It may bear her name on the cover and it may be her first self-produced offering, but Sharon Van Etten's fourth album, Are We There -- out today via the Jagjaguwar label -- isn't exactly a solo endeavour.
During the two years she spent touring on the back of her breakthrough 2012 album Tramp, for which the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter earned plenty of positive ink, Van Etten felt like the relationship with her band -- Heather Woods Broderick, Doug Keith and Zeke Hutchins -- had really crystallized. It was important for the 33-year-old to find her people, as it were; the kind of music she makes -- raw and honest, with emotional scars and bruises in full view -- requires a foundation of trust.
"I felt like I found a band I was able to be open and vulnerable with," she says over the phone a few days before the album's release -- and a few hours away from boarding a plane for Europe to begin a stretch of tour dates that will eventually bring her to the Winnipeg Folk Festival in July.
"After being in a van with three other people for so long, you realize you're a family. You communicate in a way that others don't understand. I really wanted to bring that to this album. It's heavier than being in a relationship. I wanted my band to help me figure out how to play these songs. I wanted it to feel like a band album -- and I wanted to feel heard."
Are We There is defined by an unflinching directness; Van Etten is an articulate lyricist with a real gift for cutting to the emotional heart of her subject, no matter how dark. When she sings, in that indelible, plaintive voice, "break my legs so I won't walk to you/cut my tongue so I can't talk to you/burn my skin so I can't feel you/stab my eyes so I can't see you" on Your Love is Killing Me, it's heart-wrenching. Intimate and affecting, Are We There deals in hard truths, but it never gets swept up in its own melancholia.
"It's a very uplifting darkness," she says with a laugh.
Still, words didn't always come easy, especially during her teenage years in New Jersey. "I always had a hard time communicating my emotions," she recalls. "I'd retreat into my bedroom and listen to music. And when you're a teenager, you're dealing with all these hormones. It's like, 'What are these?'"
One day, her mother, Janice, gave her a notebook. "She just told me to write," she says. "I'm sure it was all stupid boy stuff and wanting boobs or whatever, but it was so valuable." It wasn't long before she taught herself to play guitar, and started turning those journal pages into songs. "Now, whenever I go through something dark, I still close the door -- but now I hit record."
Van Etten says her bedroom recordings are mostly streams of consciousness. "I feel better letting it out," she says. "It's a form of therapy for me. Most of those songs will never see the light of day; it's mostly a music journal."
Often, though, she'll strike gold, finding a lyric or a chorus she comes back to and develops into a song. Her songwriting process hasn't changed much, but the end result has. "I'm still learning how to do it," she says, "but I don't sound broken and I'm not a victim."
She's resolute when she says that, because there was a time when she did sound broken. While Van Etten was studying in Tennessee after high school, she says she was also in a toxic relationship with a controlling boyfriend who didn't support her or her music, saying it was too personal and not good enough. He even broke her guitar. After six years with him, Van Etten picked up and left in the middle of the night.
She relocated to Brooklyn in 2005 and found a community who supported her and gave her the shot of confidence she needed to pursue music again. "I never thought I'd turn this into a career," she says. "I thought, 'Why would anyone want to hear this? Why would anyone want to go hear someone read her journal?' That idea was mind-blowing to me."
It was Greg Weeks of the folk-rock band Espers who coaxed her into recording what would be her debut album, 2009's Because I Was in Love. "It's the most broken I've ever been, but he held my hand through it," she says.
Four records in, and Van Etten has never sounded more sure of herself.
"It's everything I wanted," she says of Are We There. "I took all the tools from the people I worked with on the last three records and I finally have the skills to articulate my ideas. It's the heaviest record I've made, but I'm really proud of what we've done."