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2:02 pm
Fri February 3, 2012

Sharon Van Etten: Learning How To Rock

Originally published on Sun February 5, 2012 3:01 pm

Sharon Van Etten was once an aspiring songwriter in Tennessee, but she had no idea how the music industry worked. So she moved to New York City and took an unpaid internship working for a record label.

"I started doing mail orders and then learned my way around the music blogs," Van Etten says in an interview with Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "I didn't know what a music blog was at the time."

Cripplingly shy, Van Etten toiled in anonymity during the day, then performed in clubs at night. Her boss, Ben Goldberg, had no idea she aspired to record for his label, Ba Da Bing Records.

"I actually got called out, because I never invited [Goldberg] to my shows, and I didn't tell him I did music. And he yelled at me that I didn't invite him to a show," Van Etten says, laughing.

Goldberg loved what he heard. He agreed to release Van Etten's breakthrough album, Epic, on which confessional lyrics are dispensed with either eggshell fragility or bold surges.

A Wounded Place

Van Etten's new album comes out Tuesday, and the accolades are already rolling in. It's called Tramp, and the internal navigation through life's minefield dominates her songs.

"I would say they are personal and they come from experience, whether they be my own experiences or my friends' experiences, but they're mostly love songs," Van Etten says. "It's supposed to be a conversation with the listener in a general enough way where they can relate to it and not feel so alone."

"Ask" is a great example of what people love about Van Etten's music. The person in the song comes from a pretty wounded place. In a recent interview, she said that "sadness isn't an emotion that most cool bands want to talk about."

"When I write, it's to heal," Van Etten says. "It's my own self-therapy so that I don't actually feel sad all of the time. The only thing that's helped me get through some really hard times was just being able to write and express — it's very cathartic for me. I'm hoping that, by writing and performing for other people, it affects them the same way."

Learning To Rock

Van Etten made her name with quiet, acoustic songs, but Tramp also features some rockers, including "Serpents." Van Etten says she wrote that song in secret because she wasn't telling anyone that she was playing the electric guitar.

"I didn't know how to rock at all," Van Etten says with a laugh. "When no one was home, I would just turn on my amp and play guitar as loud as I could. Whenever I got upset, I would sing, but at the time, I was trying to write more — my songs are more sad, and I don't feel comfortable being angry. But I'm learning that it's OK to have all of those things if you don't direct it at someone."

Perhaps rocking out was a way to challenge what people thought of Van Etten, but for her, it was more about her own self-image.

"I feel like I was a lot more insecure. I had a lot of social anxiety," Van Etten says. "I didn't really know myself very well, and I'd never lived in the city. A lot of things were just happening really fast, and I didn't even know how I felt about things as they were happening. I didn't know what I was doing. I was figuring out a lot. I'm a lot more secure than I used to be. The more I do music, the more confident I become, and I think these new songs show that."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Time for music, and the story of an intern who ended up a rising star.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE YOURSELF")

SHARON VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Don't you think I know, you're only trying to save yourself.

RAZ: Now, since we cover a lot of music on this program, our staff gets a lot of emails and packages from record labels, and those packages are often put together by interns. And it turns out, one of those young people sending us those packages in recent years? Very likely, the musician Sharon Van Etten. Seven years ago, she was an aspiring songwriter in Tennessee, but she had no idea how the music industry worked. So she moved to the New York City area, and took an unpaid internship working for a label called Ba Da Bing Records.

VAN ETTEN: I started doing mail orders, and then learned my way around the music blogs. I didn't know what a music blog was at the time.

RAZ: You were basically the person who was sending me all those emails, that I get in my inbox every hour.

VAN ETTEN: Sorry?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: The cripplingly shy Sharon Van Etten toiled in anonymity during the day, and then performed at clubs at night. And her boss, Ben Goldberg, had no idea she aspired to record for his label.

What did you do? Did you just go up to him one day and say, can you listen to my stuff? - is that what you did?

VAN ETTEN: No. I actually got called out because I never invited him to my shows, and I didn't tell him I did music.

RAZ: And so he found out that you were doing this.

VAN ETTEN: Yes. And he yelled at me that I didn't invite him to a show.

RAZ: Goldberg loved what he heard, and he agreed to release Van Etten's breakthrough album, "Epic." The critics raved about the confessional quality of the lyrics, and the bold surges of sound made her a buzz name in the world of indie rock. Sharon Van Etten's got a new record coming out on Tuesday, and the accolades are already rolling in. It's called "Tramp."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: The music website Pitchfork writes: Matters of mistrust, isolation and uncomfortable togetherness dominate "Tramp," rolling through every track like a sick, creeping fog.

And that about sums up Sharon Van Etten's songs.

VAN ETTEN: I would say they are personal. And they come from experience, whether it be my own experiences or my friends' experiences. But they're mostly love songs. And it's supposed to be a conversation with the listener in a general enough way where they can relate to it, and not feel so alone.

RAZ: I want to ask you about a track on the record. It's called "Ask."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASK")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Let's try to do the best we can. I think I need more than the flowers and letters, man. It's not that I don't try. It's that you won't again. And it hurts too much to laugh about it.

RAZ: It sounds like it's an example of what a lot of people love about your music; you know, the person in this song is coming from a pretty wounded place. In an interview you gave recently, you said: Sadness isn't an emotion that most cool bands want to talk about.

So why are you so comfortable talking about it?

VAN ETTEN: Because when I write, it's to heal. It's my own self-therapy so that I don't actually feel sad all the time. The only thing that's really helped me get through some really hard times is just being able to write and express. And it's very cathartic for me. And I'm hoping that by writing and performing for other people, that it affects them the same way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASK")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) It's not that I don't cry. It's that I have to hide. Yeah, it's that I have to hide so I won't be there to ask.

RAZ: What's striking about this record is that some of it is - as we've heard - you know, quite sad and touching. And then parts of it, like, rock. And there's a song, "Serpents," and that song - man, that song completely rocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SERPENTS")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) You enjoy sucking on dreams so I won't fall asleep with someone other than you. I had a thought you would take me seriously and listen up.

That was one of the first songs I ever wrote on electric guitar, when I wasn't telling anyone I was playing electric guitar.

RAZ: Why weren't you telling anyone?

VAN ETTEN: Because I didn't know how to rock at all. And so I would just - I - when no one was home, I would just turn on my amp and play guitar as loud as I could. And whenever I got upset, I would sing. But at the time, I was trying to write more - my songs are more sad, and I don't feel comfortable with being angry. But then I'm learning that it's OK to have all of those things if you don't direct it at someone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SERPENTS")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Serpents in my mind, trying to forgive your crimes. Everyone changes in time. I hope he changes this time.

RAZ: I mean, you - I read that when you were an intern at that label, I mean, you were really quiet. And people just sort of assumed that you were kind of quiet. And you're little, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VAN ETTEN: I'm a little little.

RAZ: So you were sort of nervous to kind of just rock out because you thought it would, I guess, challenge what people thought of you?

VAN ETTEN: I guess. And I feel like I was a lot more insecure; I had a lot of social anxiety. I didn't really know myself very well, and I had never lived in a city. So a lot of things were just happening really fast, and I didn't even know how I felt about things as they were happening. And I didn't know what I was doing, so I was figuring out a lot. But I'm a lot more secure than I used to be. The more I do music, the more confident I become. And I think these new songs show that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE FINE")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Tell me not to trip or to lose sight. You are walking in my dotted line.

RAZ: That's singer and songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Her new record is called "Tramp," and it comes out on Tuesday. For the next couple of days, you can hear every track from the album for free at our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE FINE")

VAN ETTEN: (Singing) Say I'm all right. I'm all right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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