Brooklyn singer and songwriter Sharon Van Etten has two gorgeous and acclaimed albums to her name, a new album in the works with producer Aaron Dessner, a European tour with Dessner's band The National on the horizon, and enough well-deserved praise floating around the Internet to launch a denial-of-service attack against Tumblr. But just a few years ago, she was an MTSU dropout working as a barista and stealing away to play open mic nights against the wishes of her controlling boyfriend, who thought she wasn't any good. For all the musical talent we attract to Middle Tennessee, we sure let a good one get away.
Van Etten moved to Tennessee in 1999, straight out of high school. Within a year she had dropped out of college, taking a job at the Red Rose, the defunct Murfreesboro cafe and former music venue that now faces possible demolition. She cites her time in Tennessee as formative and inspirational, even if she had to leave, brokenhearted, to find her voice as a musician.
"Working at Red Rose was amazing," Van Etten says. "It was my home away from home. Everyone who worked there taught me a lot about music. Before I moved to Tennessee, I really only listened to radio and what my friends gave me, and so there were a lot of gaps there. ... I was exposed to a lot of newer music, and genres I didn't even know existed." Whatever pain those years dealt her — and there was an album's worth, at least — Van Etten can still smile on her time here.
"You know, apart from the relationship shit, I think it was really good for me. I learned a lot." She adds, with a laugh: "It was just kind of like a sitcom — Jersey girl moving to Tennessee."
Over the course of two albums, Van Etten has emerged from a crowded field as a singular talent. There is, after all, no shortage of singers who've heard Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan, and who think they and their guitar have something to say to the world, the great majority of it having to do with their feelings. Whether your local Cafe is the Bluebird or the Sidewalk, you've heard this genus before, many times over, ad nauseam — but the species Van Etten is rare.
For starters, there's her voice. A rich, enthralling, versatile instrument, it can go from a hushed vulnerability, reminiscent of indie-folk singers like Julie Doiron, to a soaring, cathedral melancholy. And as painfully intimate as her subject matter can be at times, Van Etten is able to strike the balance that eludes so many — mournful but not grave, delicate but not precious, serious but not self-serious. Only art this perfectly wrought can hold so much pain under its command. In the space of her songs, Van Etten never lets her intelligence overpower her heart, nor the other way around.
Even more impressive than her emotionally ravishing 2009 debut, Because I Was in Love, is how much its follow-up, last year's Epic, manages to build on her strengths. Just as the bare-bones instrumentation on Because never feels inadequate, the added sonic layers on Epic — harmonium, drums and synth to go with acoustic and electric guitars — never feel obtrusive.
"I think these songs are more coming to terms with my old record, and understanding more where I was, and being OK with it," she says. "They're a little more aggressive, and I think they're more confident as well."
Whereas Because finds Van Etten singing, "I hate to admit it / but I don't know shit," Epic sees her singing from a wiser, though no less devastating, perspective. On the transcendent "Save Yourself," her voice is cool, almost sly, delivering the lines with a knowing, sidelong grin: "Don't you think I know," she sings over rolling drums and sighing pedal steel, "you're only trying to save yourself / You're just like everyone else." The new assertiveness, combined with a fuller, more varied sound, adds up to make one of her early lyrics seem especially prescient: On "Much More Than That," she sings, "One day I'll be a better writer."
"I guess it was a deliberate move, to have a band on this album and be able to tour with the band to able to show that I'm versatile," Van Etten says. She credits Brian McTear, who produced a recording of her song "Love More" for Weathervane Music and WXPN's Shaking Through series, with helping her see the possibilities of more fleshed-out arrangements, and considers their session together as a crucial turning point in her recent success.
"When people realized I wasn't just a solo singer-songwriter, that I can have a band, that I can do something other than super sad songs — you know, like, feeling sorry for myself or whatever — that opened the door," she says.
And she's still getting used to her life on the other side of that threshold: "People's response was a lot stronger than I thought it would be," she says with a laugh. "I'm still freaking out about everything. It's crazy."
While there is no longer a Red Rose for her to play, Van Etten sees her return to Tennessee as special. It will be only her second show here since she fled for her parents' home in New Jersey seven years ago — the other being a solo appearance at The Basement with Festival and Cortney Tidwell in 2008.
"I'm kind of nervous about playing in Nashville, actually," she says. "It's like playing for my parents or something, you know?"
Despite any jitters she may experience when she takes the stage at The 5 Spot Saturday night, they likely won't last long. Club owner Todd Sherwood is an old friend and, after all, this is familiar soil.
"There's something really comfortable and slow and relaxing about the South," she says. "I miss that. That's one thing you don't get in New York."
Good Morning Doyle, You asked so I'll explain. Last evening "snowman69" made the first comment…
ahem. the above article says SHUGGIE FUCKIN' OTIS is coming to play Nashville. why are…
PS: Thought I'd check out who is playing a the Station Inn myself and it…
@snowman69, Margarita Festival this evening, May 17, from 6PM-9PM in the Gulch between Pine ST…
Anything cool going on this weekend though? Seems bleak out there