Sharon Van Etten’s Music Is So Therapeutic, She’s Considering Getting Her License.
Sharon Van Etten's catalog is, at times, a tough thing to stomach.
Her minimal, oft-introspective approach to indie rock is well-executed enough, sure. But her painfully honest lyrics and willingness to tackle tough subjects like toxic, abusive relationships and past betrayals tend to cut deep. Worse, her material is so relatable that it can be difficult at times not to feel a lot of her pain while listening to her songs.
When speaking to Van Etten, though, one gets an entirely different image of the musician. No, she's not brooding and suffering all the time. Rather, she says she uses her music as a therapeutic outlet to express — and therefore exorcise — some of her darkest demons.
Before Sharon Van Etten's performance at the Kessler this Friday, we asked her about just that, as well as how she deals with fans overstepping their bounds and why she'd kill to have a desk job.
So the Kessler, where you'll be playing in Dallas, has a kind of listening-room vibe and the audiences there are known to be pretty respectful. Where do you fall on crowds talking through your shows?
I think talking during a show, there's different psychologies of it. There's the rock club where you people are drinking, having fun and partying. There's listening rooms where people go to listen to bands and it's not so much of a party. There's also the in-between, where people show up to listen to bands, but, as they drink, people get rowdy. I don't really play crazy rock music, so it's kind of funny when that happens. But you have to be ready for it all, because it's also just people trying to be social and not really realizing how frustrating it is to play to crowds like that.
Does it kind of take you out of the moment as an artist, though, when people are loud?
Yeah, but part of the challenge is not letting it bother you. Sometimes it can be [frustrating] if it's like one person that you can pick out the whole time. But you can't control that. It's more about how you still play a great show and not let it affect you as much. Hopefully, you have the kind of audience where people learn how to behave. People are also just different. People go to share the moment and not listen as much. That's fine, too. It's just different.
Tell me about the decision to produce your current record yourself.
Every time I've recorded a record up until this one, it was somebody else holding my hand through the process, and I learned a lot about how to communicate because of the help that I received on the first three albums. Now I've learned enough where it's time for me to graduate and try to do it on my own terms. I finally had a set band after touring with them for a couple of years, and I felt we had really great communication and they understand my weird language. They've heard these songs at the beginning stages and seen how they've developed over the course of touring the last record. I knew my band the best and so I wanted to challenge myself to try it for the first time.
What's the songwriting process like for you? Do you find it especially therapeutic? Does it provide some sort of catharsis for you?
Definitely. It's all therapy for me. I'd say most of the songs don't see the light of day because they're too personal, and I don't feel like people can relate to them as much. If ever I'm going through a really dark time and I feel like I need to get it out to feel better, I'll record stream of consciousness to get the demons out. Then I won't listen to it for a few days. Then I'll listen back to it and try to understand what it was I was saying. Then that's when, if I hear a melody or line that's a universal idea, I'll try to turn it into a song.
Since so much of your material does seem to come from a dark place, what's it like having to sing them and relive those experiences night after night on tour?
Really, it depends on the day. But I always feel the songs. It's hard not to go back there a little bit. But I think that performing them and realizing them live and feeling them with the band, you create a new world for the song. That takes me beyond feeling that moment again and being in a dark place. Instead, I can look back and see how far I've come from that time. That's cathartic, and that's what the release is when I'm playing. If I didn't connect to a song, then I wouldn't be performing it.
That said, your lyrics are still pretty candid. Do you ever feel like you put yourself out there too much? Like, do you ever meet people and suddenly realize that this person knows way too much about you?
I feel like I set myself up for that, right? I want people to know me. I want people to talk to me. It is strange when people feel like they know me really well, because they don't. But they connect with me, and I like that they feel that. It does get really intense. Sometimes it feels like a therapy session after a show — after it was already a therapy session for me. That's why I do music. I want to connect with people, and I want it to be personal. The kind of music I write, if it's not personal, then it's selfish. I want to share that with people.
Has anybody ever done something weird just out of maybe feeling like they do already know you so well? Like they immediately feel like you're old friends or something?
There are people who will sneak backstage by telling people that work [at the venue] that I know them. That can be pretty intense. I won't go into it, but yeah, people have overstepped their boundaries, for sure, because they feel like they know me. You just have to prepare yourself for that. I think everybody has that no matter how personal their music is. I'm sure that Incubus has fans that overstep [their bounds]. I'm not saying their music isn't necessarily personal, but it's probably not as personal as mine.
Do you feel like it's important to tackle heavy subjects in song, not only to kind of shed light on those types of situations, but also maybe to help a listener who has gone through similar circumstances feel better?
I just know how I write songs. I don't know how to do anything else. I want people to connect with them. For people going through a dark time, it helps them to know they're not alone. I don't know what else to do.
So maybe it's less of a noble thing and more just doing what you know?
I wouldn't share it with other people if I didn't think it would help them, because I think that's selfish, too. I'm trying to help people that don't know how to communicate their emotions, that are introverts, that don't know how to express themselves very well. When they're going through a tough time, it can be a very serious thing. If I didn't have music, I probably wouldn't be here today. That's the only therapy that I really have. I feel like it's saved me a lot of the time. I hope that other people find a similar [outlet]. People that don't know how to write or sing or whatever, [they] find it through listening to music and it can help them in that way.
Do you find that people close to you worry about you after listening to your songs and getting the idea that you must be incredibly sad all the time?
My mom does. Totally. The reality is educating people about what having an outlet means. I would be a really depressed, dark person if I didn't write. That's the point. You're exorcising the demons. You're compartmentalizing the darkness and you can move forward. You just take it, you express it, you release it. I think it's the releasing that's very important. My mom's slowly understanding. She doesn't listen to songs like “Your Love is Killing Me.” But she's learning how to understand what it is that I do. It's not a normal thing.
I get the sense from other things I've read that you feel pretty lucky to get to be making music for a living. If you weren't doing music for a living, though, what do you think you'd be doing?
I think touring is really hard. It wasn't until my 30s that I felt I could do it full-time. As a career, that's pretty late for a musician. Now I've worked very hard to be where I'm at and I'm second-guessing whether I want to be on the road all the time. I miss home. I miss my friends. It's hard to have a healthy relationship. How do you write about anything normal when you don't experience day-to-day life? You're in a van, you're playing shows, you're seeing clubs. It's not a normal existence. It took me a long time to realize I miss having a life. I miss being in an office. I miss working around people outside of all that stuff. You have the responsibility of employing people now that it's a business. It's turned into this whole other thing. But I'm very lucky because I get to do music full-time, and my whole career has been based off my therapy. That's crazy to me. [If I did give it up] I would probably go back to school and become a therapist. I'd give that a shot. Or I'd work back in a management office and help bands find their way. Or I'd go into a studio and help bands learn how to do that. Anything revolving around music and therapy is pretty much my existence.
Sharon Van Etten performs on Friday, October 17, at the Kessler Theater. Get your tickets here.