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Sharon Van Etten

Interview — Mohamed Sqalli
Photography — Charlotte Robin

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Never tell Sharon Van Etten she is a one-hit-wonder. The Brooklyn songwriter released her 4th album this year, featuring her trademark singing and eleven moving songs. Meeting her was the occasion to learn two things from her : she likes when fashion magazines give her bigger boobs and she is the best at telling jokes.

Hello Sharon. Welcome to France ! Is there any artist in French music that inspired you at some point?

Edith Piaf is an amazing singer. She’s old school but it’s something I grew up with.

And more recently ? 

I don’t think Cate Le Bon is French … Is she ? (laughs)

1

So you released a new album this week. And for the first time, you have produced it by yourself. Do you consider it being easier or more difficult? 

Well on the one hand it was easier because we have been touring together for the last 3 years with my band, so we have really great communication. I’m not a gear head or a technical person so the advantage with them is that they understand my weird language in the studio. But it was difficult sometimes because I had ideas that I wanted and I had to choose whether some parts had to be played by me or by my band. But at the end of the day, all the final decisions were mine.

To what extent did your previous collaboration with Aaron Dessner on Tramp help you to self produce Are We There?

He gave me confidence when I was so insecure about the way I talked about music. I’m not a technical, you know. He helped me to get my band together before I even started writing new songs. He found Heather my singer for example.

Am I right if I say that you gained a lot of confidence since Tramp ? The arrangements are rich and expansive and you sound very confident. There is a true impression of control in the whole album.

I gained a lot of confidence especially by touring with the band. I also learned from working with Aaron that sonically, the songs were kind of buried sometimes. It was centered around the vocals, really dark. He had that The National sound that is great, and that opened doors for me.

4

We feel a real interest for cinema in your artistic approach, especially through your video clips. For instance, in the video for Taking Chances, you do a remake of the opening sequence of Cleo from 5 to 7 of Agnes Varda. Is there any chance to see you experience this form of art in the near future?

Do you mean by acting? (laughs) I’d love to learn how to do that. I would be interested in not touring and trying that for a while. Writing a score would probably take me something like a year. I have two years before I completely end this tour, so let’s begin with that. 

I read that the songs that are in the album Tramp had been recorded on the road. Is this true? In which circumstances have you written the ones of Are We There? 

Well, for Tramp, I all wrote them in different places. Some at home and some on the road. For Are We There, I wrote the song Tarifa in Spain. At the end of the tour, we had just played Primavera and I flew with my boyfriend down the coast. I hadn’t seen him for 6 months basically. And then we had a week or two just together to reconnect. We didn’t party or anything, we just hid in a house on a cliff overlooking Morocco. And all we did is talk and read and cook, and drink wine. That’s when I wrote that one. Break Me, I wrote it at home in Brooklyn and he lived in Manhattan. While writing, I used an omnichord, that I played with headphones on not to bother my neighbors. He was making room for me in his apartment and we were talking about me moving in eventually, and that’s what the song is about.

3

You said in previous interviews that writing songs was a form of therapy for you. Don’t you fear to be too much vulnerable by exposing real elements of your life? 

Well yeah, I’m vulnerable. I’m just who I am. I have always written the same way. I started writing music for therapy for myself not thinking it would become anything. People just connected to it. My friends encouraged me to start playing open mics. And that people I met at open mics encouraged me to play shows. And that just grew, and I can’t take for granted that people connect with it. I do feel vulnerable and it’s scary but it’s also … it’s good. I wonder how much it’s too personal sometimes, I’m still walking the line but at the same time, I think about it. It’s not like it doesn’t cross my mind. It’s general enough for people to still relate to it and not feel sorry for me.

A few months ago, we interviewed Angel Olsen and she told us about the difficulty she had sometimes to control what is published about her. Is it something that affects you too?

I think when you decide to do this, you have to be ready to just put yourself out there. It’s your name, and you’re the one talking about yourself. People will interpret it any way they want. You’ve kind of signed up for it. It’s hard when people think they know you and can take some kind of freedom.

2

She had a special word for fashion magazines, that often retouch photos without your consent, especially when you’re a woman. Is it something you experienced too?

Again, if you sign up to be in a fashion magazine, that’s their job. And I don’t know if I agree with it, but I’m like "damn, my face looks nice ! They gave me bigger boobs !"

People often depict you as a dark songwriter. I even read an article speaking of you as « Sharon Van Etten, the black star ». Do you agree with them? Do you consider yourself as a dark person?

(Laughs) Oh my god! Well, do YOU agree with them? In fact, it’s one side of me. And indeed, I only write when I’m going through hard times. But if you see me live or if you meet me, I’m a nerd. I’m a goofball. I’m weird. (laughs) I love to laugh, I like jokes and comedy…

Ok, perfect then because the next question was : do you have any joke you could tell us to prove them wrong?

(Laughs) Well let’s see. It’s kind of a goofy one.

(ed. For the reader to fully enjoy the joke and Sharon Van Etten's outstanding skills in telling jokes, we thought that it would be preferable to make the sound extract available

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