Sharon Van Etten craves an intimate setting for her haunting musicBy John Wenzel | June 23rd, 2014 | No Comments »
Sharon Van Etten wants fans and critics to know that if anyone is holding back her career, it’s herself.
“Everyone I work with is like, ‘Grow, grow, grow!’ ” said the 33-year-old, New York-based songwriter. “They want me to make the jump to a bigger venue wherever I think I can, but I’m like, ‘No, no. I like where I am. I want to play it safe and play places I’m comfortable in.’ ”
As a music lover, Van Etten is keenly aware of the audience experience at her shows, from the quality of the sound mix to the sight lines to the stage, and her best way of controlling that is to slow her march toward bigger concert venues.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” said Van Etten, who plays the 500-capacity Bluebird Theater on June 24 to promote new album “Are We There.” “Growing doesn’t appeal to me. And who knows if people will like this album as much as the last one? I don’t want the added pressure.”
It’s a counterintuitive move from a business perspective, and one any manager or agent would likely knock. It’s also an entirely different thing than being one’s own worst enemy, as many people (and creative types in particular) can be once their careers become ascendant.
Think of Van Etten as an anti-diva. With a haunting melodic guile and a sultry, sleepy-eyed singing style, Van Etten has won near-universal praise for her last four albums.
Her songs have charmed music writers from the New Yorker, NPR, Pitchfork and dozens of others into fits of ecstatic blubbering while trying to describe her artistic gifts.
But despite the occasional kinship to the moody, downcast music of Lana Del Rey, whose pre-packaged textures and tones are begging to become the soundtrack to a fashionable drug habit, Van Etten writes about small, human things — minus the calculated emotional remove.
Mid-tempo numbers like “Taking Chances” and “Our Love” balance a folk-indebted nakedness familiar to fans of Neko Case with the spare arrangements of Springsteen’s quieter moments (he remains an idol of Van Etten’s, who was also born in New Jersey) and Cat Power’s louder ones.
Between the hummingbird highs and coffee-rich lows, Van Etten’s supple voice also finds moments of relatability and humor. “Are We There” may have been written in the wake of a sinking, long-term relationship, but a close listen reveals Van Etten to be more self-aware than delicately pretentious.
“That’s the side of me people won’t see if they don’t go to a show or meet me and talk to me,” said Van Etten, whose Denver concert falls in the middle of a 42-date international tour that began last month and ends in the U.K. on Aug. 16.
“People think I’m a very serious, dark-and-brooding person, but I’m a total goofball. I’m really into comedy and jokes and fun. I love things outside of the music that I do. I’m really into punk rock and electronic music and really into dancing alone while I’m getting ready to go out.”
It’s hard to blame some listeners for her taking her too seriously, given that her last album “Tramp” was produced by Aaron Dessner of indie rock band The National — which is frequently accused of being incurably dry and pompous — or that “Tramp” featured guest appearances from members of that band and Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak.
“I wouldn’t take that (experience) back for the world, but I did end up feeling like I needed to do things differently the next time because I felt like my songwriting was overshadowed by the cast of characters,” Van Etten said. “My message was: ‘I write songs!’ I just didn’t want somebody else’s stamp on it.”
Van Etten is prepared to take responsibility for everything that comes along with this new phase of her career, whether that means defending the quality of her album, the size and pace of her growth, or the raw nature of her emotional state.
“It’s what I set myself up for,” she said. “I do write about my personal life and love, and it’s a weird lifestyle, but if you’re passionate about anything you do it’s going to be personal.”