If you would have told me two years ago that I would eventually be shuffling into the cramped back room of a women’s bohemian clothing store in suburban Nashville to interview Sharon Van Etten, I would probably react by asking how you got in my room before forcing you out so that I could finish listening to my worn vinyl copy of Tramp for the fourth time that day. Somehow, this previously unfathomable concept became unmistakable truth as I opened up the guarded door to Madewell’s location at The Mall at Green Hills, confirming that I was indeed there to inhabit the same small space as an individual whose music played a major role in a formative period of my own life.
Following the Madewell staff’s mad dash to transform a retail storefront into a listening room, a brief soundcheck and a lengthy period of hobnobbing with the freshly flown-in reps from the NYC offices of both Madewell and Spotify, Sharon Van Etten is finally walking into the employees only area being occupied by myself and another local writer. Sardine canned, surrounded by cookies and short on time, we’re able to condense the information relevant to the event and discuss Sharon’s connection to the sponsorship interests that made this last-minute performance possible.
Amiable as I would have imagined her being from watching prior interviews, Sharon Van Etten is happy that her first major artist/company sponsorship is fitting for the image that she portrays on record and on stage. When she got the call from Madewell about being featured on their website and highlighted in a summer instore concert series (one that will go on to include contributions from the skyrocketing folk harmonizers Lucius and the hybrid R&B auteur Kelela), Van Etten recalls being elated: “I love Madewell, it’s something that I’ve always worn.” Drawing on their partnerships with smaller designers and tasteful representation of their models, Van Etten reaffirms that this first dip of the toe into the corporate pool is one that “represents [her], for sure.” She qualifies any cynicism about the decision to make this leap from the stereotypical “indie” stance of avoiding all choices that might make it seem like an artist is “selling out” by allowing Madewell (owned by J. Crew, a billion-dollar private company) to coalesce in her speech as an empathetic figure, much like she allows supposed antagonists in her songs to become real, by painting herself as someone who accepts her own lack of perfection and inherent human vulnerability: “I’ve been lucky like that. I don’t know if it’s my music or my nature, but people just want to help me be myself.”
By the time that we’re transitioning away from the fashion conversation, I’ve noticed that we’re pressed for time to the point that I know to abandon all hopes of getting to ask any of the deeper questions about her music that I had been holding on to since my last semester of college, in which countless late night library sessions had wound down with repeat listens of “Give Out” and where I had made a ritual of embracing my Sunday afternoons off by alternating between NPR programming and Tramp, skipping Car Talk and On Being to listen to the album from cover to cover. Sometimes, I’d miss out on This American Life and State of the Re:Union, too, if I felt that the therapeutic songs of Van Etten were worth more to me in the moment than listening to the stories that originally made me view getting into college radio as a viable extracurricular activity. I don’t get to tell her how the line “I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom” beared a strange synchronicity to a period of shaky relationships in my post-college daze, and I don’t get to tell her that the first time I heard her sing was when she breaks Peter Silberman’s monopoly on The Antlers’ Hospice, a record that saved my life on more than one occasion.
Instead, I have to settle for questions about Spotify. While we make our way into this often heated topic of conversation, Van Etten assures me that this marriage of artist and brand also makes sense. A career touring musician in every sense of the word (if she was at all jetlagged from flying into town almost immediately following her set as Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington just two days prior, she wasn’t showing it), she often relies on the convenience of Spotify while on the road, battling the “shitty internet connections” overseas in stride to create playlists from new music she discovers in these strange places. Following her transfiguration of Madewell, Van Etten holds the steadfast belief that Spotify is working to appease the critics of their current monetization structure, something that will likely be made possible by the company’s progressing expansion into a full-scale digital entertainment destination not unlike iTunes before it, iTunes of course being integral to a company that is now working backwards to integrate music streaming into its long-stagnant distribution model. Rampant ground-level speculation and the journalistic laziness it would require of me to buy a horse just to kill it and beat it in painting Spotify as a villain in the music industry, it would also make me a hypocrite. I myself am a heavy consumer on my Premium account, viewing it as my (admittedly insubstantial) method of atonement for years spent abusing the Internet to my advantage.
Van Etten, also a Premium user, confirms that she ends up physically purchasing most of the music that falls for digitally. Regrettably, I can’t even say I’m close to being similar in that regard. While I purchased and played the wax off of her third album Tramp, her following record Are We There sits in my digital archive, impossible to destroy but also somewhat impossible to truly connect with.
That theoretical balance between inexorable emotional connection and unignorable physical distance makes up the bulk of Sharon Van Etten’s songwriting, something she confirmed in her six-song set following our quick conversation. Taking the stage by herself with just her Fender and a small amp, Van Etten embraced the intimacy of the room (there couldn’t have been more than 50 people in the space, a far cry from the thousands of people attending her outdoors Sasquatch set) while lamented that she “[felt] a little naked without [her] band” joining in with her. I shared in this notion, having never thought that my first time getting to experience Van Etten’s music in a live setting would be in a brightly lit building that I had previously never stepped foot in. I missed her Exit/In gig by about four months and she has historically avoided making tour stops south of Georgia, something that she confessed in our chat by saying that Against Me! bassist and close friend Andrew Seward has been trying to get her to my home state of Florida for years, to no avail. Still, I was gladly willing to settle on this odd setting, an acceptance that was not negatively affected by several complimentary tequila cocktails. In addition to playing a few selections from early albums Because I Was In Love and Epic in line with her past two breakthrough records, Van Etten indulged the crowd with new songs as well, one confessed to be about how “sometimes it’s nice to miss somebody” and another being a live staple on her most recent global trek, a leftover from the Are We There sessions that will be included on her forthcoming EP, titled I Don’t Want To Let You Down. While she briefly entranced much of the late adopters in the room like myself, with renditions of the beautiful “Tarifa” and the aforementioned “Give Out”, she wrapped up with her version of a funeral dirge, a song dedicated to late friend Mike Skinner that she found while cleaning her apartment.
The power in her music is unmistakable each time her voice rings out, and this set-closing rarity was no different from her recorded music. The overwhelming toll of heartbreak and the crushing possibility of optimism will always be battling through her, a fiery conflict that lesser individuals would not be able to handle. Luckily, for us, Sharon Van Etten is something above that. Corporate sponsorships aside, she’s one of the most engagingly real musicians that I’ve ever found myself listening to, and it would be beyond me to complain that more financially secure interests are starting to see that as well. It’s an ultimately selfish sentiment when we try to hold on to these regular people simply because we want to cherish what they channel through art, as if it were our own original expression. Sharon is worth the trajectory that this sponsorship will send her on, and then some.
Words by Kevin Brown /// Photography courtesy of Madewell