The Weirder Side: Singer-Songwriter Sharon Van Etten Battles Personal Demons on Are We There

When Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter who launched her career in 2009 with her sparse debut Because I Was in Love, first started performing, her friends asked if she would record under her own name or adopt some kind of moniker. Because of the personal nature of her songs, she chose to stick with her own name.

"I don't have a persona," she says. " It's my name. I'm not going to come up with something clever. It's just me up there with a guitar and I'm singing about my life. How can I come up with a name for that, other than my name? It's all me. At some point I'll be done talking about me and my life, but I don't know how to do that yet."

Given the acclaim that the 33-year-old has received, there's no need for her to alter her approach. After all, her new album, Are We There, is one of the best-reviewed albums of the year.

"As far as critical response, I don't even know what that means," she says. "I don't even know how to react. But in meeting people and playing the shows, I can tell it's going over well. We've just done a 10-day tour of Europe and so nothing feels like reality right now. My band is awesome and I believe in these songs. I'm proud of what we've accomplished together."

Van Etten says she wanted the album, which features lush production and a variety of instrumentation, to be a "band record." A large ensemble of studio musicians contribute and there's a wide range of instrumentation, including synthesizers, organ, strings and "beats."

"I wanted it to show the weirder side of me," she says, adding that she used the Omnichord, a primitive synthesizer, to write many of the tunes. "I wanted the studio sessions to be open and my bandmates to be open and free. That's the core of the record — everyone just hanging out and being free in the context of these really heavy songs. That was one of the biggest challenges that I ever had."

She recorded the bulk of the album in Weehawken at Hobo Sound, Stewart Lerman's studio.

"It's a great studio," she says. "It's humble. Stewart used to have a bunch of amazing gear but now it's the bare minimum. You're not overwhelmed by equipment. It's like, 'Oh this is the only guitar and it's amazing.' 'This is the only amp and it's beautiful.' He had exactly what you needed. It felt like a beach house walking in. I felt like I was at home right away.

For the "piano ballads," she went to Electric Lady Studios, the facility that Jimi Hendrix built in New York.

"There was a grand piano that we could use," she says of recording at Lady Land. "The piano at Stewart's studio was great but we couldn't isolate the sound of piano for me to be able to sing and play piano at the same time. Every time I tried to track piano and add my vocal, some of the heart was taken out of the performance. Stewart got me into the Electric Lady room because he's worked there before. He got a time when his friend worked there and snuck me in to work on the piano."

While the album features a bit more on the electronic side of things, it's not a complete departure.

"When you hear the lo-fi Casio-type notes, it's the Omnichord," she says. "And the same goes for the electronic flourishes. People have told me, 'Dude, you want all high tech.' But it's not high tech. On 'Our Love,' my friend Mickey Free added more bass and some of the sub. But the core is this '80s synthesizer, like a Casio, that I play live all the time. My bandmate Heather [Woods Broderick] gave it to me when she was learning the songs to Tramp. We had this song called 'Magic Chords' that I wrote on a full organ. I didn't know how to play it live. You can't tour with an organ. It's a lot of maintenance. She gave me the Omnichord and told me it's easier to play. I brought it home and wrote half the record on it."

A beautiful album with dark songs about a relationship gone wrong, it's a terrific showcase for Van Etten's beautiful voice — the indie rocker sounds a bit like a cross between Cat Power and PJ Harvey. And some songs even have a Gothic, Nick Cave-like feel to them.

"He's probably one of many artists that I listen to that has inspired me," she says of Cave. "Nick Cave and PJ Harvey go hand in hand. I listen to lots of different music. In some ways, I find it hard to find an identity because I am influenced by all these different things. I think, as human beings, we absorb a lot around us and we don't even know how much it affects us from day to day. I grew up listening to Jethro Tull. I'm sure I have some of those sensibilities that I'm not aware of."

Van Etten says her personal experience went into the tunes.

"It's like that for every song I've ever written," she says. "I only write from personal experience and it's stream of consciousness. It's all my therapy. It's coming from a very, very real and very dark place."

The album's title even suggests its theme. The lack of a question mark is completely intentional.

"Every single record, I have some little joke here and there," she says. "I like that aspect. I like the lighter side of me. For Are We There, it's a joke about being on the road. It's a question I ask myself all the time: Where I am at personally and in my relationship and in my career? I think it's a very mindful question to ask. I didn't use a question mark on purpose so it would draw more attention to it and people would think about it more. It wasn't my intention to write a breakup album. I'm just writing to write all the time. I was in a relationship for 10 years. It just documents the last two years. The record is about loving someone so deeply and it's about how that's not all that there is. It's not that simple."

It's likely Van Etten is at the point where she can graduate to bigger venues. But for the time being, she's happy revisiting the clubs that have helped her to this point.

"Honestly, I've been trying on purpose to play clubs that I would want to go to and stay with promoters who have supported me," she says. "I don't want to make a leap to bigger venues. I played some theaters that were nice but being seated seems really constrained. In bigger places that are really cavernous, it's hard for me to connect with people. I feel pretty lucky to be able to do what I'm doing."

Sharon Van Etten with Jana Hunter and Likenesses

8:30 p.m., Friday, June 20. Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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