Sharon Van Etten On Learning To Own Her “Mistakes”

Interview: Sharon Van Etten
Photo courtesy of Michael Schmelling

Between stops on the Wild Hearts Tour — alongside fellow powerhouse singer-songwriters Julien Baker and Angel Olsen, — Sharon Van Etten sat down with Web Services Coordinator Nora Onanian to reflect on her newest chapters. Zooming in from an apple orchard in Lafayette, New York, she opened up about her relationships with Julien and Angel, explained a Seinfeld reference in her latest chart-topping hit “Mistakes,” and gave advice to her 17-year-old self.

 

FIRST OFF, HOW ARE YOU? HOW IS THIS LATEST STRETCH OF THE ROAD BEEN? I KNOW YOU’RE AMID SOME DATES FOR THE WILD HEARTS TOUR WITH ANGEL OLSEN AND JULIEN BAKER RIGHT NOW.

SVE: Yeah, I mean, it's been amazing. We’re between our third and fourth week I believe, if you're including the rehearsals that were right before the tour started. 

We’re in the home stretch. I got to see a lot of family in Vermont. And, you know, as the tour has gone on and on, the core three — Julien, Angel, and I, — our whole bands have gotten closer and closer. And Quinn Christofferson, who's been the first of four on most of the shows…. everyone's been just really beautiful people to get to know.

 

AND HOW IS THE APPLE ORCHARD [RIGHT NOW]? I HAVE TO ASK ABOUT THAT.

SVE: Oh, yeah. So we're at a place called the barn at Beak & Skiff, and we just arrived this morning. And it's so beautiful. I mean, we're looking into these hills and valleys. And it's nice to be surrounded by nature after you're kind of buried in the bubble of a bus, you know?

And most of our shows on this tour have been outside. That was something that we really pushed for, because as we're all learning how to come back, we wanted to make sure that our fans felt as safe as possible. As we're all learning how to do this again.

 

AND SPEAKING OF THE TOUR, YOU’RE COMING TO BOSTON AT THE LEADER BANK PAVILION ON THE NIGHT OF THIS THURSDAY THE 18TH. IS THERE ANYTHING, IN PARTICULAR, YOU’RE EXCITED ABOUT FOR THIS SHOW OR FOR BEING IN BOSTON? 

SVE: Well, I haven't gotten to perform the Leader before. Obviously, it's a huge step up for me. It looks absolutely beautiful. ​​And it's right on the water, right? Is it on the water?

IT IS! IT’S IN THE SEAPORT AREA.

SVE: Yeah, it looks amazing. But, you know, I just love the energy of Boston. Not many cities compare to the feeling of coming back to New York, but it always feels like when I get back on the East Coast, it feels a little more like home.

 

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE SONG TO PERFORM LIVE?

SVE: I would say when Angel and I get to do “Like I Used To” together, it's been really, really fun. Because she's just so fun to sing with. And you know, whether it be on her set or our set, our bands— I think they enjoy playing the song. And the audience sings along. There [are] not many songs where I feel like people know the words. And it’s— it’s really sweet. 

 

SPEAKING ABOUT THAT SONG, THAT’S ACTUALLY HOW [YOU AND ANGEL] FIRST STARTED WORKING TOGETHER, RIGHT? I THINK I READ THAT YOU REACHED OUT TO HER ABOUT WORKING ON THAT ONE.

SVE: Yeah, we had just done, [it was] like, within a month of us doing “Femme Fatale,” a Velvet Underground cover, together. I had finally gotten the courage just to ask her to do a vocal on a cover song for a tribute record to Nico… [and the] Velvet Underground. And it was so easy. It happened very naturally and she just was very open to collaborating. And she sent me [the] vocals back pretty much immediately after I sent her our version of the song. 

And that kind of gave me the confidence to send her something that was original. Because  I kind of heard her voice in it. And I thought maybe it sounded too much like her— that I should just give her the song. 

But then she ended up just kind of laughing it off and being like, “Well, do you want me to help you with lyrics? To get me to sing on it? What do you want me to do?” And I was like, “both.”

And it just kind of naturally developed into this duet that I don't think would have ever seen the light of day if she hadn't wanted to be a part of it.

 

YEAH, THAT’S AWESOME. I WAS GOING TO ASK HOW YOU THINK YOU COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER CREATIVELY? BUT ALSO, NOT CREATIVELY— LIKE PERSONALITY-WISE.

SVE: She honestly is very open to feedback. So if we were working on lyrics together,  I would just send her these lyrics that I was thinking about and then she would send back her ideas. And I just feel like our flow is really natural. 

And I think we have similar but different styles in writing where I think she would usually write lyrics first and I tend to do melodic stuff first. And so that is really complimentary when you come together. Because I hear melodies and I hear rhythms, but she hears words. And I feel like that lends itself to finishing something faster (laughing).

DEFINITELY.

SVE: But just like personality-wise— she's just very grounded, very down to earth, very open. She's a really good listener. She has really spot-on insights, too. Like, if you’re ever seeking advice or comfort, she's very intuitive and in-tune with everyone around her. So it's a nice kind of personality to be around on tour.

 

AND I’D LOVE TO HEAR ABOUT JULIEN BAKER, TOO. I WAS WONDERING HOW YOU MET? IT SEEMS LIKE YOU’VE KNOWN EACH OTHER FOR A WHILE, I THINK. 

SVE: Yeah, I have. It’s funny, she’s actually walking by [me] right now! It’s like summer camp here, you know? It's like the three groups are kind of coming and going. And we're at picnic tables and all doing our own things. 

But yeah, I've known Julien probably… It's funny, I use my son as like the marker… But I met her before I was pregnant, and so I would say it was like 2015 or ‘16. 

And my friend Hunter, who I worked with at Bada Bing, back in the day… he sent me a song of hers. “Sprained Ankle,” I believe. And I was floored by it. I think I posted it— I shared it with my friends. And then I sent her a little note and just said, “This is really beautiful. I can't wait to see you play.”

And she reached out and we had an exchange. Then I found out that my friend Kevin was also her booking agent. And so we met up in New York. We had a fun day running around the city. And then next time she came through, I had offered for her to stay at our house, and I would make her a nice vegan breakfast. She took me up on it and she slept in our living room.

And I've just seen her grow over the years. And, you know, she's always been a force of nature — whether it be solo or with the band. But it's been really incredible seeing her with her band. They're absolutely stellar musicians. And, you know, they melt faces off every night. 

 

IT’S FUNNY YOU SAID THAT YOU WERE USING YOUR SON AS A MARKER FOR HOW LONG YOU’VE KNOWN HER, BECAUSE I SAW THIS PRECIOUS PICTURE OF HER HOLDING HIM AS A BABY.

SVE: Yeah, it’s super wild! I think that was probably her third time back to the city. And she got to hold him when he was brand new. And I think we were both— like I was still learning how to hold him, because, you know, I never really held a newborn before. And I just remember that feeling of, like, how fragile he was. And you can just see in her face that  feeling of how fragile and how awesome it was.

THAT’S SUPER SPECIAL! 

 

AND THEN SHIFTING GEARS TO YOUR MOST RECENT ALBUM, LET’S TALK ABOUT WE’VE BEEN GOING ABOUT THIS ALL WRONG, WHICH CAME OUT MAY 6TH. 

I WANT TO ACTUALLY ASK SOME SPECIFIC QUESTIONS OFF OF “MISTAKES.” AND I’M SORRY— THIS IS ABOUT TO BE A LOT TO FOLLOW (LAUGHS). 

SO “MISTAKES” HAS REALLY TAKEN OFF, AND IT’S ESPECIALLY BEEN GETTING PLAYED ON LOTS OF RADIO STATIONS LIKE OURS, AT WERS. AND I CHECKED THIS MORNING AND I THINK BILLBOARD HAD IT AS NUMBER 3 IN THE TRIPLE A RADIO CHARTS. 

SVE: Oh, wow!

YEAH! AND SO IN YOUR SONG “EVERY TIME THE SUN COMES UP” THERE IS A LYRIC WHERE YOU ASK THE QUESTION– IT SAYS “PEOPLE SAY I’M A ONE-HIT WONDER, BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I HAVE TWO?” 

AND SO READING THAT LYRIC THAT YOU PENNED IN 2014, MAYBE EVEN EARLIER. READING IT NOW, WHEN YOU SORT OF UNARGUABLY HAVE MORE THAN ONE HIT, HOW DOES THAT FEEL? AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER TO WHAT HAPPENS NOW THAT YOU’RE REACHING MORE PEOPLE THAN EVER? WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO WITH THAT?

SVE: (Laughing).

I KNOW, THAT WAS A LONG LEAD-UP!

SVE: No, it’s funny because, you know, that original line from “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” it's actually about being a lightweight. 

(BOTH LAUGHING) THAT’S SO FUNNY!

SVE: I don’t know if I can say that! But yeah, I mean, I feel very lucky. I can't even believe I've made it this far in my career. Let alone that, you know, you want to play my songs on the radio. I thank my lucky stars every day that I'm getting to do what I love. 

And I feel like I've stayed pretty true to myself while also being able to have fun with it. You know, even when it's hard. 

But I— yeah, my mind is pretty blown that anybody cares about what I do at all. So I'm grateful every day. 

 

AND OFF OF THAT— DO YOU HAVE IDEAS OF WHAT YOU WANT TO DO NOW THAT YOU HAVE A KIND OF A BIGGER PLATFORM? 

SVE: That's the big question, right? 

After the last few years, you know, I feel like I'm definitely reassessing, what's really important, you know? And I feel like I don't know what I would do more with music. I'll keep making music for sure. But I can't imagine where I would want to go next. You know, if I can just sustain this path, without trying to like, you know, go beyond my comfort zone… I would figure out more ways to be involved in fundraising and volunteering and using my platform to help people that need more help than we do. 

I also want to go back to school. I still want to work towards my degree in psychology to become a counselor. But I'm still years away from that. I chipped away at a few classes during the pandemic, and I'm going to keep working towards that as well, because I don't want to be on the road forever. And I would love to be able to work hands-on with people that really need help.

 

YEAH, THAT’S GREAT. I LOVE THAT. 

AND THEN THIS QUESTION IS A BIT LIGHTER. THE LYRIC “I DANCE LIKE ELAINE, BUT MY BABY TAKES ME TO THE FLOOR” — FIRST, AM I CORRECT IN THAT THIS IS A SEINFELD REFERENCE?

SVE: It is a Seinfeld reference, yes! 

 

I LOVE THAT! AND THEN TWO, IS THERE A BACKSTORY TO THAT LINE, RELATING TO YOUR DANCING SKILLS? 

SVE: Yes. I always make jokes with my friends that I'm the worst dancer. And I love to dance. 

Seinfeld [has], throughout my life, been my favorite television show. And from when I was a kid to even now, it's one of those comforting shows where it always makes me laugh… And it's a huge part of my DNA at this point. 

But, yeah, I'm a really bad dancer. Back in the day, like, when I first moved to New York, when I was trying to date, my friends would take me out and they would be dancing at the bar or whatever. And I would try, and I was like, “No, you know, I'm just going to be this wallflower and I'll watch you and I'll have a drink and I'll watch you dance.” 

As I've gotten older, I realized that I care less and less about how I dance. And I have a deeper connection with what it actually means to be dancing with the people that [I’m] with and that [I] care about, [so] that you're not even worried about them judging you. 

The older you get, you realize that you need to surround yourself with people that [make it so that] you don't think about those things. That you can feel comfortable with. And that you can be yourself with. 

As I've gotten older, I’ve realized— if somebody is preventing me from being myself, it’s somebody that isn't supposed to be close to me. They don't get it. And I kind of live by that as an adult where I'm like, ‘If I can't be myself around you, then you're not worth being around.’

 

YEAH, AND THAT OBVIOUSLY FLOWS REALLY BEAUTIFULLY INTO THE MESSAGE OF THE WHOLE SONG AND JUST BEING OKAY WITH MAKING MISTAKES. 

SVE: Exactly! You got to own your mistakes, you know?

 

SONICALLY, I NOTICED OUT OF THE WHOLE RECORD, [“MISTAKES”] ALSO STANDS OUT A BIT. A LOT OF THE RECORD’S OTHER SONGS START SLOWER, AND THEN THEY KIND OF PICK UP LATER. BUT THIS ONE REALLY STARTS STRONG RIGHT AWAY. SO I WANTED TO ASK WHAT WENT INTO THAT CHOICE, AS IT RELATES TO THE MESSAGE YOU WERE TRYING TO GET ACROSS? 

SVE: That song was meant to be kind of like a breath, you know, after like a really intense, kind of weighty record. I wanted to give the listener permission to kind of shake off all the intense feelings that I definitely shared with everybody else. 

YEAH, THAT MAKES SENSE!

SVE: And so the timing of that song is definitely pertinent.

But, you know, when I was talking with my whole entire team — from my label to my management to my publicist, everybody — and they're like, “What song sums up your record?”

And I think what's hard about this album is that I don't think one song sums it up. And I don't think that “Mistakes,” if you hear that one song, that you would really understand the breadth of the sonic palette and production of the record at all. 

But I do think it is the most immediate. It is meant to feel more like a dance song. And, you know, it's just about embracing humanity. ​​So in that sense, I feel like, you know, those are my intentions there.

 

AND THEN THIS WILL BE, I THINK, MY LAST QUESTION. ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONGS OF YOURS IS “SEVENTEEN.” AND A LITTLE SIDE NOTE FUN FACT IS THAT THE YEAR IT WAS RELEASED WAS ACTUALLY THE YEAR I WAS 17 YEARS OLD— 

SVE: Ahhh!

SO THAT MAKES IT SUPER SPECIAL! BUT ANYWAY, KEEPING IN THE SPIRIT OF THAT SONG, I WANTED TO END BY ASKING IF THERE’S ANY ADVICE YOUR CURRENT SELF WOULD HAVE FOR YOUR 17-YEAR-OLD SELF OR EVEN JUST A STRANGER WHO’S 17-YEARS-OLD NOW, AND WANTING TO START OUT IN MUSIC. IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU’D GIVE THEM, MAYBE THAT YOU’VE SORT OF RECENTLY LEARNED IN THE PAST YEAR OR SO? 

SVE: Honestly, I just say, you know, surround yourself with people that let you be yourself. Like I kind of said earlier, it's like the older I get, the more my 'B.S. Radar' goes off, you know? And I can feel myself tensing up around people— that whatever vibe they're giving off, I just shut down. And I think you’ve got to pay more attention to your gut and your radar on that. [On] if you're finding that you're not being your true self. I think you can't ever regret an occasion where you feel like you're at least being true to yourself.

And just surrounding yourself with people that… just support who you are. And I don't think I did that for a very long time. And as soon as I accepted love and surrounded myself with people that just supported me, that's when I felt like I was my most confident. And I felt the most supported to be able to pursue something like music. Which, you know… when you say “I want to do music full-on,” people kind of look at you like you're crazy. Like, “Really? You should finish college, You should do all these other things.” You know, it takes a lot to say it’s something you really want to do, but it takes even more for the people around you to support that.

And also, one last thing I will say. I wish that I went to school knowing that you don't have to go to college for something that you think is supposed to be your job forever. To be able to learn about things and absorb the knowledge while your brain can still absorb things. Even if you decide you want to be a musician, an artist, or whatever it is, and you don't think you need a degree, those things will inform everything you write about. You'll be a better writer because of an education. And I wish I did that earlier.

 

THAT’S GREAT ADVICE! AND THEN IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO TALK ABOUT THAT WE DIDN’T COVER OFF ON? 

SVE: You know, I’ll just say that I feel so lucky to be a part of this Wild Hearts tour. I mean, we're over 40 people on this tour. Three buses and a semi-truck. And Quinn Christofferson, who's been the first of four, chasing the bus in their car. 

It takes a lot of people to make a tour like this happen. And everybody that's a part of this production has been absolutely incredible. And it would not have happened without everyone as a collective pitching in and doing their job. And so I just feel grateful for everybody on this tour, bands and crew alike.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Sharon Van Etten’s sixth studio album We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong is currently available. Tickets to her upcoming show at Leader Bank Pavilion with Angel Olsen and Julien Baker on the Wild Hearts Tour can be found here.

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