John Cale on Sharon Van Etten: "That Pretty Thing Isn't All Sweet"


Over a bottle of red wine, Sharon Van Etten opened up to us about her hard-won triumph of a record, Are We There, and the stories behind the songs that detailed the breaking of her open heart. A thousand words weren't enough to dive into Are We There in full, so we've got a few extra tidbits about the record, Sharon's process, and some thoughts from her friends--and idols--about why the prolific performer is at a pivotal moment in her career.

See also: Are We There Glimpses at Sharon Van Etten's Growing Pains

Sharon on learning from Aaron Dessner of The National while working on Tramp and why she was looking forward to taking the reigns with Are We There: "I learned a lot from working with Aaron. And I feel like, in touring that record and talking to people and meeting fans and doing interviews, one of the things I felt insecure about is that most people would ask about people who played on the record, and I felt like the star-studded cast overshadowed my songs. Also, Aaron's style is burying things in dark, crazy sonics, which is cool, but at the same time, it was another insecurity about my songs, where I was like, I don't really play music that needs to be buried in a wall of sound. I just want to show ... I just felt like maybe the cast undermined what the songs actually were. I learned a lot from it, which is why I really wanted to be more in charge. I knew more what I wanted. Every album I've made I'm really proud of, and I just feel like, when you're graduating, you go to sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, and now I'm finally in high school! I'm still goin'. I'm still learning, I'm still figuring out what works for me and what doesn't. But this is the first time I feel like I had the tools to communicate with people what I wanted, but also have the trial and error from the past, knowing how to communicate with people and filling up the songs without covering them up.

John Cale, a massive inspiration and collaborator of Sharon's, on her strength as a songwriter: "She seems to write from a deeply personal place. Seems someone's disappointed her and she's dealing with it. That pretty thing isn't all sweet. Honesty always trumps formula. Whatever she's singing about, you believe her. The different personas take over, and they're all her.

Sharon on working with Adam Granduciel and Dave Hartley of The War on Drugs: "This time I really wanted to assign roles to people, because Doug was playing guitar and bass. In hindsight, I realized I was asking a lot of him, to have to think of playing parts for both instruments for all these songs on Tramp. He was bouncing back and forth a lot. He just learned to play bass to play with me. Dave played bass on Epic, and so we were really close before I knew the War on Drugs guys, and he wrote a bunch of amazing bass lines that really changed the vibes of the songs. I decided to have Doug be specifically guitar, Heather be specifically vocals, Zeke played drums and Dave played bass. I played keys and guitar as well. That was the heart of the record, right there. Adam came towards the end because he was jealous that Dave was part of the crew! [Laughs] He was like, 'Wait a minute, I'm gonna come out with Dave sometime!' He ended up doing a few guitar lines on the record, but Dave is all over it."

Adam Granduciel on feeling like a schoolgirl when he was asked to contribute to Are We There: "Dave is kind of Sharon's favorite. Like, when you put together a list of the people you want to work on your record, Dave is her number one. I've known her for awhile through Dave when he started working on Epic. She wanted Zeke on drums and Dave on bass, so I actually got, like, 25 songs, demos of what they were working on from Dave. Sharon was like, 'Please, let Adam listen to them.' I was able to listen to pretty much every song that they were demoing for the sessions. I kind of came into the sessions being like, 'What's it going to take for me to play on this record?!' half-jokingly. Of course, I want to get asked to play on things, but I only really want to play on certain things, and Sharon's album is really one of the only records that I was embarrassingly like a schoolgirl when I was asked. I don't want a million people to ask me to play on their record, but Sharon, I was like, 'Oh man, is there any you can get me to play on this record?' She found out, and she was like, 'Oh my god of course, I was scared to ask you!' We got over the initial strangeness of that conversation, and then we went into the studio for one day, on a Sunday, when Dave was going back up. They had already been working on stuff for a few weeks. I had a few ideas for a few songs, and I had been playing along to them in my room. A few of them didn't make the record, but then I ended up playing the slide guitar on 'Our Love' and I played some Wurlitzer and guitar on 'Every Time The Sun Comes Up.'"

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