They just got lost in translation, the words Sharon Van Etten said onstage in Barcelona a few years back. The irony and subversion of the statement failed to come across in the moment, at the Primavera music festival, and festivalgoers let her know it.
“It’s such a beautiful area—we’re literally on a stage overlooking the ocean,” Van Etten begins. “But I was having one of those moments where we were having a lot of weird feedback, and I was looking around at the band, trying to tune my guitar and figure out what’s going on. You’d get one really beautiful salty breeze, then the other breeze would be porta-potties. I was so disoriented, and trying to make a joke and say something to the audience, and I said something like, ‘Isn’t this the ugliest place you’ve ever been?’ And I got fucking booed! And I was just kidding—because it was beautiful—but also I was really distracted. I had a couple interviews in Spain recently, and that comment was not forgotten.”
The singer-songwriter tells the story with equal parts rueful recollection and the eager giddiness of working through one of your best stories. Her affable, conversational presence comes through clear on a weak phone connection somewhere between Pittsburg and Philadelphia (“we’re in the boonies,” she apologizes), and while that playful personality is present in Van Etten’s actual music, it’s framed in starker, far more dramatic hues. Are We There?, her third album, treads turbulent emotional turf—take the gutting “Your Love is Killing Me,” for one, which finds her confessing the depths of a relationship’s toxicity—draping her potent voice over lush sweeps and swells. It’s not all gloomy navel-gazing, but everywhere on the album, the stakes feel high.
Van Etten produced Are We There? herself, a first-time experience she undertook with the guidance of producer Stewart Lerman, whom Van Etten first met when recording a duet with Rufus Wainwright.
“We got along so well, he asked me to sing on a song for Boardwalk Empire,” she recalls. “I got called in as a hired gun in these studios I would never be able to afford even a day in, really. He made me feel comfortable, like I belonged there.”
So when she was looking for a studio to record Are We There?, she reached out to Lerman, who toured her around New York looking for the right space.
“I’m still trying to find my identity—I don’t want to be grouped in with, you know, ‘This is where everyone in New York, all the indie artists, record,’ or ‘This is where Cat Power recorded,’ or this is the ‘Brooklyn Sound’,” Van Etten says. “I wanted to find a place I felt comfortable in. He helped me to look around different studios all over New York. The one that he really downplayed was his own.”
Which is exactly where they ended up: out in Weehawken, New Jersey, a studio with a tiny kitchen and couch and a single live room. Van Etten found its modesty appealing. “It just felt like a beach house,” she reflects.
Van Etten’s usual band came in to record when they could, but the Are We There? sessions also found her trying her hand at a scatter of instruments.
“The scheduling was really hard; everyone else was touring with other bands, and stuff,” she says. “It was just really fun to go just for a day, and run around like it was a playground—I played drums on a song, I played bass on a song, I played guitar. Some of it was just filler for the other band members, that when they came back, I was just like, ‘I did this. If you can do it better, I want you to do it better.'”
By Van Etten’s estimate, about a quarter of the final album’s takes are her own. She’s also pretty sure you can figure out which parts are hers without much effort.
“It’s more the weird stuff,” she laughs. “Where you’re like, ‘that’s not a real drum beat,’ and ‘that’s not a real bass line.’ If you’re like, oh that sounds dissonant, or if something’s a little off, I probably did that.”
Wed, Jul 9 (8 pm)
Sharon Van Etten
Starlite Room, $16 – $19