Sharon Van Etten is always learning and evolving. In this episode, she speaks on Love More, a vulnerable and heart-breaking song about a friendship that saved her life; and the ways that her life has changed since recording it.
Episode 2: Sharon Van Etten - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: Meeting Sharon Van Etten for the very first time was, for me, a complete delight. Full of surprises and so much grace, it was a real pleasure talking to her about everything she’s got going on her plate- and she has a lot. Writing, studying, acting, mothering, performing- and everything she does, no matter how new it is to her, comes off as perfectly natural to those lucky enough to witness. She’s full of curiosity, and has this incredible adventurous spirit. I found it really inspiring to sit with her, and so here she is, the magical, angelic Sharon Van Etten. Sharon Van Etten and I am so thrilled to have you sitting opposite me.
Sharon: Oh, well it's an honor to be here and thanks for wanting to talk to me, are you kidding?
Shirley: Um, yeah, I- it's a great thrill and you are sort of the, sort of the perfect entity to me as a musician, you know? You're- got an incredible voice, incredible writing, you're self-contained, you can do- it seems to me that you're the girl who can do everything.
Sharon: Uh, dream, dream, but I like, I like trying a bunch of things and I like learning a lot, but I, I still have a lot to learn.
Shirley: It's a skill that not everybody's interested in investing in.
Sharon: Well you also have to have the time and the head space to want to- to dedicate yourself to something else after you've worked on something else for a while. You know, sometimes it's nice to hone one craft, but then you forget that a completely different craft can still influence any other craft that you're working on, so why not?
Shirley: But you seem to, like, thrive, and maybe this is not true, but it does seem on paper that you thrive on juggling many balls at the same time. I mean, I was looking at your US record, Remind Me Tomorrow, which you made whilst pregnant with your baby. You were doing a master's degree in psychology, right?
Sharon: [Laughs] Well, it's- I'm still at an undergrad- I never even graduated, so I'm starting from scratch for college.
Shirley: But you were still studying?
Sharon: I was studying I guess.
Shirley: And then you were also acting in th- The OA, is it?
Sharon: Yeah, yeah, The OA.
Shirley: So, had you ever acted before?
Sharon: Not really. I did musicals in high school, and before I started writing my own music, I thought I wanted to be on Broadway, but I started writing my own songs and then I, I had- felt a very different thing, you know? It's- singing somebody else's songs is great, but then all of a sudden when you find that spirit in you, then that kind of changed the course for me.
Shirley: It's so strange to me because these descriptions of, you know, what you were into when you were young before your musical career took off seem at so odds, at the way that you are perceived curr- you know, now. You're such the cool girl, like you know, you seem, to me, the sort of, the, yeah, the cool girl from school who was always into literary, like, pursuits and knowledge and- I don't know, and that's, I love that this, there's this mad side to you that loves all that flamboyance.
Sharon: I definitely was not the cool kid in school- like in high school I was in musicals. I did discus and javelin, and I- I started loving the weight room, listening to music, and I met some, like a lot of misfits that ended up in the, in the throwing team and that kind of offset my musical side a little bit in high school, but I definitely, I liked throwing, but I was not a good runner. [Laughs]
Shirley: Well you don't need to run if you can throw a spear basically. [Laughs]
Sharon: That’s true; they're the ones running on the other side.
Shirley: Looking at your discography, you know, you've, I- I was amazed to see that you have five studio albums, but before that you self-released basically five albums on your own, which speaks to me of an incredible tenacity.
Sharon: [Laughs] Well, I, you know, I- I definitely didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how the music industry worked at all, but I- I knew that I had these songs that weren't professionally recorded that I just recorded on the internal mic of a laptop, or I had friends record live when I was playing, and I wrote a lot at the time ‘cause I had- you know, it wasn't until my twenties that I started performing in front of people, really, outside of open mics that friends encouraged me to play. And all of a sudden I just found this overflowing of creativity and inspiration and I wrote so much, um, probably four years, I probably had a hundred demos that I didn't really know what to do with. So every time I played a show, I would take these old paper bags from the liquor store I worked at that were broken and I would cut them out into templates of CDs and I would just do abstract painting on them. And then I would glue them and put burnt CDRs in there, I hand-burnt myself, and just write whatever I was feeling at the time. And I would bring 10 to a show. And I would sell them for whatever, or just give them away just cause I just needed to get it out. But I didn't really have an intention.
Shirley: So, you know that on the show we talk about moments in- in a creative’s, um, trajectory where something happens, something changes, uh, surrounding one particular song and you've chosen Love More from Epic, which was your sophomore record, correct?
Shirley: And that came out in 2010?
Shirley: So I-I, you know, bef- just, I was kind of taken aback by the fact that you chose that song. Um, and I, I wanted to first of all ask you, why did you pick this song as an example of a big change or jump for you?
Sharon: Because I wrote that song, it was like the first time that I was talking about, you know, an abusive relationship I was in, like, very outwardly. The underlying story is an abusive relationship, and letting yourself be walked all over and, but loving that person so much and wanting to help them, even through all that. And a friend, kind of being present for you the whole entire time and showing you the light and letting you know that they're always there. And then, and then for me personally, when I finally decided to leave, knowing my friend was still there after all that time and had my back, even though I was in something that they didn't understand, like, that kind of a friendship means the world. And if it weren't for that person's support and their presence, um, I definitely would not be here today. So it's about weakness; it's about love, but it's mostly about friendship. And it was the first time I played with other people, and I had such an amazing experience letting go and trusting other people to play these parts that I heard in my head. And Justin Vernon of Bon Iver heard it, and The National heard it, and they decided to cover it at one of their festivals Music Now in Ohio where they're from.
Shirley: And this was before the record came out?
Sharon: Exactly. It was just the single that was out, and so when I decided after that one recording experience that I had such a good time that I wanted to make a record, someone sent me a video of them covering the song and that made me reach out to them to see if they wanted to track, do any tracks. But they are all really busy making their records that came out that following year.
Shirley: It was a busy year.
Sharon: But Aaron Dessner from The National introduced me to Heather Woods Broderick, who I've been playing with since 2011, she sings- she's my singer and plays keys, and she's been a good friend over the years.
Shirley: So where did you, where did you write Love More? Where were you?
Sharon: I wa- I was in the basement of my second apartment in New York, in Bushwick on the edge of Ridgewood and it was at the corner of Star and Saint Nicholas. I had a roommate, Sarah, who was a baker from Germany and our schedules were exactly the opposite. So I would be up until three or four in the morning writing just below her room. And then I would hear the broom sometimes when it was a little bit too loud, so when it got later I tried to play more quietly, and I had just gotten to borrow a harmonium from- this band from New Zealand that I was working with at the time. And um, so I was playing this harmonium and I felt the reverberations in my whole entire body and it was like a really healing experience because I felt like I was meditating while I was writing it, and it was- the original demo’s probably about 20 minutes long cause I'm just, I hit record and I just sang to it, stream of consciously.
Shirley: Which is incredibly melancholic sounding. Very folk based.
Sharon: It's a great- It’s a great instrument if you ever just want a drone and, like, ‘cause your, your vocal chords are very similar to the reeds in a harmonium and I've used it just as a writing tool ever since.
Shirley: So when you say that you wrote this song on harmonium, did, did the words come at the same time? Or did you write the word separately?
Sharon: I usually hear a melody very quickly once I find a chord progression that's really simple, and if it's really simple, you have so much more time to explore and-
Shirley: Explore melodically, you mean then?
Sharon: Yes, explore melodically. I don't really think of words immediately. Sometimes phrases just pop out, and I don't know why and I'll keep repeating them and sometimes they morph as I go, but I just let myself sing for a very long time without knowing what it's about. It's more of a feeling when I start.
Shirley: And then what happens?
Sharon: Then, I- once I feel like I- I have a lot of ideas and one long piece, I'll put it down and I won't return to it for days, weeks, sometimes months, years, you know, depending on where I'm at creatively, but-
Shirley: And for Love More, what happened?
Sharon: Uh, I probably didn't listen to that for a few months.
Shirley: And are you recording onto, like, what four track, or, like, onto your laptop, or like, or you got full board? I mean, what's your story?
Sharon: At that time, at that time, that was GarageBand.
Sharon: And I just had one mic that I moved- I still only have one mic, [Laughs] that I move around the room just when I'm, when I'm riffing, you know? Um, but I just feel like it kind of takes the pressure off, you know, eventually I'd like a room where everything's just set up and I just hit a button, but I'm not quite there yet.
Shirley: One day.
Sharon: Um, but yeah, I had one mic and I just hung it over me and the harmonium, I'm sitting on the floor and you can, it's one track just harmonium and vocals, I have that somewhere. And I listened back to it on a day where I wasn't feeling very inspired and I just wrote down the words that I heard. Then I started writing the song.
Shirley: And did you feel vulnerable? That's why I was quite shocked that you pick the song cause it's so personal, so brave, I think because you're showing yourself to be so vulnerable, you know? Um, did you feel at any point a discomfort in deciding to share that or was that a relief, or did you feel triumphant at the end? ‘Cause it's a triumphant song, right? Really, even though it seems really dark-
Shirley: And so brilliantly, and joyfully, and triumphantly, I think of it-
Sharon: I mean writing is always like, it's, it is such a release. I mean, finishing the writing of it and making it in the studio and in such a safe space was really healing for me. And then so many people connecting to the song, the studio made it much more healing because it was with people that knew me and my experience and they wanted me to get this out there. And I, and I, and I think it's a common story that people don't tell.
Shirley: And I would imagine when you perform it live, it comes to life in many ways and changes shape.
Sharon: Absolutely. I mean now, you know I’m- when I wrote that I was in my twenties now I'm nearing 40, and being in a healthier place, being in a solid relationship, and being a mother and you know at the time when I wrote it, I was scared, but it felt good performing this song now in a very different head space. I feel like when I open my eyes and I look into the audience, I'm more- I'm connecting with the people that are connecting with the song and not so much of who I used to be. But I see, I see myself in a lot of the people that are connecting with it, and so that makes me feel different.
Shirley: I read a quote where you said that your voice is your greatest gift but also your Achilles heel, and I wondered what you meant by that.
Sharon: In some ways it's getting weaker. In some ways it's getting stronger, and I’m trying-
Shirley: I don't think in any way, it's getting weaker. Just listening to it, you know?
Sharon: Well, thank you for saying-
Shirley: Well, I mean, I'm not saying that to just be frilly. I just think, I mean, you're known for being an incredible singer. People love you for it. Um, and I think the changes in it are to be embraced really. But that's- hey, that's just me being a weirdo, and-
Sharon: [Laughs] No, I mean I'm learning, I'm learning what that it- like, what the changes are doing to my voice, and then how do I, then uh, how do I hone that?
Shirley: Please tell me the story about you claiming that your voice changed when you went into labor.
Sharon: [Laughs] Well, it's more about, it's more about the, the stomach muscles because after 34 hours of induced labor, I had to have a cesarean and, you know, for the last 10 years I had been doing pilates and yoga fairly regularly, and I had a lot of support down here, and uh-
Shirley: [Laughs] She’s gesticulating towards her stomach, people. [Laughs]
Sharon: Yes. Jazz hands in front of my aura right now. Um, but it's, uh, you know, they had to separate it and cut the muscle.
Sharon: And so there was- is like no support there anymore, and so I found myself not being able to sing as high cause I couldn't hold it lower, you know, I feel like to sing higher, I have to have, I have to gain all this muscle back. And, so it's harder to sustain notes. I- It's harder to feel the support, and you know, in general, I find it easier to sing when I'm standing because you can find the posture more, and when I'm sitting, it's really hard to- to feel that support. But, un- until I looked back at it, I didn't realize, you know, people ask me why I was sitting lower, or how I was feeling. I'm like, “You know, actually that's a very good question.” Like I, I guess it's because I was being quiet and I was healing and I was being gentle on myself, and allowing myself the, the space and the time.
Shirley: Sharon Van Etten thank you so much. You're an absolute dream. Thank you-
Sharon: Oh, thank you so much, Shirley. It means so much…
Shirley: So much, it’s just I love you so much.
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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