Sharon Van Etten released Because I Was In Love to great acclaim in 2009, though it was her guest turn on The Antlers’ year-end critic’s favorite Hospice that got her the most attention last year. That should change in ’10, since Because I Was In Love has the makings of a hit so long as people get the chance to hear it. Van Etten’s gorgeously mournful vocals and bedroom-intimate recording aesthetic makes comparisons to Feist and Cat Power a little too easy, though quietly melodic ballads like “For You” and “Much More Than That” would fit just as well in Gap commercials or your girlfriend’s favorite mix-tape. Before Tuesday’s show at the Varsity Theater, Van Etten spoke with The A.V. Club about her batshit (but inspirational) ex-boyfriend, recording with Greg Weeks of Philadelphia freak-folk band Espers, her friendship with Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, and whether she’ll finally get around to rocking out when she comes to town.
The A.V. Club: You are known for writing intensely personal songs. Does it ever get awkward with fans who feel they know you because they know your lyrics?
Sharon Van Etten: It can be pretty intense. But even the intense moments with people, they draw something positive from it and it gets them through a hard time.
AVC: So, no stalkers yet?
SVE: I’ve had a couple of old men poets, who have tried cornering me and reciting to me. But my friends are pretty quick to pick up on it and help me out. [Laughs.] That can be intense.
AVC: The songs on Because I Was In Love were inspired by a bad long-term relationship you had when living in Tennessee. What happened with that?
SVE: He was a rocker guy, and he just thought I wasn’t good enough to play out. So sometimes I had to sneak out to play open mics. I had to hide the fact that I played.
AVC: Exactly how big of a jerk was that guy?
SVE: [Laughs.] He was crazy. Not a good guy. He ended up being an addict and was very controlling. It was a very unhealthy relationship. He’s in jail now. But I feel like I took a lot from it, and I learned a lot from it, and I’m a better person because of it.
AVC: Now that you’re a better-known musician than he is, do you have a message for him? Like, say, “Fuck you”?
SVE: I want to say thanks for all the songs.
AVC: You’ve called Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio a mentor of sorts. How did you meet?
SVE: I had just moved back in with my parents in Jersey—I had lived in Tennessee for six years—and it’s kind of intense to move back and live in your parents’ basement. So as soon as I could I started going to New York, and I went to see A Celebration play at the Bowery Ballroom, and someone named Kyp Malone was opening. I’d never met him and didn’t know his music, but when I saw him I realized he was my friend’s brother from high school. So, I felt compelled to say something after the show. I introduced myself, just a total dork, and he was super sweet. After that, we just kept in touch. I gave him my homemade CD, and he said, “You need to move to New York.” He helped book my first couple of shows, he introduced me to venues in New York—he really gave me my start in Brooklyn. I feel really lucky.
AVC: Was it a challenge to replicate the homey feel of your demos for the studio record?
SVE: I was a little nervous about it. But the cool thing about Greg Weeks’ studio is that it was just me and him, and it was in a basement, too. He was working from the demos I gave him and he wanted to keep it just as intimate. In presenting him the songs and talking about how we wanted to re-record them, he was really excited that I wanted to keep them minimal, because adding to those songs wouldn’t really make any sense.
AVC: How do you put these delicate songs over live in loud, dirty-ass rock clubs?
SVE: Honestly, live is my favorite way of performing. Every show is a completely different energy. With recording, it’s not really as organic as it can be. But I feel like I’m a lot more fluid, and I can be a little bit more aggressive. I move from acoustic to electric guitar, so it’s a little more intense than the album. I’m hoping people can see that I’m moving in a different direction from that album.
AVC: Are you dying to finally shred?
SVE: Totally. I have this alter ego for sure. But it’s baby steps. I’m not about to come out like PJ Harvey, and just scream and play guitar as hard as I can. But I started collaborating with other people, so it might be a minimal band next time. I’m still figuring it out.