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When Sharon Van Etten plays Detroit Bar on Saturday evening, the New York-based, New Jersey- and Kentucky-raised performer will be taking another step in what has been both a hectic tour schedule and a meteoric rise. Having recently returned from a European tour opening for the National, she's due to complete sessions for her third album in the next few months, not to mention summer shows, festival appearances and more. It's almost a wonder she has a chance to breathe, but, she says, just the fact her success exists is breathtaking enough.
"Every time people just show up to a concert is amazing. Or when someone recognizes me on the street—'Are you Sharon?!' ' . . . Yeah?'—it really makes me tear up a bit," she says. "My favorite shows are the intimate ones, where the audience all knows why they're there. Opening for the National was the biggest set of shows I've played in my life, from 1,000 to 8,000 people. I need to learn how to be comfortable in that environment. I want to relate to more people musically, so I need to not be nervous about the crap!"
It's little wonder Van Etten feels bowled over by the increasing attention, given the intimacy of her music. Her second album, last year's Epic, was remarkable not just for its brisk length—seven songs at a little more than half an hour—but also its variety. "Save Yourself" could be a modern take on stately country rock (by way of the Band or Gram Parsons), while "Don't Do It" has a slow-burn rock charge that's part shoegaze and part epic postpunk punch (think the Chameleons). The harmonium-led closer "Love More" and the similarly contemplative, trance-drone impact of "DsharpG" translate other impulses just as remarkably. That undercurrent of unsettled sonics, when matched with her strong, winning voice reflecting on relationships gone awry or unsure states of mind, creates a remarkable blend she is already looking forward to pushing further on her next album.
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"From song to song, everything on Epic had its own sound," she says. "There was a nice mix, but I think it was very much a feeling of 'the drums come in here, the bass comes in here, the guitar comes in here.' I am proud of it, and every song sticks out, but there'll be a new band and different guests on the new one. It's constantly changing, and we're only halfway through it right now. It's going to be more experimental, more drones and distortion, more effects on the guitar to change the texture, using more harmonium—all doing something that's not intuitive."
Van Etten has been playing some of the new material live, but she won't say whether she'll play any at Detroit because they're all still works in progress. "It's interesting to play a song live that's not finished yet; I have a huge back catalog of songs that I just don't know what to do with, and if I play one for other people and they take something away from it, then I go forward. I do get a little inside myself when I perform, but I have a permanent bass player and drummer now who are super-pro, and it's been going great."
With praise coming her way from such fans as Aimee Mann and the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, it's likely Van Etten will have even more opportunities to bring her inspired, restless music to both stage and studio in the future. There's one wish she says she hasn't yet seen fulfilled:
"I would love to have four or five other singers onstage with me, to have their voices be the majority of the orchestration, almost no instrumentation," she says. "My demos are always very vocally centered, and I would love to see what would happen with my songs that way."
Who knows what the future could bring?
This article appeared in print as "Epic Win: Sharon Van Etten’s quiet, intimate, explosive rise to indie fame."