When your muses and your demons spring from the same passion, you’ve got two choices: give in or grit your teeth. You cut your losses with one in favor of the other, or you hold your ground and pray that you’re the one still standing at the end of the war between the two.
Sharon Van Etten chose the latter approach with Are We There. She’s not only standing, but towering above the conflicts and obstacles that had previously shackled the strength of her own voice. Ballad by ballad, beneath a spotlight on a nightly basis, she’s emotionally excavating the toughest songs she’s ever written. Or at least that’s what she’s prepared to do, anyway.
“I’m looking forward to focusing on working to keep my mind off my heart a little bit,” she says, her fingertips skating the rim of a wine glass at a West Village tapas bar. “I feel like I won’t really fully understand the depths of the songs until I tour [Are We There] and sing it and live it for a while. In a way, it’s like going to therapy every day. I know when I wrote them and why I wrote them, but the depth behind each song is something I’m going to be exploring every night.”
It’s the week before the Are We There tour begins, her first stretch of dates since she brought the bare bones of the album to the studio months ago. The adventure is one she’s been looking forward to for weeks, despite the turmoil she had to weather to get here. Are We There details the dissolution of Van Etten’s decade-long relationship, which suffered from the year and a half she spent on the road in support of her last, across-the-board adored record, Tramp. Brilliant, raw, and brutally honest, Tramp, which was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, merely signifies Van Etten’s spreading comfort level as a songwriter honing her voice when compared to the clarity and courage coursing through Are We There.
“Every album is a chapter of my life, you know?” she says. “I really don’t have any perspective on these songs right now. I know they’re going to be hard. Heather [Woods Broderick, backup vocalist and keyboards] even told me, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to sing on “Your Love Is Killing Me” very much, because that song is so fucking intense.’ She was there when I was writing it; it was one or two in the morning, and I just had to write this.”
We can imagine Van Etten’s face, illuminated by the glow of a computer screen, as she reads an email from her boyfriend begging her to stay home instead of leaving for another month to tour with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. We can then picture her going to wake Broderick up in the middle of the night to finish the resulting refrains of “Your Love Is Killing Me.” We feel a fleeting warmth for her when she reveals that the progressions of “Tarifa” were written while she was basking in the bliss of the southern coast of Spain with her then-love on a rare vacation, and that she hasn’t seen him that happy since.
We don’t question her pain, her outrage, her resentment, or her determination when it becomes clear that she was forced to choose between a life that muted her flourishing talent and the possibilities presented by her music. We believe her because the scenes she invokes are so tangible, so sharp and merciless, that her revelations fueling the din are too sincere to doubt.
This ability to pull phrases and intricately woven arrangements out of the cracks of her broken heart was nurtured through collaboration, though Tramp gave Van Etten the tools she needed to take the reigns with this opus in progress.
“I don’t play music that needs to be buried in a wall of sound,” she says. “I want people to hear a melody. I want people to hear when an instrument comes in and for them to know what it is, you know? The center of [Are We There] was my band and just a few friends.” (Are We There also features Adam Granduciel and David Hartley of The War on Drugs; her touring band includes Bradley Cook of Megafaun and Darren Jessee of Ben Folds Five.) “These are my friends that I’ve been traveling with for two years. We’ve been through hell and back together, and I have nothing to hide from them. We helped each other be really open and vulnerable in that kind of scenario. I didn’t have that before.”
As Van Etten continues to revisit her darkest moments through song at every show, the breakthroughs and breaking points have her thinking about how Are We There represents the conversation between what (and who) she loves, what that love creates, and how — and why — that love can no longer destroy her.
“I’m in a lucky position where I can write and play music that helps me heal, and it can heal other people as well,” she says. “In the meantime, I’m seeing my life pass me by. I’m in my thirties. I come back from tour for nine months, and it’s like, life goes on without you. I have friends and family who understand and are really supportive, but still . . . I’m trying to figure out how selfish it makes me feel. It’s a really weird thing to do: I’m deciding not to have a real life because I feel like the world has to hear my songs.”
Van Etten’s life, wrought with songs brimming with tears and laughter in every measure, is absolutely a real one, and the work that documents its frustrations and excitement is a commendable feat. She’s won the battle, and Are We There is proof that her foes didn’t stand a chance.
Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There is out now on Jagjaguwar.