When songwriter Sharon Van Etten's fourth album, "Are We There," gets released on May 27, the West Village resident and her band will already be out on tour, road-testing the new songs alongside numbers from her impressive back-catalog. Raves about "Are We There," meanwhile, have already started popping up and will probably continue for a while. (The New Yorker, along with a profile/review by Sasha Frere-Jones, recently posted a short film of Van Etten at home, nervously running through "I Love You but I'm Lost," one of her terrific new songs, on an upright piano.) Van Etten not only wrote and performed on all 11 tracks, she also produced the album herself, taking full control of — and responsibility for — all the sounds you'll hear. But this is also a full-band effort, drawing upon her live ensemble's considerable talents while adding to the growing picture of Van Etten as a performer to watch.
Van Etten answered CTNow's questions about the new record and tour and what's currently on her bookshelf. Go see her at the Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden on Sunday, May 11.
CTNow: First of all, thank you so much for doing that New Yorker video piece. What a pleasure to hear you perform that beautiful song, "I Love You but I'm Lost," on your own piano, to see all the books on your bookshelf, and so on. Was that difficult to do, to perform that song in front of the camera, in your home?
Sharon Van Etten: It was actually really comfortable. It's nice to be in my own space to do a performance. I haven't played this song much live on piano so I was a little nervous getting through it for my own abilities, but it came out really nice. Thank you.
CTNow: (It feels a little like being a creeper but) I loved seeing all the music books on your bookshelf. Do you enjoy reading about music history?
SVE: I've only read a few books on music. But I loved them. "Please Kill Me," "Just Kids," "Up & Down With the Rolling Stones," and "Rip It Up" are the few I can think of. I am really fascinated by the post-punk scene and New York scene in the '70s. I feel like I was born too late sometimes. Really interesting to see how connected and close musicians were back then. And it was so much more of a political move back then.
CTNow: You produced "Are We There" yourself. Not to frame this in a negative way, but was there a particular sound on past productions that you wanted to avoid?
SVE: It was more of what I wanted to accomplish that I didn't feel like I arrived at before. From working with so many other collaborators I ended up feeling that my own "sound" wasn't ever really heard. That being said, I am still finding my sound and finding myself, but this album is the most "me" I've ever been able to portray on record. I am really proud of the outcome and I am so happy that the songs are finally being heard — all on my terms.
CTNow: Knowing that you were the producer, did you feel more or less vulnerable bringing new songs/material into the studio? Had you performed any of the new songs at shows before recording them?
SVE: What made this album really special was that I finally had a set band to bring to the studio who have heard these songs in all different stages and forms. We toured together for almost three years and we all got really close. Heather Woods Broderick, Zeke Hutchins, and Doug Keith are the center of the record, along with my friend David Hartley (Nightlands, War on Drugs). It was because we were close and are dear, dear friends that I as able to open up and be vulnerable and sing songs so personally and try new things in the studio without feeling self conscious.
CTNow: Were there novel instrumental or vocal textures you wanted to try out? If so, was that experience satisfying?
SVE: I got to play drums and bass on the record for the first time. That was so much fun. Also, my singer Heather Woods Broderick did most of the harmonies, which adds a little something different texture-wise compared to my other albums, in which I sang all the vocals. She makes it really special. Her voice blends really well with mine but also lifts a song more than mine can alone.
CTNow: How many weeks did you spend recording the album?
SVE: We started recording in August and finished on Halloween. We mixed for the next few months, trying out different versions. We had everything mixed and mastered in January.
CTNow: In the past, you've overdubbed vocal harmonies yourself, but this time you made it more like a band setting/performance. Why?
SVE: I never really had a band before. So I would just sit up late at night and have fun matching my melodies with really intense harmonies. Heather Woods Broderick was the first person to ever really match the intensity I have been looking for in vocals. The vocals are the most important thing to me. So I never wanted to settle before.
CTNow: You are heading to Europe at the end of the month. What's the main vibe you get when you perform over there? Others have said European audiences are more patient listeners, which I imagine allows you to take more risks. Has that been your experience too?
SVE: Every city and every venue are so different. From a small pub to an outdoor space for a festival to a larger venue, it always varies. Sometimes we get a party crowd. Really loud but joyous. Makes for great banter. Other times we get really quiet, intense listeners and that can make me a bit more emotional. Those times you can hear a pin drop. Festivals are hard because people are partying and most people that go to festivals want to dance. My songs are pretty mid tempo and are hard to dance to. Ha! My fans are really great though. And they're all over the place energy wise. But I am too. Some days I'm more chill. Some days I'm more silly. You never know what you're gonna get with me — or with shows. That's the fun part. It's never the same.
Editor's note: This story has be updated to correct the date of the concert.