SHARON VAN ETTEN: Serendipity and Survival in Brooklyn
Sharon Van Etten’s New York story is serendipitous (a word she brought up multiple times to describe her trajectory) and could make a person jealous if it weren’t for her earnest and generous nature. When I caught up with her via phone she was running an errand somewhere in New Jersey in preparation for touring, which she’s done a lot of these last few years. “I’m walking to pick up the tour van right now, so you might hear cars passing by,” she apologized.
Last year served as a breakout moment for Van Etten after her sophomore release, Epic (Ba Da Bing), a concise, confessional song-cycle that proved undeniably catchy, earned praise from both the NPR and Pitchfork sets. In only seven songs—and not unusually long ones, either—the album delivered on the promise of its title, cutting straight to the heart by way of Van Etten’s pure alto and strummy guitar licks. “One Day,” the penultimate track on Epic, is a short, sweet, jangly tune that makes my eyes watery no matter how many times I play it on repeat. Within the song’s four minutes and 43 seconds there’s joy, sadness, and everything in between.
A seasoned New Yorker now, Van Etten is currently finishing up a new album in collaboration with the National’s Aaron Dessner, which they’re recording at the band’s Ditmas Park studio. But rewind to the era of 2005/06, and she was a newbie in the city, describing herself as, “you know, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I responded to every want ad I could if I was even 10 percent qualified. I landed a job at Astor Wines, where I worked for a little while.” Although she’d grown up not too far away in suburban New Jersey, and spent most of her life there (other than a short stint at Middle Tennessee State University), all she knew of New York was the glitz of Broadway, having attended a lot of musicals as a kid. “It was overwhelming when I moved there,” she admitted, recalling her first Bushwick sublet and the glory of the city. “Brooklyn was a whole new thing for me,” she said. “I just went to every show I could, soaking it all in. The J/M/Z is still my favorite train because it’s above ground and goes over the water.”
By 2006 and 2007 Van Etten was playing her first shows at Piano’s and Sin-é. “I was terrified, and most of the people there were family members,” she says of her appearance at Pianos, “but the guys there always treated me well.” Soon after, she landed a few gigs at Zebulon. “That was the first place that invited me back and gave me a residency, and I got to curate my own night. It was the first time I really felt like I was starting to do something. My friends and I got to play together, I got to meet a lot of people, and everyone at Zebulon really respects artists, so it was a really nice introduction to the Brooklyn music scene.”
Van Etten also worked her way into the thick of the indie music business quickly, landing as an intern at the label Ba Da Bing, where she eventually became a publicist. She kept her music a secret from label head Ben Goldberg for a long time before a former colleague decided to out her musical endeavors. Her boss was so impressed that he signed her up for the release of Epic, which would become her breakout.
When we spoke, Van Etten was about to go on tour with Little Scream, and after that back to the studio to work with Dessner on her next release. I asked her how he became involved.
“I was on tour with Megafaun at the time,” she said, quickly describing them as “some of my favorite people in the world.” The band woke her up one morning to show her a video of Bon Iver, a k a Justin Vernon, and members of the National covering one of her songs at the MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati. “I got all teary-eyed and was like, how do they even know who I am?” she gushed. “Why does this song speak to them? Justin even sang the song in the original key. It was so beautiful.”
Just after that tour Van Etten started studio work on Epic, so she boldly approached the National to find out if they’d be interested in helping out. “I wrote them to let them know it really meant a lot that they’d covered it. ‘I’m going into the studio to finish this record,’” she recalled saying. “‘I don’t know what you guys’ schedule is like, but if you’d like to be involved that would be amazing.’” Although they didn’t have time in 2009, she kept in touch and they came on board for the effort this time around. “They kept their word,” she said. “It’s kind of roundabout, I guess. Serendipitous.”
The record, which they’ve been working on since September 2010 in the cabin-like environs of the National’s studio, is “going to be more experimental,” Van Etten said. “I’m learning how to use guitar pedals, so it’s going to have a lot more noise and space to it. The center will still be guitar and vocal, but we’re exploring a lot with harmonies. Aaron’s really pushing me outside my comfort zone in a good way, challenging me to work outside of the straight-up band format and pushing for special arrangements.”
Although Van Etten was in choirs as a child and wrote her first song with a friend at age 15, she didn’t get seriously involved with music until her twenties. “When I was in Tennessee I wrote a little bit, but I didn’t really pursue it until I left,” she said, “when I realized this was the thing I really know how to do well, and when I realized I was helping people and that they could relate to it. That’s when I decided that it wasn’t a completely selfish thing to do.”
And sometimes people who wear their hearts on their sleeves do win, as Van Etten attests, but serendipity wasn’t all at play in her case. Of her decision to attempt life in New York, she said, “The reason I moved here is because I needed a kick in the ass, and I knew I needed to be surrounded by productive and motivated people because I’m that kind of person. I need a deadline, I needed a job, and New York was always romantic to me, and I was willing to struggle to be able to do that, but you have to be able to withstand that pressure.”
Like Van Etten, I arrived in New York, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only a year or two prior. I’d just gotten married in my parents’ backyard under a knotted oak, and my husband had a gig with the New York City Teaching Fellows to teach English to eighth-graders in Harlem. I was determined to make it. My first job in the city was in the art department of the Strand, and in six months I’d landed a gig as a senior assistant to a small but notorious literary publisher in SoHo. My husband and I, both writers, started a reading series and then a print publication and chapbook press. Both did well, and around those endeavors a tight-knit community formed.
I started writing about music for this publication and others. We didn’t mind that our landlord hung up when we called to let her know that a three-foot-square chunk of our pressed-tin kitchen ceiling had fallen to the floor. We dealt with bedbugs and the decrepit G train that serviced our northern tip of Greenpoint. I’m nostalgic for all that now, as I write from my cheap two-bedroom apartment far away in the Arkansas Ozarks in the college town where I was raised. I left New York in May of 2008. I didn’t think I had a choice. I didn’t know how we’d make next month’s rent, we were so broke.
Although I was making better money than I did in publishing, I hated my job as a publicist for an utterly evil firm, and my husband, who’d started commuting up to two hours one way to teach Comp I and Comp II classes for around $1,500 per class at community colleges, was reaching complete burnout. We’d certainly have been more stable financially if he’d stayed with the public schools, where he had a full-time salary and benefits, but he decided to leave it after a traumatic experience near the end of his second year when one of his students was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. He just wasn’t able to build that barrier that was necessary in dealing with students who all had such heartbreaking lives.
“[You] move to New York and make that plunge because you’re motivated and surround yourself with like-minded people,” Van Etten said of her decision, and I totally agree. I needed to surround myself with like-minded people, and I needed that kick in the ass too. As I write this, having been away for three years now, I still consider the streets of New York home. It’s still where the majority of my friends live—although quite a number have also left, many for financial reasons.
“It’s just one of those places you have to really work hard,” Van Etten explained, when I asked her about what she’d say to aspiring musicians considering the move. “I mean, everyone I know has at least two jobs there.” I want to believe her, to agree that anyone can make it in New York if they have the gumption, but I know I certainly did and that I had to leave. It wasn’t because I couldn’t make it. Our reading series was getting write-ups in Time Out, the L Magazine, and the Village Voice. Our chapbooks and literary journal were selling out.
“I know writers, but they also work at a theater,” Van Etten says. “I know promoters who work at a coffee shop. You have to make concessions, and money might be tighter but you’re doing what you want to do.”
I want to believe her. And when I’m listening to her songs, I really do.
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.