helps other people and that it is the core of the songs and I can’t deny that. I’ve grown from that experience and I don’t always write about my relationships now. I can talk about friends, or be general, or talk about an issue so it’s not so alienating to other people where they can’t relate to it. As cliché as it is, it’s helped me and I know it’s helped other people and it’s the only thing I know how to do. I’m not gonna skirt the issue, even though it is sensitive and it is personal.
Epic sounds like you’ve really layered your strengths. It feels resilient.
It’s definitely a more confident record for me... Feeling a lot more secure in my decisions and who I am. That’s what made me take up the electric guitar, and I just started writing differently. It was weird!
Did the electric guitar change your perspective as a songwriter?
Well, you know, playing the same chords on a classical guitar is going to sound a lot more mellow and a lot sadder. It’s really hard to bang on a classical — I mean, I tried. For years! (Laughs)
Sharon Van Etten plays with Little Scream, Mar. 29 at the Media Club, 8pm. $14 (RC, S, Z).