Ed. note – Ahead of Sharon Van Etten's long-sold out show in SF this week, Ryan Prendiville had the chance to catch up with the rising indie folk singer-songwriter (who recently released critically lauded third album 'Tramp') to discuss her songwriting process, lessons of South by Southwest pasts, and the influence of Nick Cave:
SFBG: How many shows are you playing at SXSW?
Sharon Van Etten: Just two. Last year we did eight in three days. It was really stupid. I burnt out and lost my voice for three days when we had just started a tour. I decided this year it just wasn’t worth it.
SFBG: You’re going to be touring nonstop for probably the rest of the year, are you not too worried about burning out?
SVE: I have to worry about burning out. These songs are more intense vocally with more band members, which I’ll still have to sing over. If the drummer loses his voice it’s one thing, but if I lose my voice we can’t really play. Before I just played as many shows as I could whereas now I realize that five in a row is kind of the max before we all start losing our minds.
SFBG: Are you thinking more of the long-term now?
SVE: I’m realizing that if I can learn how to perform in a healthy way, I’ll be able to do this for a long time. I know it sounds kind of adult or something. But for every record, if you really want people to hear it, you have a responsibility to tour at least a year, cover as much ground as you can, and play the best show that you can everyday. So you should take care of yourself. You've got to have fun, of course.
SFBG: Since your music is generally pretty sad, is there any danger, with your career going well and having fun, of hurting your ability to make similar music?
SVE: Some people are concerned that I’m going to start writing happy songs now that I’m doing well. The whole joke is, if you’re not miserable you’re not going to write as well. I’m not too worried about that. If I write differently, I write differently. I’m pretty at peace and proud of what I’m writing. I don’t want to jinx myself and say that people will like it just as much, but you don’t have to be miserable or tortured to record or be successful. So far most of my songs have been written in intense periods where I’ve been going through a hard time, but I think I can write songs just as well when I’m happy.
SFBG: There’s a bit of a stereotype that female musicians are often more personal, writing from their own life experience, than their male counterparts. Obviously a great aspect when it’s true, but can downplay a creative aspect.
SVE: Writing more emotional songs doesn’t makes a person less creative. I think a lot of men avoid it while women tackle it, and that’s just a difference in genders. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just how most people are. Men are often more storytellers and detach themselves from an actual event, but I don’t think that makes them not passionate. I’d like to learn to be more of a storyteller, it just doesn’t come naturally to me right now. I’ve been listening to a lot of Nick Cave, and he’s really, really good at that. It makes me want to try a different way of writing next time.
SFBG: Are you working on new material while you’re touring, or do you kind of give yourself a mental break?
SVE: I’m always kind of writing, I just don’t know what it will turn into. I have different side projects that I’m working on but who knows if they’ll fuse together into something someday. I have piano music. I have electronic music. I have really minimal stuff but I also want to write more rock songs. Right now i have a lot of ideas, but can’t call them songs yet.