“Bring Tissues to the Merch Table”: Sharon Van Etten on Therapy, Weed, and Her New Album ‘Are We There’

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Next week, Sharon Van Etten will release her fourth album, Are We There (Jagjaguwar), an album of love and loss that’s just perfect for emoting along to. She spoke to us about the album’s lyrical highlights, along with her very real aspirations to become a therapist, the weird things that happen when she takes two puffs of a joint, and playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” piano. If you want to see her live, she’s hitting the road for dates scheduled through August, with more to be added through the end of the year. Her word of advice to showgoers: “Figure out how to bring tissues to the merch table.” (Personally, I think Sharon Van Etten-branded tissues would be synergy at its finest.)

Flavorwire: We need to talk about your new song, “Your Love Is Killing Me.” I don’t know if people are accustomed to hearing something so raw, even from you: “Break my legs so I can’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/ Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/ Stab my eyes so I can’t see.”

SVE: I wrote this song when I had to make a tough call to make. I had promised my boyfriend at the time that I was going to be home after touring for a year, and then I got asked to support Nick Cave during the time when I promised I would be off the road. I took the tour, and it brought up a lot between us — about my career being more important. It was either our relationship or my career, and there was no balancing act because I’m gone nine months out of the year.

A lot of the songs that Nick Cave has written are very brutal but very beautiful. I think being out on the road with him, it rubbed off on me a little bit because I had all this aggression and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Love can be masochistic, and combined with the path that I’ve chosen with music, it can be sadistic. I write all these love songs, but in a certain way I’m sabotaging my real life by pursuing them.

I don’t want to say you come to enjoy the pain, but at some point doesn’t it become muscle memory?

SVE: Well, yeah. For so long in my life I wasn’t even able to feel, and being able to write and perform and connect with people, I’ve been able to learn how to do that. Even though it can hurt sometimes, it feels good to feel something. I don’t have to relive the exact moment every time I’m performing a song, but I do feel something every time I perform, and I have a different perspective every time. These songs [on Are We There] are probably the most raw and intense I’ve ever been. I haven’t had any perspective on them yet — I’m still learning about them myself. Touring it in the next year and a half, I’m going to have to come to grips with a lot of things.

Your career seems to be comprised of a certain cycle: feel things, write songs, record them, and then tour them for more than a year. Is it ever too emotionally exhausting to continue on that way?

SVE: It is so hard, and it’s a really weird thing to do. I’m beginning to realize what’s more important to me, and I have a lot to think about. I had to end a ten-year relationship because it was too hard to do music and have that. I think it’s a real issue, especially for women. I hate to say it, I just feel like we have to think about having a life and having a family more. We have a limit. I’m in my 30s, and I have no idea what I want to do. I’m doing something that I know people would kill to be in my position, and it’s freaking me out. You make your bed, and you just hope that it’s for something bigger than you.

For someone who tours constantly, stopping seems like it would be a hard adjustment.

SVE: I’m ready. I already have a plan. If I decide to stop doing music, I want to go back to school to become a therapist. I seriously want to do that, but right now I can’t. I have to start from scratch because I dropped out. It’s been — shit — eight to ten years since I tried going to school. So I’d be a freshman, but I’m kind of down for that! Now that I feel like I know what I want to do, I think I would love school.

I’m just imagining you as Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. Anyway, why therapy?

SVE: I always wanted to do it, and I’ve been in therapy for probably the last 12 years. I would not be here today if I hadn’t found out how to deal with my emotions and talk about them, learn what my outlet is and how it’s a form of catharsis. Really creative minds have a hard time communicating, but they also end up feeling really alone and isolated. I feel like I would have a really alternative background for kids to relate to if they’re feeling alone.

I brought it up with my therapist, who’s amazing, but I was nervous telling her that I wanted to do it. She’s been helping me through the mind-fuck of growth I’ve had in the last few years, and she’s like, ‘Wait, so now you’re at where you’re at and you want to go back to school? You’re funny.’ She’s really excited and offered to help me figure out my options — like I may be able to get a grant and test out of some general classes. I have a lot of time to think about it on the road.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80-_CpH07QQ]

There are a couple more lines on your new album that I’m carrying around with me: in “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” “I wash your dishes but then I shit in your bathroom.”

SVE: I will never live this down! I feel like I have to give background. We were at the tail end of finishing everything up, and we’d get in there at noon. Around 8, I’d gauge everybody’s energy. I’m not a hard taskmaster. I’m like, “You guys feelin’ good? “Oh, you’re tired? You should go home!” If people aren’t happy, I’m not a Phil Spector. But we had a long day, and everyone was feeling pretty good so we decided to take a break. Everybody really wanted me to record “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” but I didn’t have any lyrics besides the chorus. In the demos I had sent the band, I had verses that were just jibber-jabber — placeholders for me to work on later. They finally convinced me to track it with a scratch vocal so I’d have something to work until I finished the lyrics.

We were drinking and smoking a little bit, just to get loose and free, and I was just doing like free jazz. So I was going step by step with life in this studio. I was just being literal, just going about what had happened that day, not thinking that it was going to be used. I took a shit in the bathroom, but you also have to do the dishes in the bathroom — that’s the way the studio is set up.

The band ended up convincing me to keep the line by being like, “People think you’re this dark, brooding girl, and this will just raise the veil a little bit and show them that you’re kind of a goofball, that you curse sometimes, that you’re having fun, that you’re doing just fine. Let people know you’re OK, Sharon!” And I am!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOTMW7dGGT0]

You also say this thing on “Every Time The Sun Comes Up” about being a one-hit wonder and questioning what happens if you have two hits. Is that more jibber-jabber, or is that true self-perception?

SVE: That one was kind of a double joke. I got insecure after the recording of Tramp. I had an amazing opportunity working with Aaron [Dessner, of The National], I learned a lot, I wouldn’t take it back ever. But I ended up feeling insecure about why people attached themselves to that record. In a lot of the interviews, people asked me about “the star-studded cast,” not the songs, and it made me feel a little insecure about why I got attention at all. For me, it was more of the joke of, “I’m going to produce this one myself and see what happens.”

The real joke is that all my friends call me a one-hit wonder because I can only take one hit of weed, and I’m just in outer space. But if I take two what happens? You don’t want to know!

No, but I do.

SVE: I get real space cadet and DJ for hours — they call me DJ Whatever. Or I get really paranoid and I start thinking that every time somebody says something, it’s about me.

I heard something about Are We There that requires elaboration. It’s that you made the album with instruments that belonged to Patti Smith and John Lennon. Huh?

SVE: Oh! Stewart Lerman, who produced the record with me, had an upright piano in his personal studio. For the ballads, it was really hard to isolate the sound of the upright piano because it’s so close to the vocal. So he wrote a couple of friends to see if we could use a grand piano at some point, and he got me into Electric Lady for an afternoon. I was like, “Okay, I’ll try ELECTRIC LADY, what the hell?” He got me into the room where they used the piano on Horses. I don’t think Patti played it, but it was a beautiful grand piano.

One of the people that Stewart called was the company downstairs from him that does live sound, and a lot of the stuff from the Record Plant [the legendary studio] was stored down there, including the grand piano that John Lennon played on “Imagine.” It was brought in on one of the last days of recording, so I didn’t get to do any of the ballads on it, but I added it on every song that I could. If you hear this crazy deep-dark piano that kind of sticks out from the warm-sounding ones, that’s the “Imagine” piano. There was a definite energy to it.