This Is How Sharon Van Etten Thrives (and Survives) at Music Festivals

Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten
Photo by Laura Crosta

Flower crowns, neon bodysuits, glitter-spackled war bonnets, and an assortment of flashy, sequined, illuminated, offensive, or otherwise eye-snaring accessories are common sights on the major-music-festival landscape in 2015 — but not too many fans are heading to the main stage sporting a straitjacket.

One guy did, though, and that dude stands out to Sharon Van Etten as one of the weirdest things she's encountered while endlessly looping the festival circuit.

"I can't remember the festival it was at, but somebody was wearing a straitjacket listening to our whole entire set, and he was standing way up front, just swaying back and forth," she recalls. "It was also one of those shows where the sound had this weird overtone, where you look at your bandmate and it sounds like everything they're playing is out of key. I was disoriented by not being able to really hear my band, and then looking out in the audience and seeing this creepy guy in a straitjacket just swaying back and forth to our music....The kind of music that I play, it's tough for festivals because [it's] not all rock 'n' roll and pop and dancy kind of stuff. It was really weird. How am I supposed to respond to that?!" She laughs. "Is acknowledging it going to make it more annoying? I don't know! You have to be crazy if you're going to listen to our music at a festival."

While Van Etten thinks her particular stylings may catch those coming to festivals for Deadmau5's beat drops or Lana Del Rey's syrupy soliloquies off guard, she seems to be in the minority. She's as much a regular at these fairgrounds and sprawling fields as the headliners are, even if it's "tough" to play her meditative ballads for a rowdy crowd.

June 6 will mark Van Etten's first performance at Governors Ball, her home city's de facto Major Music Event, and before the season is through, she'll have checked sets at Boston Calling, Sasquatch, and Glastonbury off her itinerary. The festival-playing experience isn't all too different from the festival-going one for Van Etten, as she's long since figured out how to make the most of her time in between sets. For her, the best laid plan for fully enjoying a music festival is...not having one, really. Comfort is key, though, so plan for that accordingly.

"Don't wear a skirt on a windy day, because you'll probably flash the whole audience — unless you're St. Vincent and a badass and it doesn't matter," she laughs. "Have one band you know you want to see. Give yourself time to wander around. Take it slow all day with drinking, because it catches up with you. I feel like if it's an all-day thing, you're looking at twenty bands at least. You have to allow more time to get to the stages, because you're dealing with masses of people most of the time."

On the next page: "How do you find this middle ground of what you do naturally and what's already there?"  

These days Van Etten isn't likely, at any given festival, to see the bands she wants to — the "highway high-five," as she puts it, is a sadly commonplace thing that occurs when she misses the sets of friends like Conor Oberst or Ratatat because they're on the same lineup but on different days. Still, maybe this helps her appreciate the outside-the-box expectations that come with listening to new acts for the first time, instead of prioritizing favorites.

"Try to have very little planning as far as bands go," she continues. "Don't try and see too many. Pace it out enough where it's OK if you miss the first couple of songs [of their set]. It's not like a venue show where you're walking in and distracting somebody when you walk through. It's totally fine to see half a set and move on. Scheduling is funny. It just depends — if it's one stage and you look at how the stage is set up, maybe you just camp out and chill there and see three bands. Leave room for rest, because that's part of the fun of it, too. There's so much going on around the music."

She and her band look at the setlist in a similar way, in that they consider the environment and the restrictions it imposes while going through which songs will work best on a festival stage. Given that they're not prepping for their standard show and typical crowd, they get to shake things up and try new tunes out while reframing "Every Time the Sun Comes Up I'm in Trouble" and other fan favorites off Are We There and Van Etten's previous records. She'll be releasing her I Don't Want to Let You Down EP on June 9, just two days after the conclusion of Gov Ball, and songs from it have been working well in her current festival set.

"I like being challenged to try something else, or just having a set where we decide to do a rock set and not bring out our acoustic guitars, do songs that are more upbeat to see how that feels," she says. "Most of my songs are kind of downtempo and they build and are emotional, but you have to kind of adjust for what a festival is and what it represents, and why you would go and want to listen. You're probably playing when it's still light outside. People aren't drunk and ready to party yet. How do you find this middle ground of what you do naturally and what's already there? It's not like I'm putting together cover songs to make people happy. We just try to keep it more upbeat while still using songs we play all the time."

And while by her own logic the best plan at a festival is to have no plan, Van Etten sticks to her routine on and off the stage. No skirts leading to Marilyn moments or body paint or regrettable headdresses will make their way onto Van Etten's stage during Gov Ball, and she'll likely stay up there, no matter how swept away the crowd gets.

"I'm not a stage-diver," she says. "That would be really awkward, if I did that when everyone's swaying back and forth." It'd be especially awkward if that dude in the straitjacket showed up again, too, 'cause you kind of can't catch a stage-diver when your arms are strapped across your chest.

Sharon Van Etten plays Governors Ball June 6. For the full festival lineup, schedule, and more, visit govballnyc.com.

See also: Eight Ways You Can Rock Governors Ball on a Budget The Cool People of Governors Ball Torres and the Cosmic Turns of Sprinter's Self-Discovery


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