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While the idea that “Honesty is the best policy” might be a cliché, the saying frequently proves its legitimacy in both relationships and art: We are drawn to people, music, theater, and films that seem genuine. That little truism might have something to do with the recent success of singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Amidst the chaos that is the Brooklyn music scene, Van Etten stands out in part due to her intensely personal voice, which she recently brought to the WERS studios for an On the Verge session.
“I do really confessional music, which is rare,” Van Etten says. “I just try to be honest.” A New Jersey native, Van Etten’s music career took off when she moved to Brooklyn. In 2009, she released her debut album Because I Was in Love. The disc managed to catch the attention of TV on the Radio guitarist Kyp Malone, who played some of her music on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Since then, Van Etten has gone on national tours and over the summer played the opening set at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Van Etten’s sound is mirrored by her taste in poetry. She’s partial to Richard Brautigan’s work, which she describes as “very beautiful but very dark,” and the powerful simplicity of e.e. cummings and Shel Silverstein. With sparse instrumentation matched by evocative subject matter, Van Etten achieves both of these effects herself.
On her latest album, epic, Van Etten expands that stripped-down power with new arrangements. Most obvious is the harmonium — a small, organ-like keyed instrument — whose a looping drone creates a somber, pensive tone in the songs “DsharpG” and “Love More.”
Since Van Etten first started gaining serious recognition last year, she has gone through some major changes in her life. Listening to epic, though, you might not notice it right away. The music is still coffee-house folk with a daringly open soul, but there’s a subtle difference: emotionally, Van Etten is in a much better place right now.
“I wanted songs that came across as confident … [that] weren’t all angry, weren’t all broken,” she explains. Her previous album, she says, focused mostly on the negative feelings festering within her at the time. By the time she started writing for epic, she had come to terms with her struggle. “It was a really big change,” Van Etten notes, “but if people were to listen to me for the first time they wouldn’t think of it as a big deal.”
Though the new album might shed the angry sentiments of its predecessor, it also shows a more aggressive side of Van Etten. “Peace Sign,” the first song she brought to WERS, is the closest Van Etten gets to rocking out, with a howling chorus that recalls PJ Harvey. The flat denial in “A Crime,” which kicks off her new album, packs similar spirit.
To Van Etten, though, these songs show confidence, not hostility. They demonstrate that she feels “more secure.” She has reached a point, she says, where she can acknowledge that someone has wronged her in the past without getting upset about it. But that doesn’t mean that she has to ignore those problems. “It’s OK to call people out on their game,” Van Etten says.
Van Etten’s new mindset is showcased in “Save Yourself,” the second tune she played during her in-studio performance. On the relaxed, country-inspired tune, Van Etten isn’t afraid to bring someone down to earth: “You’re only trying to save yourself/ Just like everyone else,” she sings. It’s not a judgment. It’s a wakeup call.
Her career in music as a whole was prompted by a similar desire to express the things she couldn’t quite say. “I didn’t know how to communicate my emotions with people,” she remembers, “so I just started writing journal entries.” Later in her life, journal entries became song lyrics. Letting out her feelings through music, she says, gives her “a sense of catharsis.”
Van Ettens wants others to get that catharsis from her music, as well. She says, “I hope they find it healing when they’re in places where they’re not very strong.” Because her craft takes on such universal struggles, she hopes that listeners will find “music therapy” in her work. “When they… have problems of the heart,” Van Etten says, “they can listen and feel like they’re not alone.”