Given that Sharon Van Etten studied music production at Middle Tennessee State University, stuck around the school’s town, Murfreesboro, after dropping out to help run a small concert venue, and then worked as a publicist for indie label Ba Da Bing after moving to Brooklyn in 2006, it’s fair to say that she’s more comfortable with the music business than most young musicians — except for one thing. “I was really shy about sharing my music with people,” says the soft-spoken New Jersey native. “When [Ba Da Bing head] Ben [Goldberg] saw I was playing shows, he was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’?”
She did, and late last year, Ba Da Bing released Van Etten’s Epic, a seven-song EP full of gently heartbreaking confessionals set to winding melodies and flowing arrangements of clean electric guitar punctuated by pedal steel and cracking drums. (Both Bon Iver and the National have covered the eerily droning “Love More.”) On the sighing “A Crime,” when Van Etten, 30, sings, “[I’ll] never let myself love like that again,” she does so with an unmistakable sense of honest hurt. “I write from a painful place,” she says. “Epic was written in the aftermath of a really bad relationship. This guy didn’t even let me have a guitar. I don’t have any bitterness toward him because he kicked my ass into leaving Tennessee. But the record isn’t about him; it’s about me getting over that situation.”
A new record, produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, is due in the fall. (Because I Was in Love, a collection of songs performed with just voice and guitar, came out in 2009.) Before then, Van Etten’s first headlining tour will continue through April. She spent part of February opening a leg of the National’s European tour. Come summer, she’ll play the Sasquatch and Bonnaroo festivals.
But even with the career going well, don’t expect Van Etten to change her tune. “My mom is always asking when I’m going to write a happy song,” she says, giggling. “But I tell her, if I write a happy song, it means I’m sad. I’m like, ‘Trust me, I’m definitely happier than I used to be!’?”