Pain and Gain 

Sharon Van Etten: Sad Songs and Sunshine

SHARON VAN ETTEN Making grown men cry.

SHARON VAN ETTEN Making grown men cry.

HE WAS CRYING.

He stood on that idyllic late summer afternoon, frozen, teetering, in the midst of a bustling music festival, his cheeks, hands, and shoes wet with tears. But he didn't care who saw. His chest cavity had been cracked open and it was time to let it out. I put my hand on his shoulder and asked what was wrong. He told me: His wife had left him.

It was Sharon Van Etten's set that triggered the flood. Moments earlier, beneath blue skies, basking in the golden sun and cool breeze, she reveled in Pickathon's bucolic setting. Then, with preternatural acuity, she put her head down and sang another sad song.

"It was a pretty emotional day," Van Etten says, for reasons all her own.

The performance was her last after more than a year of touring behind 2012's Tramp. The finish line was bittersweet. Her bandmates would go their own ways. She would reunite with her boyfriend. And she was smiling, a whole lot more than she used to—onstage, at least.

With boundless selfishness, I was worried. Van Etten seemed so happy. Grounded. Content. And while in my heart of hearts I wished her only the best, I also wanted more of those sad songs.

Because no one does 'em like she does, cutting bone and spitting blood. They're full of equal doses venom and antidote, and they often strike me as hard as they did my crying friend. They cast me in empathy, as both perpetrator and victim, sometimes in the course of a single song. Van Etten's writing is malleable, as if she's singing to me personally, addressing the mistakes I've made, the love I've had, squandered, and lost. And when that love hurts or swells, Van Etten is the strongest dope—pure black tar, a pain reliever with fangs to suck the poison out.

After that tear-inducing performance at Pickathon, Van Etten would return home to New York City, where she got back to work.

"I kind of thought I'd have more downtime," Van Etten says. "But when reality hits, you kind of have to get after it."

After all, the songs were already in hand. She'd written them on tour, in green rooms and after sound checks, in the van with her Omnichord, or at home on rare breaks. By January, Are We There, Van Etten's fourth record, was in the can, mixed and mastered. It is her richest, roundest, most fully realized, and perhaps, her best.

Though Van Etten's consummate, forlorn tone and mood are well established, Are We There is an album of firsts. It is Van Etten's first foray as producer and the first to feature synthesized beats.

"This is the first time I'm doing something other than singing and playing guitar," Van Etten says. "I played drums and bass and piano and organ. I also didn't sing all the harmonies—this is the first time I'm not singing all the harmonies." (Polyglot player and former Portlander Heather Woods Broderick added them.)

But Are We There is very much evolutionary, not revolutionary—even if it is more than the sum of its predecessors. Van Etten's 2009 debut, Because I Was In Love, was largely unadorned, just the singer, her guitar, and her pain. Her second, Epic, added a band. Tramp spread itself throughout the studio, exploring texture and arrangement with producer Aaron Dessner of the National.

"I think [Are We There] is a little bit of all those records," Van Etten says. "It's a very band-centric album, but it feels less frenetic to me. I think it's more myself."

Indeed, it is pure Van Etten—or at least the black rose that selfish listeners like me have come to crave. But that doesn't mean she's stuck, mining despair for our pleasure.

"I'm not, like, a mess," Van Etten says, laughing. "I make jokes. I have a good time. I have great friends around me. I'm doing what I love. I'm a happy person, generally."

Sometimes she even writes happy songs. It's just that, after four records, she knows what works. "In my back catalog, I have maybe 1,000 songs," Van Etten says. "They might never see the light of day and I'm totally fine with that. I just like writing, you know?

"When I have a dark moment, then I write," she continues. "It helps me heal and get through it."

At last year's Pickathon, Van Etten's songs did the same for my friend. While his tears were a product of sorrow, they were about healing, too. (Sometimes we forget: healing hurts.) Over the years as she's toured, fans have shared with Van Etten how her songs have helped. One in particular stands out.

"I had a teacher reach out to me that does art therapy," Van Etten says. "He used my music to help kids learn how to express themselves, and as an example of art therapy. I think they were troubled kids in high school.

"The teacher sent me a really beautiful note and it meant a lot to me," she adds. "Because if you think that performing is selfish, and touring with your own music is selfish, and standing on stage hoping that people will like it is selfish...

"It's a weird job to have," Van Etten says, being a singer of sad songs. "It's nice to be reminded that it's not a selfish thing to do—because I struggle with that a lot."

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