Over a bottle of red wine, Sharon Van Etten opened up to us about her hard-won triumph of a record, Are We There, and the stories behind the songs that detailed the breaking of her open heart. A thousand words weren’t enough to dive into Are We There in full, so we’ve got a few extra tidbits about the record, Sharon’s process, and some thoughts from her friends–and idols–about why the prolific performer is at a pivotal moment in her career.
Sharon on learning from Aaron Dessner of The National while working on Tramp and why she was looking forward to taking the reigns with Are We There: “I learned a lot from working with Aaron. And I feel like, in touring that record and talking to people and meeting fans and doing interviews, one of the things I felt insecure about is that most people would ask about people who played on the record, and I felt like the star-studded cast overshadowed my songs. Also, Aaron’s style is burying things in dark, crazy sonics, which is cool, but at the same time, it was another insecurity about my songs, where I was like, I don’t really play music that needs to be buried in a wall of sound. I just want to show … I just felt like maybe the cast undermined what the songs actually were. I learned a lot from it, which is why I really wanted to be more in charge. I knew more what I wanted. Every album I’ve made I’m really proud of, and I just feel like, when you’re graduating, you go to sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, and now I’m finally in high school! I’m still goin’. I’m still learning, I’m still figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t. But this is the first time I feel like I had the tools to communicate with people what I wanted, but also have the trial and error from the past, knowing how to communicate with people and filling up the songs without covering them up.
John Cale, a massive inspiration and collaborator of Sharon’s, on her strength as a songwriter: “She seems to write from a deeply personal place. Seems someone’s disappointed her and she’s dealing with it. That pretty thing isn’t all sweet. Honesty always trumps formula. Whatever she’s singing about, you believe her. The different personas take over, and they’re all her.
Sharon on working with Adam Granduciel and Dave Hartley of The War on Drugs: “This time I really wanted to assign roles to people, because Doug was playing guitar and bass. In hindsight, I realized I was asking a lot of him, to have to think of playing parts for both instruments for all these songs on Tramp. He was bouncing back and forth a lot. He just learned to play bass to play with me. Dave played bass on Epic, and so we were really close before I knew the War on Drugs guys, and he wrote a bunch of amazing bass lines that really changed the vibes of the songs. I decided to have Doug be specifically guitar, Heather be specifically vocals, Zeke played drums and Dave played bass. I played keys and guitar as well. That was the heart of the record, right there. Adam came towards the end because he was jealous that Dave was part of the crew! [Laughs] He was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m gonna come out with Dave sometime!’ He ended up doing a few guitar lines on the record, but Dave is all over it.”
Adam Granduciel on feeling like a schoolgirl when he was asked to contribute to Are We There: “Dave is kind of Sharon’s favorite. Like, when you put together a list of the people you want to work on your record, Dave is her number one. I’ve known her for awhile through Dave when he started working on Epic. She wanted Zeke on drums and Dave on bass, so I actually got, like, 25 songs, demos of what they were working on from Dave. Sharon was like, ‘Please, let Adam listen to them.’ I was able to listen to pretty much every song that they were demoing for the sessions. I kind of came into the sessions being like, ‘What’s it going to take for me to play on this record?!’ half-jokingly. Of course, I want to get asked to play on things, but I only really want to play on certain things, and Sharon’s album is really one of the only records that I was embarrassingly like a schoolgirl when I was asked. I don’t want a million people to ask me to play on their record, but Sharon, I was like, ‘Oh man, is there any you can get me to play on this record?’ She found out, and she was like, ‘Oh my god of course, I was scared to ask you!’ We got over the initial strangeness of that conversation, and then we went into the studio for one day, on a Sunday, when Dave was going back up. They had already been working on stuff for a few weeks. I had a few ideas for a few songs, and I had been playing along to them in my room. A few of them didn’t make the record, but then I ended up playing the slide guitar on ‘Our Love’ and I played some Wurlitzer and guitar on ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up.'”
Sharon on Jools Holland, meeting John Cale and the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds tour that changed everything: “When I was in England, I was playing The Jools Holland Show. The universe just like, winked at me, because that was the night that John Cale was on it also. The way the show’s set up, the bands are in the round, so it was like, The Vaccines, Jessie Ware, John Cale and I forget who the other one is … Basically, it feels like a game show, the way they do it. You only get one shot, so I was shitting my pants. Apparently, a friend of mine knows [Cale]’s manager, and sent him the record, and let me know that he thought it was sweet that I dedicated the record to him. The whole cover is an homage to his album Fear. Now I’m playing in front of this guy!? At the very end of the show, the manager came over to me, and she said, ‘John wants to ask you something.’ She grabs me by the hand, she knocks on the door, he comes out, and he’s like, ‘Sharon, I just wanted to personally invite you to sing at the Nico tribute I’m doing at BAM. Is that something you’d be interested in?’ I almost started crying. I was like, are you kidding me?! … It was also right before I left for that tour, that’s when I got the call … I had March and April booked off for time to myself. After touring for a solid year, I promised my boyfriend, ‘I promise that March and April will be off. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel.’ I was at the airport and I get the phone call from my booking agent, and he’s like, ‘Hey, I know you said you wanted to be off, but …’ He put my name out there as an idea thinking that it was a shot in the dark, and it came back with a full-blown package deal to open up for Nick Cave. I got to fly to do Jools Holland before I found out about John Cale. I remember, I called my boyfriend, because I knew I promised I’d be off, and I said, ‘Can I do this? I really, really want to do this. I feel like I have to do this.’ And he was like, ‘Of course.’ I fly to London, I settle in, I get home, and I open up my laptop, and I’m about to check in with everyone to let them know I’m safe, and I have a long email from him begging me not to do the tour because he wants me to be home. But I took the tour.”
Granduciel on watching Sharon grow as an artist: “Every artist, every record, the idea of getting better is just about making your style and whatever direction you’re moving into feel like it’s natural, you know? For some people, like Sharon, her songwriting isn’t becoming any more electronic or anything. Her production is pretty much the same, it’s just becoming more natural, because there’s more of her in the music. I think that’s just a great step, when you start to really find yourself as a direct connection to the music. Sharon Van Etten is coming through in the song. She’s funny and she’s bold and confident. The other side of it that you can’t see is that she’s just down to let everybody do their thing. She’s not sitting there telling Dave what to play on the bass. She has a general idea of the song, but she’s letting the people around her, people she trusts, be a part of her music. She’s not really sitting there trying to craft any specific song. Everything else around her just falls into place as best as it could when you let something like that happen. Not everyone is really capable of doing that and just letting it come off as natural and inspiring.”