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By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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Three years ago, Sharon Van Etten—then a 25-year-old singer-songwriter who'd recently left her boyfriend in Tennessee to make music in New York—landed an internship at the record label Ba Da Bing, home to the buzz band Beirut. To label owner Ben Goldberg, she was a disciplined, fastidious, quiet gift. Maybe too quiet.
Van Etten didn't say much. She simply did her work—assembling press kits, making post-office runs, compiling e-mail databases—and took the train every night back to her place in Brooklyn, found after a stint at her parents' house in New Jersey. After a year and a half, Goldberg started paying her. "Sharon was a little tentative to take on new stuff," he recalls. "She's very hard on herself. She didn't think she could do it, but once she was put in charge of something, she did an amazing job." A few months later, he promoted her to a full-time employee. "It was very slow, very organically building."
Her other talents took even longer to fully materialize: This week, Ba Da Bing releases Van Etten's second album, the seven-song, playfully titled epic. She still works at the label, but the arrangement is less opportunistic than that might sound. Like her employment at Ba Da Bing, her spot on its roster was also a patient, near-silent process. In an industry where connections often matter more than the music itself, she never actually told Goldberg she wrote songs, much less that she was playing them at tiny clubs in the city as often as possible. Instead, a former employee filled him in. "She was so focused on perfecting herself and getting the experience of doing it," Goldberg says. "She was fine to go to a small club and play at midnight on a Monday, but she never expected the support of the people around her. She never turned it into 'friend rock.' "
When she'd started writing songs in Tennessee, Van Etten didn't have much support. As she puts it, her boyfriend was in a touring emo band, and he didn't appreciate her songs—intimate, country-tinged numbers that he thought divulged too much information about their relationship. She would sneak out to open-mic nights—and sneak in co-workers—only when her boyfriend was on the road. "He didn't think my songs were good enough to play out," she recalls. "He thought I could be a better writer."
On "Much More Than That," from her overly polite 2009 debut, Because I Was in Love, she used that idea as a springboard to explore their stilted relationship, and her status within it as a puppet or a pet: "One day, I'll be a better writer/I'll make every face/That I'll never perfectly phrase," her gorgeous, breathy quaver offers, barely breaking past a mumble. The record was a roving, 11-song collection limited to acoustic guitar and a few accompanying textures courtesy of producer Greg Weeks. But only epic's opener, "A Crime," emphasizes acoustic guitar. What's more, it's the loudest thing Van Etten's released yet, the notes buzzing as she abuses a few simple chords, pounding the strings like a bad memory. "Light a cigarette/Think of you/And walk away," she sings, brash and a little bothered. She alternately stretches and snips the syllables, exaggerating both the ultimatum and the newfound independence that fueled it. It's the same voice that made Love so promising; here, it's entirely uninhibited and completely in command.
"It's taken me a while," she explains. "I'm a nervous person. I take my time and breathe and wait until I know I feel all right doing something." Her first EP was recorded solo in her parents' basement; Love was recorded in a basement studio with Weeks alone. At last, epic is Van Etten's proper full-band introduction. "Comfort is my favorite thing in the world—whether it be how I dress or be it situational, I never want to rush anything," she continues. "I know that I'm very insecure, but I'm a lot more secure than I used to be."
Consequently, every bit of epic feels like a personal and professional declaration. Lyrically, Van Etten stands up to the world; musically, she brings a perfect band to a set of songs that lands every hook. "Don't Do It," for instance, glows with sheets of guitar noise and cymbals that crescendo and cascade, all building to a final minute of defiance: "You want to do it, if you want to do it/You will if you want to," she sings three times, her voice growing a bit more agitated with each pass. Finally, the drums lock into place. "I wish I could make you right," she concludes, dragging her voice and permanently exhaling all that co-dependence as the band collapses behind her. "It's self-therapy," she says. "I'm learning in hindsight from my songs. That gives me more confidence to write."
Sharon Van Etten plays the Rock Shop October 8 and Mercury Lounge October 9