She probably didn’t know it at the time, but Sharon Van Etten was crowned by indie's current court at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival when a broken string on her second to last song brought out a guitar tech from Modest Mouse with a replacement.
“I was so nervous holding the guitar that I didn’t wanna adjust the strap, so I’m playing it all Billie Joe style,” she told me, laughing at the classic punk pose, on a recent jaunt through Fort Green Park.
I couldn't decide what I liked more: the sight of a tiny Van Etten manhandling gear from this decade’s most famous barking lisp – Isaac Brock – or using that same abused axe to finish a set of intimate confessional numbers on an outdoor festival stage. The real coronation was the mere fact that this Brooklyn transplant was standing there to accept in the first place.
On October 5, Ba Da Bing!, the Brooklyn-based label – also her current employer and home to fellow locals Beirut – will release Epic, the seven song mini album to an audience beyond the borough and the first with a full band, something Van Etten admits is still in a trial period. The songs were recorded over two weeks at Miner Street Studios in Philadelphia last May, following a self-released collection (Because I Was In Love) written largely as a bedroom conversation from an admittedly insecure transplant.
“My confidence level has been a lot higher in the last couple years and I think it came with moving [to Brooklyn],” she says of the new material and life in general. “There’s so many people motivated and productive here… I feel like because you get knocked down so much you learn to take yourself less seriously.”
That admission represents the core of Van Etten's early sound. After returning to her home state of New Jersey from Tennessee after six years, recently single with a firm DIY ethic in tow — having managed the now defunct Red Rose venue and record store in Murfreesboro – she moved back into her parent’s Garden State basement and took a job at the local liquor store. The collapse of both her personal and professional relationships was enough to make her pack up for good.
"I just had nothing else to stay there for," she says, "so I moved back to New Jersey just really depressed." Van Etten says it was her occasional performance at house shows in Brooklyn that year, where she recounted these painfully intimate stories to hushed rooms and a new life outside of Tennessee finally took shape. "That's how I met a lot of people here who convinced me to move to New York, because they said you're not going to get anywhere if you feel motivated living in your parents basement."
There’s a type of confidence born of experience, and another born of distance from that experience, and Van Etten says she still reads her lyrics from the first record – inspired by her tumultuous six-year relationship – as therapy. “I understand it more than I knew, sometimes,” she says.
It might not have been obvious to the small pit seeing her perform so early in Chicago on that summer afternoon, but the narrative fits perfectly to anyone familiar with the casual networking that happens in Brooklyn’s music scene. A passed demo, a friend of a friend, a show night conversation turned into extended words of encouragement, as all three did when Van Etten first introduced herself to Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio.
Since moving to the borough in late 2004 the former recording school drop out and trained sommelier has collaborated with a surprising number of local and nationally recognized musicians for noted studio or live performances, including Bon Iver and Phosphorescent for a film soundtrack, The Antlers for a performance at Radio City Music Hall and The National, performing at the latter’s pop up performance space earlier this year.
These aren’t necessarily the usual requirements for a music publicist by day, or one that came to New York with such a crippling insecurity with her own abilities as a songwriter and no experience with previous bands. Still, it’s a testament to having the raw talent, patience and work ethic, as Van Etten certainly does, in spite of the calculating underbelly of her same scene.
“There some people that take themselves too seriously,” she says generally of her adopted borough, “but the people I’ve been lucky enough to meet and see and play and sing with are really, really normal people.”
Van Etten performed last winter at the Mercury Lounge opening for Eric Bachmann and it did not hurt that the Crooked Fingers frontman draws a loyal, patient audience. The ease with which she held the stage despite battling all the heavy-handed trappings of a traditional singer-songwriter made it truly conversational – very present, very aware. The scene perfectly complimented the blizzard happening outside – the audience could have just as easily been in her living room.
“I want everyone to feel like we’re sharing a space,” she says. “I want [the audience] to know me. I want people to know that I’m honest with them. And it’s okay to be sad and it’s okay go through things and we’re humans with emotions and we shouldn’t be ashamed of them.”
The same goes for her recorded material to date, considering that’s exactly how it was presented in the first place. “I wasn’t sure if I would be good at playing live for a while,” she tells me on the eve of some serious traveling this fall. Van Etten is currently on tour with Marissa Nadler and will embark on a national tour with the Jose Gonzales-fronted Junip in November. “I really like the idea that you only heard me recorded, it was like a diary, as cheesy as that sounds.”
“I want people to sit down and listen to this, by themselves, in their bedrooms and know that I was doing the same thing,” Van Etten says. She’s still afraid to let go of the softer, mellow songs, but that too seems like an outgrowth of exactly what landed her in Chicago this past summer. “It’s still some of the same subject matter, but I think it just comes across as less insecure.” Lucky, she bought herself time to change her mind, as both Bon Iver and The National have been covering “Love More,” the final track off of the upcoming Epic to much larger audiences this year.
For that reason, it might take a leap of faith then to imagine some of the tracks off Epic as a bedroom soundtrack, as a long list of collaborators (Espers, She Keeps Bees) and a full band flesh out tracks initially written on an electric guitar for the first time.
“I wanna show that my songs can still stand with a band and that I’m not hiding behind them all,” she says, adamantly. “Where the space was before, now there’s a band; instead of a climax of silence it’s now the climax with dynamic.”
Van Etten will perform on Friday, October 8 at the Rock Shop and Saturday, October 9 at the Mercury Lounge.