Sharon Van Etten is stuck in bed.
“I went ice-skating yesterday for the first time in 20 years,” the 33-year-old says with a little groan, supine in her petite West Village apartment. “We went to the rink at the Chelsea Pier, and I totally fell on my ass.”
Van Etten’s got a list, you see. It’s a bucket list, kind of — though maybe it’s more like a between-tours, live-your-life sort of list. Earlier in the week, she got her tarot cards read. (She declines to elaborate, but says her psychic was right on, “reinforcing all the decisions I’ve made and foreseeing a year of growth for me.”) “What else can I do?” she muses aloud. “Roller-skating? There’s a rink in Bed-Stuy that’s supposed to be pretty rad…”
This adventurousness seems a bit out of character. Van Etten has built her reputation on pensive ballads for over seven years now, crooning brutally wrenching love songs about emotional paralysis. But these days, Sharon is set on mobilizing and taking control: She’s about to release her fourth LP Are We There (out May 27 via Jagjaguwar), which contains her lushest and most direct songs to date. It’s also her first stab at self-production, a decision she made in the wake of promoting 2012′s Tramp, a record produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner and one that garnered Van Etten scores of new fans.
“Aaron took me under his wing and helped me learn how to communicate my ideas,” Van Etten says. “I learned a lot from him.” In addition to Dessner, the album included contributions from a veritable who’s who of contemporary indie rock: Julianna Barwick, Beirut’s Zach Condon, the Walkmen’s Matt Barrick, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Dessner’s brother and bandmate Bryce. Though the healthy roster of guests added a greater depth and scope to Van Etten’s compositions — especially compared to the relatively spartan epic and Because I Was in Love — they also effectively turned Tramp into an all-star collaboration, a genre-specific event more than a Sharon Van Etten Record. That characterization troubled Van Etten, who was trying to establish her own identity.
“I got really insecure about the names attached to it,” she says. “Everyone was asking me, ‘You and Aaron wrote these songs together?’ and I’d be like, ‘No!’ I got really defensive. ‘I wrote these songs!’ They helped make the record as good as it is, but I still walked away feeling like my songs were overshadowed because of the people I worked with. This time, I wanted to be in charge, and prove to myself that I could do it.”
That determination yielded a record that, ironically, is defined lyrically by doubts and resignation. But rarely do those emotions overshadow the record’s sure musical footing. On Are We There, after so many years of meek masochism, Van Etten sounds confident and assured sharing her open-wound confessions. The album’s dark songs are augmented by omnichord and strings, making the pain at their center seem a shade or two darker than it was on Tramp. Van Etten says that some of that emotional immediacy is because roughly half of the songs were recorded live. But the fact that the album’s lyrics document recent experiences only added to their strength.
“My records thus far were mostly reflections on things that had already happened, but this one is more about what’s happening right now,” she says. “It’s about my relationship now, about my struggle with pursuing music as a career. It’s about trying to learn how to balance the two, and asking [myself] if it’s possible. It took me up until the last day of tracking on the record to realize what it was that I was writing about. So that’s been intense to face.”
The album’s emotional content might have caught Van Etten off-guard, but its technical challenges didn’t. Between Tramp and Are We There, Van Etten had racked up a handful of enviable studio gigs, including a Christmas duet with Rufus Wainwright for Starbucks’ 2012 indie compilation Holidays Rule, and a key placement on Boardwalk Empire, for which she recorded a cover of Irving Berlin’s 1923 standard “What’ll I Do.” The sessions got her out of the album-tour-album cycle and exposed her to new possibilities for her career. During one of those sessions — neither can remember which — she was introduced to composer and producer Stewart Lerman.
“I immediately became a huge fan,” says Lerman, a studio vet whose resume includes work with David Byrne and Antony and the Johnsons, scores for The Aviator and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and jingles for big brands like Toyota and Coca-Cola. “She’s one of the most soulful musicians I’ve ever worked with, and her work ethic is just amazing. She never wasted anyone’s time.”
A year after those sessions, Van Etten called Lerman to ask (“timidly,” Lerman recalls) for his assistance producing Are We There. One quick lunch meeting and he agreed, helping Van Etten over the next few months to guide the album in the direction she’d envisioned. “Getting to know Sharon as an artist, I was like, ‘Wow this is going to be very special,’” he says now. “She showed up on time every day with notes and ideas. She’s really serious about her work and her art and what she wants to say. It was inspiring to be in a room with her.”
It didn’t end there: because of Lerman’s packed schedule and high-profile clientele base, Van Etten and her band often found themselves privy to some unusual distractions, which she says added to the recording experience.
“Sometimes in the middle of a session, Stewart would get a call from someone to work on an ad,” she says. “He’d be like, ‘Hey guys, Nike just called. Do you guys wanna take a two-hour break and work on it together?’ I’d be like, ‘Sure, why not? Let’s take a break, and I’ll stop thinking about what I’m going through right now.’ It was always really refreshing.”
She seems to perk up when talking about her newfound studio work, as if the promise of a music career beyond the indie circuit is a recent and tantalizing revelation. From Lerman’s perspective, those commissioned projects weren’t just breaks.
“She was really good at it,” he remembers. “She was always up for a creative challenge. Even though she’s not formally trained, she has an incredible ear and great arrangement chops. It didn’t matter what it was — someone presented us with a musical crossword puzzle, and we would sit down and figure it out. I think she realized that if she ever decided she wanted to pursue that, she could do it.”
Last spring, a year after the Tramp tour wrapped, Van Etten was asked to open for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on their 11-date U.S. trek in support of their 2013 record Push the Sky Away. The tour gave Van Etten not only the opportunity to reach a larger audience, but to reconnect with longtime friend Shilpa Ray, another Brooklyn songwriter who had taken time off from her own music to sing backup vocals for Cave and Co.
“Her songwriting is so unique,” says Ray. After meeting at a particularly tipsy Lower East Side show in 2006, the pair began playing basements together in 2008. The familiarity served them well on the Cave tour, where they slipped easily into singing backup harmonies together on stage during the Bad Seeds’ set. “There’s a lot of power in the way she writes against chord changes, how long they stretch and where they go. That voice and sense of melody is mind-blowing; it physically affects you. That’s so rare with music that’s made now.”
Next month, Van Etten will embark on a U.S. jaunt in support of Are We There that will extend through July. With this kind of momentum, she doesn’t see herself retiring any time soon. But with her newfound sense of control comes the desire to steer her career in different directions, undoing old patterns and accomplishing new goals. It’s a different sort of bucket list.
“Touring is hell on the mind and body,” she says. “I love it, but I know I won’t be able to [do it forever]. I’m meeting people that have figured out a way to make it work beyond touring. It’s a whole other world to me. In a way, this is all research. I’m only just scratching the surface right now.”
“The world’s her oyster,” Lerman agrees. “She could really do it all: She could be a performing, touring artist who makes records, who also makes soundtracks for movies and gets to score dance pieces. She’s not interested in being confined to being one type of musician.”
It’s lucky, then, that the signature melancholy Van Etten blows out full-blast on Are We There is unfettered by most of the cynicism that often characterizes songwriters of such emotional intensity. Somehow, despite her heartache, she’s managed to keep her hands on the wheel. It’s an uncanny quality, one that Ray says sets Van Etten apart.
“We had a funny discussion [on tour] where I was ragging on her for being too nice, and she looked at me and said she just wanted to bring a sense of peace,” recalls Ray. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of motivation with most people. My faith in humanity died a long time ago, so to hear someone I respect say that seemed like a revelation — it’s comforting that there are people who still believe. There’s no shtick with her music, you know. She’s Sharon Van Etten.”