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Artist on Artist: Sharon Van Etten talks to Chris Salveter

'Songs I wrote when I was going through something really intense helped me get through it'


Sharon Van Etten's earliest music was undeniably restrained. Armed with only her haunting voice and an acoustic guitar, she debuted with songs about a cruel breakup. When she made her first appearance in Chicago in September 2009 at the Empty Bottle as part of the Wire magazine's Adventures in Modern Music festival, supporting her debut, Because I Was in Love (Language of Stone), her music was gentle and reserved, but there was nothing tentative about her talent and emotional intensity. With her new album, Tramp (Jagjaguwar), she's turned that inner strength outward, through her powerful voice and songs marked by hard-earned triumph. Van Etten plays Lincoln Hall on Thu 2/16 and Fri 2/17 (see page B10 for more); she's interviewed here by Chris Salveter of Judson Claiborne (and formerly of Low Skies), a guy who also knows something about transmitting your innermost thoughts through a powerful set of pipes. —Peter Margasak

So you're on a bit of a break from touring? I'm getting ready to leave in a week. And then I'll be gone for a year.

What are you doing to prepare yourself? Well, I'm exercising and I'm rehearsing with the band a lot, doing vocal warm-ups more often, and trying to eat well before I have to eat like garbage for the next year.

Do you think you have to eat garbage on the road? It's harder to find good food when you're stopping at gas stations all the time.

I read something you said that was really nice, how returning to folk songs is like looking through old photographs, and by doing that you create a space for yourself to heal from whatever wounds the song might've sprung from. I feel music is the most universal language we have. I think about songs that I wrote when I was going through something really intense and that helped me get through it. I don't feel like everyone would have that kind of connection to it, but I feel like it's very common.

Do you feel like that's your intention, to perhaps take more of the role of the healer-songwriter? "Healer" sounds a bit grandiose. I hope when people hear my songs they connect with them and feel something and go to that place they don't normally go.

There's something about singing from your heart and soul and not just directly from your brain. I get that from your music. I feel that as an intention of yours. Do you think that all musicians have a different intention? Yeah, I do. For some people it's only about the performance. Some people it's only about the art. And some people don't even know what they're doing. I think it's all fine. People do a lot of things for different reasons.

If you had to choose a Muppet as a bandmate and Animal was unavailable, who would you choose? Elmo, because he's kind of mellow and nothing really fazes him.

Is Elmo a Muppet? Isn't he a Muppet?

I don't think so. I don't know if the Sesame Street guys can be considered Muppets. Sorry, like Miss Piggy, right? What other Muppets are there? Beaker? He's really helpful and he's kind of klutzy, kind of nerdy, which is kind of how I roll. He's not pretentious at all.

So you identify with Beaker more than, maybe, Jan? Jan's like the long-haired kind-of-hippie keyboard player from the Electric Mayhem band. She seems really cool. I guess I just never really connected to her.

I was recently turned on to a record by this local, experimental jazz trio, My Silence, that you did some singing on. How did you end up on it? I met [jazz drummer and festival producer] Mike Reed at the Pitchfork Music Festival a few years ago. We kept in touch and he asked me if I'd want to collaborate with him vocally at some point. I'd never done experimental music before but I was up for it. So I came out to Chicago and he gave me some direction and I tried to follow it.

Were you performing live with the band or was it after the fact? It was mostly me working with Mike. He would be playing the drums and ask me to make the drum sounds that he was making. Other times he would just direct me with moods.

After listening back to the record, how do you feel about it? I really like it. I actually just listened to it recently. It's unlike anything I'd ever done before. I think it's a really beautiful record.

Can you foresee doing those kinds of experiments on your own records? Probably in different ways. I'm doing a lot more electronic music these days on the side, minimal vocals and super minimal drums, more 'scape. I think with something like that it helps to have someone more jazz-oriented directing you a little.

What do you think you've learned after making three records and playing hundreds of shows and doing lots of interviews? I think in the end you just have to be happy with what you're doing. You have to be open to other people's ideas. As long as you're proud of what you're doing and you're being as positive as you can be, it can be fun.

Do you have any more thoughts about who you might have as your Muppet bandmate? I'm going to stand strong right now with Beaker. I feel like he could play anything, just kind of run around wherever there's a slightest touch of tambourine or glockenspiel or something. I would just kind of let him inhabit his own space. 

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