It’s raining in LA—this sunny city has been swallowed by a wet haze for weeks. Surrounded by gray skies, Sharon Van Etten sits in her home donned in a tracksuit sweater and a tee featuring Sinéad O’Connor. Sharon is settled, honest, and tender. At odds with the sky is a gold-framed painting that occupies the wall behind her. As we talk, the painting reveals itself in layers: a cresting wave, a sandy beach, waves that lick the shore.
Sharon Van Etten, a native of Belleville, New Jersey, made the move to New York City in 2005 to pursue a career in music. Starting out, she worked at Astor Wines while performing at legendary indie music venues like Zebulon and Cake Shop. Her early years are marked by a collection of self-released albums, including Live at the Bowery Poetry Club, I Miss Tennessee, Untitled, and Sharon Van Etten.
Sharon released her first studio album Because I Was in Love with Language of Stone in 2009, capturing the hearts of her listeners with its candor and naked edges. In 2010, she released epic with Ba Da Bing!, which catapulted her into an esteemed tier of indie-rock and folk.
Over a decade ago, Sharon first released her album, Tramp. In the years since, she has moved cities, had a child, and bought a home. She’s trekked through major growing pains in her journey to sprout roots. Now, as Tramp celebrates its anniversary, it’s being reissued with a limited edition LP via Crimson Splash, including “This Is Too Right,” a previously unreleased track.
On this cold spring day, Sharon reflects on her journey as an artist and her evolution of self.
Do you remember how you felt when you first released Tramp?
It wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning of something. I was learning how to tour as a band; I was trying to figure out who my people were. I was excited, and I was proud and I was driven but I had no idea where I was going.
Three years ago, just after shooting a short film, I drove with a friend from Weaverville, California to Bend, Oregon. As we were driving, we listened to albums in their entirety. I remember specifically listening to Tramp. Eleven years later, what comes up when you think of yourself as an artist now versus yourself as an artist then?
Back then I lived in New York. I was off and on again single, couch-surfing, and touring in between making the record. I was thriving on just saying yes to everything and trying to do as much as I could and deeply inspired by everyone I was around. I was constantly trying to make things, constantly trying to go to shows, constantly trying to do things. It was at a juncture where I was touring more than I was in New York. That’s why I called the album Tramp. I was moving so much I felt like I didn’t have a home. At the same time, when you don’t have that kind of stability, there’s this weird thing about touring where it’s this great bubble and you’re working your ass off and your band becomes your family, but... you leave all your friends behind. You come back home and you’re trying to catch up and it’s like—life moves on without you. Now, I’m a mom and I have a stable relationship and I have a home. I don’t want to push it to some next level. I want to master what I have already built and learn to sustain. How can I be a mom, a partner, a musician, a collaborator without losing my head? Now it’s about picking and choosing the things that define who you are instead of saying yes to everything.
I know your songs are about particular people. Is it strange now to sing songs about those relationships with people you may or may not be in contact with?
There are definitely songs where I look back and think specifically to that time, but I also have to think of it in terms of: I’m performing them for other people now. For the most part, when I write, even though I’m writing from a very specific place, when I’m finalizing lyrics, I try to leave them with a vague enough idea where other people can connect with them on their own level. That makes the songs easier to perform, knowing that the listener can connect to them in their own way. There are songs that come and go for me, depending on the day those feelings change.
It’s interesting that in addition to the listener’s personal connection changing from person-to-person, your own connection to your song changes depending on the day. I’m not a songwriter, so I don’t think about resinging those things.
You know whatever art it might be—interviews, stories, paintings—that you made at a very specific point in your life, you’re connected to that piece forever in time. It’s some type of journal entry in your creative space. Even if it’s not about a specific person, you remember who you were when you did it. Or even the utensils you use to make something.
I love that idea. I think of even a wooden spoon that someone gives to you, and there’s whatever they’ve cooked on that and then whatever you now cook with it. All those past meals came in contact with the spoon.
We should have sweet and savory cutting boards. Now I’m forever going to taste the garlic on my apple slices[laughs]. Thinking about then versus now, I mean, I’m definitely writing more songs about the world and the future than I was at that time. Back then, it was much more relationship-based, and what was happening in my life. Now the songs are more about looking outward and thinking about other people.
In one of your songs off Tramp, “Magic Chords,” you talk about breathing. [“You gotta breathe. You gotta breathe.”] It’s such a fundamental human thing to do (to breathe!) but at times it can really feel so difficult to do. How do you feel now? Are you able to actually take a breath?
You know you have those moments where you’re really stressed out and you think... Was I breathing at all for this past hour? I swear I’ll have days where I feel like I have to make an effort to breathe. [Sharon leans back in her chair, inhales. I mirror this action. She points to her chest] I’m breathing here.[She points at her stomach] But, I’m not breathing here.We carry so much tension. I try to do exercises to release that tension. When you’re able to release it, when you really are relaxed, I’m just mad at myself that I held so much tension to begin with.
If you could sneak back into your house eleven years ago and slap a post-it note by your bed, what would it say?
If you find that you can’t be yourself around certain people, then they’re not really people that you should be surrounding yourself with.
If you give a post-it note to your future self, what would that one say?
To try to keep being in the moment, you know? Try to be present as much as possible because life is too short to not pay attention.
In her song, “Serpents,” Sharon sings this: “Everything changes in time.”
She’s right. Things have changed. Sharon speaks to me from her LA home, miles away from the New York bubble where she originally released Tramp. Her son comes home from the park and tells her with utter delight that he’s just had a smoothie.
While Sharon’s more grounded, more sure of herself than eleven years ago, the intimate, restless, raw, and true nature of Tramp continues to sound strongly in her soul.
After our interview, I send Sharon this quote: “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
She replies, sending me one back, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
Photographed by Lowfield
Styled by Soaree Cohen
Makeup: Aaron Paul
Hair: Ryan Taniguch
Flaunt Film: Gabe Kimpson