Peace Signs for the New World

Sharon Van Etten Treads New Ground With Help From The National

It seems that young Brooklyn-based folk singer Sharon Van Etten’s sound gets bigger with each album.

2009’s Because I Was In Love was a record of intimate acoustic numbers supported only by Van Etten’s voice and guitar, and last year’s Epic filled out the music with a full band setup.

Working on her next record around a tightly-packed touring schedule finds Van Etten’s Neutral Milk Hotel-meets-Cranberries sound expanding again, with help from The National’s Aaron Dessner.

The two have been writing and recording since September, before taking a break in February for a European tour with their respective bands. Following the stint in Europe, Van Etten stopped in Austin for an intense few days of South by Southwest.

“It was a little insane, because we did seven shows in four days and I lost my voice by the last day,” said Van Etten. “But it was a lot of fun, I got to see a lot of friends and a lot of awesome bands, too.”

Working with Dessner in The National’s studio allowed Van Etten the space to experiment, with guidance from the experienced indie rocker.

“He kind of pushed me out of my comfort zone because he likes to have noise, and he likes to add horns and strings which is very new to me,” said Van Etten. “He imagines every song as having its own world, so it’s fun to bounce ideas off each other.”

This meant putting down the guitar for some songs, though it’s an instrument that’s been a defining aspect of the singer’s young career.

“There are songs where I don’t play guitar at all, and one where I only play one chord,” said Van Etten. “It switches it up, it shows that my songs aren’t dependent on a guitar.”

“We’re going to have more drone, creating a whole sonic wave,” she continued. “Right now there’s so many genres of songs [from the sessions with Aaron], I’m not sure what it’s going to turn into.”

With Van Etten and Dessner laying the groundwork for these currently half-finished songs, guest musicians drop by to add what they hear fit. It’s collaboration deeper than anything Van Etten has done before, with her past two records being written completely by her.

“I’m learning a lot about writing and about being sensitive to other parts, and I’ve realized that having more doesn’t always make it better,” said Van Etten.

“It’s much more fun and liberating and cathartic to have a band to rock out with.”

The transition from solo artist to collaborator has been a gradual process, with Van Etten’s strong, honest voice always transmitting the most intimate feelings. Now she has the world listening, and her intimate expressions of pain and joy seem to carry universal sentiment.

“I write from a very autobiographical, confessional place, so whenever I play I’m looking back on my life and what I was going through at the time,” said Van Etten. “I try to write in a way that’s general enough not to alienate people.”

“It’s a meditative state of going back to that place in order to perform the song proper,” said Van Etten about recreating her music live. “It definitely helps me get through it again.”

The New Jersey native’s music will always come from emotional experience, regardless of its evolving instrumentation. The negative feelings are just as important as the good, and moments of despair and weakness are felt in her songs.

“I feel like people close themselves up when they feel something negative or are treated badly, as if it’s wrong to feel something,” said Van Etten. “There are a lot of songs out there that kind of glaze over a lot of serious emotions, making it seem that it’s a selfish thing to talk about how you feel.”

Being honest with yourself and accepting blame are essential elements to Van Etten’s acoustic catharsis. She’s more than the cliché girl with an acoustic guitar, proven with songs that balance power and delicacy in ways that hush the crowd.

“It’s such an easy corner to be pushed into,” said Van Etten about the bland categorization of female singer/songwriters. “Maybe that pushed me into playing more electric guitar, but [my audience] learned that I can rock out, and that I can do more than write pretty songs.”

“I work really hard on my songs and my melodies. I try to keep my lyrics simple so the melodies themselves evoke an emotion,” she continued. “You can’t control who likes your music, but I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Things are going well for Van Etten, and there’s no sign of her slowing down. Her third full-length record may surface by the end of this year, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if it shuts down skeptics yet again.

Recording will resume later this month after wrapping up her first headlining tour, an experience that Van Etten is evidently grateful for.

“Every time there’s a show that people come to and know who I am it blows my mind,” said Van Etten. “Every day, it’s pretty weird.”

Sharon Van Etten / April 13th / Casa Del Popolo (4873 St Laurent) / with Hidden Words & Ruth Garbus / $10 advance, $12 door