Concert preview: Singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten continues her journey with Are We There

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

For a long time, Sharon Van Etten thought she wanted a career in music above all else. More recently, however, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter has started envisioning a life outside of the industry she’s immersed herself in since releasing her debut album Because I Was in Love in 2009.

“I love what I do, but eventually — probably in the next couple of years — I want to do something else,” said Van Etten, who visits the Wexner Center for a concert on Thursday, Oct. 9. “I want to go back to school and get my degree, and I want to have a family and a more stable job. And it took me a long time to learn that about myself.”

In many ways, Van Etten’s music has fueled this discovery process. Her approach to songwriting is deeply personal, and blood courses through the entirety of her battered and bruised catalog. Heartache is a constant, and her words can be alternately self-lacerating, dogged, scathing, raw, hopeful, broken and unsettling.

“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you,” she sings on “Your Love Is Killing Me,” the emotional high (low?) point of the career best Are We There, which came out earlier this year. “You like it when I let you walk all over me.”

“When I write, it’s really therapy for when I’m going through a dark time. I play, and then I feel better,” Van Etten said. “When I was a teenager … [my mom] gave me a notebook, and was like, ‘You should write!’ I didn’t think anything of it, but I started writing down my thoughts and feelings. Then as I got older and started learning how to play instruments I started putting those words to music and it turned into songs.”

The musician still adheres to a similar process these days. When overcome by an emotion, she’ll turn on a recorder and sing stream-of-conscious for 10 to 20 minutes “just to get it out.” A few days later she’ll listen back to the recording to see if it’s something worth pursuing further, or “just a moment in time [she] had to release” into the ether.

Van Etten, an introvert by nature, has consistently struggled to balance the intimate nature of her music with the public aspect of performing for an audience. Alcohol doubled as a crutch early on, and her first open mikes tended to be a drunken blur of mumbled words and awkward jokes aimed at breaking the tension.

“One time when I was a little loose apparently I told people, ‘One day I’m going to make somebody cry with these songs, and I hope it’s one of you,’” Van Etten said with a laugh. “I was really insecure and I was scared and I didn’t understand the depth of what I was doing. But that was 10 years ago, and I’ve grown up — thank god. Now I know more of who I am.”

Even so, the musician still relates to the raw emotions in even these earliest recordings, comparing the experience of listening to past albums with flipping through an old high school yearbook.

“It’s like, ‘I can’t believe I wore that poofy shirt,’ or, ‘Yep, I got a perm,’ or whatever,” she said. “In a lot of ways I’m still that girl, just like you’re still that kid that wore a speedo when you took swimming lessons. It’s a picture of you. It’s a chapter of your life.”

As Van Etten begins to ponder that next chapter, she’s invested more time weighing the intensely personal, therapeutic role her music serves against her still-growing audience, which has allowed her to move from sparsely attended open mikes to sold-out club and small theater shows.

“I laugh at how it’s grown, because at first it was really just my friends encouraging me to play … because they connected to my songs,” she said. “Maybe I’m a little afraid it’s going to grow too fast for me because of how [the music] started and what it means.”

So rather than pursuing global domination as a solo artist, Van Etten expressed increased interest in collaboration — she’s set to contribute a song to a new Karen Dalton tribute album and hopes to shake out of her comfort zone by co-writing more with other musicians — and a desire to stake out a more tenable existence outside the music sphere someday in the near future.

“I never thought I’d be able to do what I do as a career, and that this many people would connect to such personal experiences,” she said. “But I’m a [college] dropout, I’m in my 30s, and I’ve proven to myself I can do this. I’ll always write, and I’ll always perform at least a little bit, but eventually I do want more of a home life.”

Dusdin Condren photo

Wexner Center for the Arts

8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9

1871 N. High St., Campus