The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten

Born and raised in New Jersey, singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten made her debut in May 2009 with the acoustically-driven Because I Was in Love, followed by her sophomore effort, 2010’s epic, which marked a fuller sound for her, now accompanied by a full band. Sharon’s third album, Tramp, was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National and released in February 2012 to critical acclaim. Back in the studio again, Sharon took the lead to self-produce her fourth album with Stewart Lerman, resulting in the honest, vulnerable, and emotionally resonant offering, Are We There, released in May 2014. When she’s not on the road touring, Sharon calls New York City her home.

  • musician
  • songwriter

TGD Mag Issue TwoEditor’s note: This is a print-only feature, originally published in The Great Discontent, Issue Two. To read the interview in its entirety, pick up the print magazine in our online shop.

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Did you have an “Aha!” moment when you knew that music was what you wanted to do? There were little signs during my childhood. When I was really little, like in kindergarten, my family moved into a beautiful Victorian house atop a hill in Nutley, New Jersey. It was a really old fixer-upper that needed a lot of work. But I’m one of five kids, and this house was big enough for all of us and way bigger than any place we’d ever lived in—we still dream about that house.

There was an old, beat-up grand piano left in the living room by the previous owners. My mom says that I was crawling around, exploring, and, all of a sudden, I was missing. She heard me crying and found me underneath the piano. Later on, that piano became my best friend. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I messed around on it, playing little melodies. That was the first sign. As I grew older, I continued to gravitate toward musical instruments.

One day, I went to meet my sister after school. She was in a choir called The Mini Singers. I walked into the room and the teacher, Mrs. Zittman, put me on the spot and made me sing a harmony, which I was able to do. She said to me, “Now you’re part of The Mini Singers.” Mrs. Zittman was one of the best music teachers ever; she always had different colored hair and was so crazy and sassy. I just thought she was really cool. That was when I realized I could sing.

I was performing while I was in high school, which was exhilarating, but I didn’t know what it meant. When I moved to Tennessee, I started writing my own songs to play at open mic nights. After playing a song for a friend—I don’t remember what song—my friend started crying. She said, “That’s really moving.” That was the first time I made someone cry. I asked, “Is that good? You’re crying.” Now, music is this thing I do.

Did you ever think you’d be a full-time musician? No way! No way. Never in a million years did I think I’d be able to do this.

Sharon Van Etten in Apiece Apart
Sharon photographed by Eric Ryan Anderson at Urban Cowboy B&B; hair and makeup by Lauren Smelley with styling by Savannah White; dress by Apiece Apart

“Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s music or not, find people who support your ideas; that will keep you going. Everything else will come naturally if you’re in a supportive environment.”

It sounds like it’s been a long road. Yeah, I’ve worked a lot of service jobs: Subway, McDonald’s, Books-A-Million, and IHOP, which was the only job I was ever fired from. It’s been a weird road, and I’m not sure how I got here. At 33, I’m finally starting to think, “Okay, I’m doing this!”

Do you think that sharing your music or even making that decision to pursue it was a risk? It’s odd because I feel like it happened naturally. Like, “Oh, you want me to open for you? Cool.” When I started out, I didn’t even have a guitar tuner, and I was so nervous that I spent more time making jokes than singing. But my hair has always been a little messy, so I’d do this (brushing fingers through her hair, pulling it over her face) and get a little drunk, play, and make jokes. I’d play to 20 coked-out guys in a Lower East Side bar, strumming my classical guitar and singing mellow tunes. One day, I silenced a crowd. I thought, “Okay, this is weird.” I was just playing to hang out because I had a crush on the bartender, but didn’t think it would ever become anything.

What would you say to a young musician who’s just starting out? Don’t ever feel inhibited. It’s harder to censor yourself than to just be yourself. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s music or not, find people who support your ideas; that will keep you going. Everything else will come naturally if you’re in a supportive environment. Don’t be around people who make you feel like you can’t be yourself. Don’t hang around naysayers or people who give you a hard time about what you’re doing. Criticism can be fine, but it has to be constructive and productive, and not damaging.interview close

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