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Why Sharon Van Etten May Quit Playing Music (and Become a Shrink)

Sharon Van Etten knows what it is to voice her feelings. Through three albums of saturnine folk and indie-rock, the 33-year-old raven-haired, mahogany-eyed singer-songwriter has become increasingly well-known for the emotive qualities of both her singing and her often brutally candid lyrics. Her latest, this summer’s Are We There, is her most successful and powerful effort yet, an album marked by the frustrations of trying to safely ferry a long-term relationship through the turbulence that comes with being on the road and away from home for months at a time, singing songs about the same relationship. While its title is another way of asking, “Can we be happy now?” the occasion of its release (and ongoing tour) begs another, equally complicated question: How is it that the one thing that offers catharsis, can also bring her pain?

I spotted you at a festival not long ago, sidestage, head-banging and screaming along to Cursive during their afternoon set. It was surprising, but also fitting.
Oh my god. Domestica. I know exactly where I was when I used to listen to that album: I was slinging coffee at a café in Tennessee, screaming at the top of my lungs while I worked. I was a really big fan. That intro is one of the best intros ever. I wish I could play like that but I can’t. Around that time, I was really into PJ Harvey. But I was also into At the Drive-In, Mineral, Blackheart Procession, Gloria Record, even that one Jimmy Eat World record. What was that record called. “Can you still feel the butterflies?”

I love that record. I don’t care. My friends actually used to call me the “Female Conor Oberst.” I got to open up with him once and I told him about that and he thought it was hilarious.

Would you agree with that assessment?
Only when I see old pictures of myself. I don’t think our music is similar but I’d wear this plaid cowboy shirt and Chucks, and I was singing songs about breaking up. My friend just went, “Oh my God. You’re him. He would wear that! He would totally wear that.”

Photo by Dusdin Condren

But did your friends call you that because you were emotional or just because you dressed alike?
It was a little bit of both. One friend called me that and his friends started calling me that and then it just caught on. After leaving Tennessee, I was figuring out if I was going to move home to New Jersey and I stayed in Vermont with my sister. And I was a mess. I would just get drunk on bourbon and she would convince me to play open mic nights. I had never really played those songs in front of people because they were all fresh break-up songs. But I would get super aggro and I didn’t know what I was doing at all.

To liken someone to Conor Oberst has definitely become one way of telling them that they’re “emo.”
I hate the term “emo.” It turned into this genre of music when all music, if you connect with it, is emotional. So fuck calling it “emo” and fuck calling a person “emo.” Oh, you’re a human being? Okay. Then have feelings. And that makes you more real than anyone who doesn’t acknowledge them. I get really annoyed by that term. Although I think it can be funny and I’ll use it, we feel things and we’re going through shit all the time. So why not deal with it? Why cut yourself off? My career is based off of me talking about my emotions. Would you say you’re an emotional guy?

I’ve definitely been called “emo” before, but it also seems like I have trouble expressing what I’m thinking or feeling most of the time.
Yeah. I can express it in my work, but can I express it in my daily life? I don’t know. I’ve learned how to express myself publicly, where maybe it alienates me more from my personal life than my listeners. I don’t think I’ve figured it out. All my friends know I’m an emotional person. They get that. And I don’t want to generalize, but most musicians that I know have a hard time communicating their emotions in real life. And their way of dealing with it is by singing and writing.

Has it helped you a great deal?
Oh God, yeah. I don’t think I’d be here if I didn’t get to sing.

Sharon Van Etten performing in Brooklyn in 2011 / Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images

How do you mean?
I was pretty troubled for a long time. And I didn’t know that. As a kid, I never talked about my emotions. My mom gave me a journal, but I didn’t know what it meant. I just wrote all the time, not even thinking about it. But it also made me feel better. Then I started doing choir stuff and I would sing and it made me feel good but I didn’t know why. I had a really hard time being a serious person. In my day-to-day life, I was a comedian. I had my friends, but I was really shy. I’m one of five kids and we’re all goofballs. And while my family’s amazing, with five kids, there’s going to be some dissonance. There was a lot to grief growing up when I was young: Both of my grandparents on my mom’s side died when I was in 3rd grade and I saw my uncle breathe his last breaths in the hospital. But my dad’s side is Irish Catholic and that’s how we were brought up, too. You know, “If it hasn’t killed you, keep going.” I never learned how to talk about stuff because instead of talking, we would defuse intense situations by laughing and making jokes. But then I started writing and singing.

But it would be a while before you’d perform, though, right?
I moved down to Tennessee for school. I dropped out, I fell in love with this guy. But he just didn’t like my music. So I didn’t perform for five years but I wrote and played at home all the time. When I finally moved and left, it was like… I just let it out. They were really heavy songs, that’s what the whole first record is. That’s where I was coming from: I hadn’t sung in almost five years! But it was the first time that I wasn’t joking about my emotions or trying to move on to something else before I’d addressed them.

What didn’t he like about your music?
Well, I didn’t know what it meant to write songs and perform them, and I didn’t know what it was to tour. He was in a band that had to tour all the time. But, he would tell me, “You’re better than that. You could be a better writer. Your songs are too personal. There’s no art to your writing. It’s way too personal and all of our friends know what you’re talking about. It’s like, you’re just telling us about your day. You’re smarter than that.” And, it got to me. It stuck with me. I know he felt bad about it, but it still fucks with me. I still write from a personal place. I don’t mean to. It’s just what I do. It’s how I work things out.

in New York City, March 2014 / Photo by Jolie Ruben for SPIN

But it’s also resonated.
To say that I’m playing music professionally is hilarious, because it’s my own therapy for myself that also turned into my career. And I don’t understand it yet. I’m still learning to do it in a way that’s not selfish. But if stuff is really too personal, I’m at the point where, I’m like, you know, I write a lot, mostly for me. And if it’s something that’s just like, “Oh wow, you can hear me crying on it,” or you can hear me wasted on it, or you can hear me talking about something very specific, I don’t share it. I don’t share the shit that’s way too personal that it can actually be alienating, too. I mean, I try not to. I know some of it’s really intense. I’ve been through it</> and I listen to it and I’m like, “Oof. Oh my god. I’m sorry.” I want to apologize to people. Like, “If you’re in a good mood, if you’re having a good day, don’t put my record on. Enjoy yourself. Put on some War on Drugs. Put on some Chromatics. Just dance.”

Maybe it’s your delivery, but, at this point, even though you’re singing about extraordinarily personal things and you’re coming from a place of great vulnerability, it doesn’t sound like a purge or like you’re falling apart. It sounds like it’s coming from a place of strength.
It’s distance. My demos are when I’m falling apart. It’s about translating it to a record and making sure it’s in a place of clarity. So it’s not, “I’m a mess” or “This person sucks,” but rather, a place of love and feeling like figuring it out. But there’s a struggle because there are some songs where I can’t believe I put that on there. It’s pretty personal. I hope it’s uplifting, even though its heavy stuff, because it is for me. But I’ve also had to listen to it in a “I have to work on it” kind of way. Now, instead of being analytical about instrumentation or why a harmony needs to be there, it’s “What does this all mean?” I think I’m learning how to communicate better, but in a way that makes it more personal.

Interpersonally or musically?
Both. Relationship-wise, with friends and families, with lovers. I’m learning how to be more honest, even when it’s hard. Being who you are even when it’s not what somebody else needs you to be. It’s that struggle of just growing up. I am the Queen of Awkward.

How so?
Well, I used to be a lot more awkward. I had anxiety, had panic attacks all the time, couldn’t look people in the eye. I used to keep my hair short but have long bangs so I could keep them over my face and could avoid eye contact. I was a total mess. I’ve come pretty far, just to stay in New York and to pursue a career that’s essentially having to perform in front of people over and over. It’s a real exercise in being comfortable with yourself.

in New York City, March 2014 / Photo by Jolie Ruben for SPIN

Are you satisfied with the results?
I don’t know. I’m in this position now, where I’m thinking that maybe I’ll take a step back, that it’s too much. I didn’t think I’d even get this far. Now I’m starting to feel like it’s messing with my head and I don’t want it to do that. I started writing from a personal place and I still write from a personal place. I started playing and people responded to it and connected with it and now, I don’t even know what I’m really connecting with anymore or if I’m helping people. Now it’s more of a business. I love everyone I work with but how am I going to have the time to step away and have a life to even write about? Anything but my struggles: I want to be able to write about other stuff.

Have you given much thought to stopping? What would you do instead?
I’d like to go back to school, maybe become a therapist. I know that would require a lot of time, but I feel like I could be on a schedule and have a routine and have a life, and know that I’m really helping somebody, instead of this weird… It sounds like I’m on a high horse if I say, “Stuff that happens to me, that I write about… People like my music because I’m helping them.” We don’t know that. I may be hurting people. People who put on my records are sometimes going through hard times: They may want to kill themselves. I don’t want that. But how do you know? My mom always says it’s never too late. When I was freaked out about moving to New York and making a go of it with music, she said, “If you don’t like it, you can move. If you don’t like doing music, you can do something else.” We all have it in us. The moment we make up our minds to do something else, we do it and we figure it out. But you have to want it.