Singer songwriter talks The National, keeping sane and being a 'goofball'
Andrew Trendell

15:40 5th June 2014

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"I just know 'los cientos' which means 'I'm sorry'," laughs Sharon Van Etten, sipping on a glass of white wine in the Spanish heat. "And '¡A mi mi! Necesito a un doctor', which means 'oh my God, I need a doctor'". We exchange the little local language we know as we attempt to navigate our way through a scorching day at Barcelona's Primavera Sound festival.

Swaying her legs from the sofa, the Sharon Van Etten that smiles around the hotel lobby this afternoon seems a million miles from the critically acclaimed but tortured artist you've heard on record or saw give a brittle and heartbreaking performance on Jools Holland last week. 

There were, admittedly, nerves before meeting her. Tramp, one of the best albums of 2012, was a towering accomplishment of elegiac grandeur, marrying immense grit with a soaring soulfulness to make for a consistently moving body of work. Her latest effort, Are We There, is only more raw and devastating. No wonder she's forever met with misconceptions as she protests: "I'm not a really sad person!"

"I'm a total goofball," she smiles. "I love comedy, I love jokes, I'm a total geek. If I didn't have music, I'd be really sad, but because I do I can put that away."

We're not the only ones to be surprised by her forthcoming demeanour. 

"Everyone's timidly like 'are you OK? Do you need anything?' I always think that on the first meeting people will think I'm this dark goth girl giving 'yes' and 'no' answers and sighing 'leave me alone'. 

"I get it, and if people only listen to my records and have never seen me play or met me then I see that. My mom knows me really well, but then she hears my songs and she's like 'are you OK? I thought you were doing well?' and I'm like 'yeah, I'm totally fine'. That's just one side of me."

As a result, one of the most talked about moments on Are We There comes from 'Every Time The Sun Comes Up', with the cheeky lyric "I washed your dishes and then shit in your bathroom" reflecting her true charm, rather than seeming out of place. 

"That was the one song we finished writing in the studio and my band kind of tricked me into singing a stream of consciousness after we got super-stoned and I was just going about our day," she admits. "They were tracking live in one room and I was doing a fake vocal and was supposed to re-do it, but then after everyone was just like 'ah, we're keeping that'.

"They thought people needed to see that and it was a conversation we all had. I thought it was nice to remind people that you're not completely serious. We were all having fun, even when it was hard and intense."

"Every time I write it's very stream of conscious," she says - which hardly surprises us. Through this short interview alone she jumps up two or three times to introduce to friends and artists passing through the lobby. She squeals and hugs The War On Drugs drummer Charlie Hall and then later is overcome with delight when her former drummer turned full-time manager arrives from the airport.

"He knows everything," she maniacally cackles. "Anyway, what were talking about? Music or something?"

Yes, Sharon - about your stream of consciousness.

"Oh yeah,  it's what I'm going through and I have no perspective on it. In the studio, is the beginning of me understanding what I was going through. I don't sit down and be like 'I'm going to write a record about food'. I don't have a concept, it's just a chapter of my life."

Each album is very much a clear chapter, in the novel of a human being who admits the lifestyle of living a life on the road before realising that 'life back home has moved on without you', is far from easy. But by putting pen to paper and ideas into song, Sharon finds the only way she knows to process the drama of being a modern 33-year-old in New York. 

"It's very cathartic," she nods. "Even if it was cathartic to write it, recording it is too in that it's realised, then performing it is cathartic because it's re-realised and everyone's connecting to it which helps me feel validated in what I'm doing. As soon as I stop feeling like I'm connecting I'll stop, because that would be stupid and that would be selfish.

"I think I'd be a pretty sad person. It's nice to get it out and compartmentalise it. File it away and say 'that was then and now I'm here' and move on."

As a result of 'moving on', Sharon Van Etten can't become that touring pantomime act that can just rattle out the tracks. If a song just doesn't ring true anymore, then she can't perform it unless it smacks her square in the middle of her ribcage. 

"Some song I just can't do any more, it's not even remotely me - unless I feel it's something I can I can play emotively still," she says, swallowing hard. "I'll only really play a song when there's a chance that I might cry.

"It takes me back there and it's good to revisit and check in with yourself. It's like if you're cleaning your room and you come across an old journal, it's like 'who was I five years ago? Oh my god! I wore pleated pants back then?'"

So through all the changes and chapters, how does the Sharon Van Etten we see today differ from the pained soul on Because I Was In Love through to Tramp?

"I'm just not that broken any more," she beams. "I feel like I've been hurt and I'm still hurt, but for different reasons. I know who I am more, I know what I want, I don't take as much shit, I know what I don't want, I know what I will not tolerate, I know when I'm making someone else happy and vice versa.

"I still get hurt and get sad, I'm still a romantic at heart, but I think that one thing about growing up is that you know what you want more."

And what she wants is for things to stay as they are - she doesn't want to be that palladium filling, festival headlining singer-songwriter under a spotlight like so many of those she's compared to. She'd rather follow in the vein of a band like friends The National (she sang with them on 'Think You Can Wait' and guitarist Aaron Dessner produced Tramp' - a band who she says 'did the fucking work'.

"I don't want to be big," she says, shaking her head. "I don't want to be bigger. I think that with the way I write and perform, I like where I am. I'm kind of scared to get any bigger because I just don't think that's the reason I do this. I soon as I don't know who I'm connecting with or why then I want to stop and do something different. I'm not even like a festival kind of band - who wants to stop partying to come and listen to me? It doesn't make sense to me, but I feel lucky to be here. I don't have any 'moves'."

So, enjoy Sharon Van Etten in 2014: in her prime, doing things her way, evolving constantly and proving to be nothing like what you'd expect. Los cientos? She's totally unapologetic, and that's why we love her. 

Are We There by Sharon Van Etten is out now, and she plays Koko in London tonight (Thursday 5 June) before returning to play at Green Man festival this summer. For more information visit Gigwise tickets

 

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