Essential Albums - Sharon Van Etten

ESSENTIAL ALBUMS: Sharon Van Etten discusses five instructive classics

Peeling back the layers of her new album Are We There, The Brooklyn singer/songwriter reveals some unlikely influences.

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- May 28, 2014
In Essential Albums our favourite artists dig up five records that they consider “Essential” by any definition they like. This week, Brooklyn's Sharon Van Etten discusses the albums she returns to.

Sharon Van Etten wants to laugh with us, too. It's easy for the other dimensions of the Brooklyn singer/songwriter to get overshadowed by the raw person-ness of her catalogue, but Are We There, her fourth album of boundless songs sprung from finite love, is her most visibly dynamic. It's a record of exposed nerves with undeniable dimensions, a world built from prismatic ashes.

Are We There challenges her imposed role as a "confessional bedroom artist" by exploding the scope and range of herself and her sound, and she wanted her picks for Essential Albums to reflect that: "I’m not this person that only listens to Low, though I did want to put them on this list. I listen to everything...I want people to know that side of me. I love music, I devour it. I think most people who are music lovers love all different kinds."

You might nod in recognition at some of her five selections, but behind each lies a unique and very personal inspiration. She's found the messy humanity in her sources and connected herself to them with the same fearlessness she uses to write her own tunes. And from all that clutter, she emerges an artist inscribed with much more than just her trauma:

"I’m really a total goofball that likes rocking out to other people’s music. I write what comes naturally and I’m trying to show more of my lighter side, because I don’t want people to worry. I want them to know I’m alright. My mom always asks 'I thought you were happy!' and I’m like 'I am happy! I wrote these songs so I could be happy.'"


Glass Candy, B/E/A/T/B/O/X (2007)

Sharon Van Etten: It’s really my motivational record. It’s really fun and dancey, but it’s pretty minimal beats, post-punk and still pretty raw. A lot of attitude. When I’m getting ready it helps me pick out clothes and get my energy out.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark - Electricity

I’m really into the early OMD music, and I’m fascinated with the post-punk scene of the late-'70s/early-'80s and how it turned into dance music and electronic music. I think there’s more bands coming out right now with that kind of sound that’s pretty raw and punk while still being dancey, like LCD Soundsystem. I feel like, especially writing the music that I do, it’s really refreshing to just dance. I am inspired by everything that I listen to, and I’m easily influenced. I don’t think I have a genre.

PJ Harvey, Dry (1992)

It’s the obvious influence, I guess. But she’s always dancing to her own way and from record to record she always changes. The song “Water” is still the soundtrack to my life. That build getting released and exploding when she gets to the chorus...it’s always gratifying. It’s one that I keep turning back to.

The one that I listen to that was my intro to PJ Harvey was Rid of Me.

PJ Harvey - Rid of Me (4-track Demos)

I heard the demos first and hearing the rawness of them and then hearing it interpreted as a band always intrigued me, when I was still solo and thinking about getting a band together one day. You could still pull off your own sound while having other people help you flesh it out. [It’s] really working with people that understand your music, understand how it is to be a singer and that you’re to hang back and show restraint while also encouraging me to where I’m never buried, but the band behind me is pushing me to rock out or let go, [and] letting go with me. There’s no imbalance there. You don’t want to work with people who don’t get you, and I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by people who do.

Neil Young, Comes A Time (1978)

I grew up listening to Neil Young. In general it was something that my dad always listened to. He has a massive vinyl collection from when he was a kid. He was mostly a rock & roll guy, so I grew up listening to The Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, The Kinks, Bob Dylan, all the classics. I’m one of five kids and that was one album, one artist we all agreed on.

I found that record later in life after delving in past the classic records. I can’t believe I didn’t find it sooner.

Neil Young - Lotta Love

His songwriting is amazing, his melodies are great. That was another record that exhibited restraint, which is important if you are a singer.

I don’t know anyone who would describe a song like “Your Love Is Killing Me” as restrained.

With that song in particular, it was the one song that kind of had a life of its own. I had this guitar and melody before I did any arrangements for it, and even just the melody itself, it wanted to get big. It wanted to grow and develop. It was one of those songs that I just let it be and go to the places it wants to go to. It’s important to let it go there.  

Nick Lowe, The Convincer (2001)

He’s an amazing writer. I remember someone played me this song “Homewrecker” a few years ago, and that’s someone else that can show a funny side of himself while still having regrets, but it’s an admission of his own weaknesses while still embracing who he is at the same time.

Nick Lowe - Lately I've let things slide

For him, it doesn’t come across as self-deprecating, which I think is his talent, and it came out late in his career. It just shows he’s such a classic songwriter and his songs hold up. He worked really hard but it comes natural as well. I dunno, it feels that way to me.

It’s nice to see that his arrangements are so beautiful. Again, I’ll say the word “classic.” The songs that always stick out to me as being really memorable, there’s always a nice hook or joke in the song while still being really, really beautiful and introspective. For a music fan, it makes you feel closer to the writer. It makes you feel like the joke is for you. When people pay attention, they feel in on the joke, in on your life. They feel more connected to you. And that’s important, when it’s hard to connect with music all the time: you’re just bombarded with free downloads and Spotify playlists. Just listen to lyrics and really connect. I think that’s why music is really special because you can connect like that and you will remember it forever.

Patti SmithRadio Ethiopia (1976)

I came pretty late to discovering Patti Smith, but I connected with her exactly when I needed to, when I first came to New York and started to pursue music. The song “Pissing In A River” is about her moving to New York and being swallowed by the city and letting [it] inspire her as well as sometimes pull you down. It’s a struggle. But that record is beautiful in and out.

Patti Smith - Radio Ethiopia - 1976 - Stockholm

Of course, her album Horses is a classic as well. She took her poetry to a really beautiful space. The constant metamorphosis of any artist is really interesting to follow, especially if you’re catching up on music that’s been around for awhile. There’s so much to find. I was even reading her book Just Kids.

That song “Pissing In A River” has been the soundtrack to my life for the last at least four years, as something I refer back to when I’m writing and listening to music, something I hope seeps into my bones somehow. It was something I was listening to a lot when I was working on Tramp, and when got down on myself for not having a home base and travelling way more than I was in New York. You feel torn, like why do I even live here? But coming back to it always reminds you why you do what you do. Finding a way to make it work and be inspired.

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