Since releasing her critically acclaimed studio album epic a decade ago, Sharon Van Etten has demanded the attention of the entertainment world. Now with five records under her belt, as well as notable acting credits and collaborations with many celebrated names in indie rock, she remains one of the most captivating songwriters releasing music today.
For Sharon, epic was a turning point, marking the shift from record label publicist and solo performer to full-time artist, backed by a talented band of beloved friends. Through expert use of harmonies, instrumentation and intimate ruminations on a past painful relationship, epic touched the hearts of music-lovers and musicians everywhere, including here in Seattle. I myself first discovered Sharon’s music via this record, and have been a lifelong fan ever since.
To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of epic, Sharon has released a double album LP titled epic Ten featuring both the original record and an LP of covers by Fiona Apple, Big Red Machine, Courtney Barnett with Vagabon, Shamir, and more.
I called Sharon in her studio in LA and together we reflected on the decade since epic’s release — the professional and personal relationships she’s built along the way, and the life experience she’s gained. “Looking back is wild, because I definitely was a kid then,” she says. “And I definitely don’t feel like a kid right now.”
“The biggest thing for me in making epic — I was learning how to reach out to other people and communicate how I envisioned my songs moving forward with instrumentation and collaboration. As an adult, learning how to accept help from others was huge. I was solo up until I started making epic, and it ended up giving me the courage to get a band together. I didn't really understand the breadth of it in the moment. Looking back, I see that it was a huge stepping stone for me.”
epic Ten is out digitally now and physically June 11 via Ba Da Bing Records.
Cheryl Waters: I love that you enlisted Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner to open up for this covers album because I remember how huge and special it was when both Bon Iver and the National covered the final track of epic, "Love More." And it seems very full circle for Big Red Machine to now perform their version of "A Crime." I'm wondering who approached who with that idea.
Sharon Van Etten: It's funny, actually, because they're the first artists that I wanted to reach out about being involved in this at all, to see if it's even something that anyone would be interested in participating in. And immediately, I asked them about "Love More," since that was the song that initially made me reach out to them, because "Love More" was out as a single through Weathervanes "Shaking Through" series. I recorded that song before I decided to make an album. And that one song reached so many people, and they covered that song before I made the record. I didn't realize that I touched... I didn't know how far my reach was. That was the first time that I had seen another artist cover my songs.
I had reached out to them to be a part of epic, but they were making their own records and touring at the time. And they expressed their gratitude and me asking them to be involved, but they were so busy. So when I reached out about this covers record, of course "Love More" came to mind, but they were like, 'Well, we kind of already did that. Can you pick another song?' So I thought, ‘Well, instead of the closing, why don't you do the opening?’ Because it is so stark and minimal. You can have a lot of freedom with that. And they jumped on it.
I feel that epic's release 10 years ago really marked the start of your relationship with these indie giants who you now consider your peers and contemporaries. Do you remember a noticeable shift?
After that meeting with Aaron, with my initial reach out for the making of epic, that's when he said, 'you know, in the meantime, if you want to demo some songs at the studio in Brooklyn that he had, I could help you with your demos.' I started sending him demos and he sent me a text back laughing saying, 'well, it looks like you have enough for a record.' That's when, I think I was even making epic, when we were already planning to start recording the next record together.
When we were making Tramp together the following year, he pushed me to pick up the electric guitar, and to bring in a drummer, and to still call on more of my musician friends. He helped give me a language and find more confidence in building up the songs that were so stark, and taking epic to the next place. To this day, I still have a Fender Jag that kind of marked the album Tramp. In a way it is like the next stair of this staircase of friends that have lifted me along the way. Aaron was definitely a huge part of that.
You called out the writing process in your parents basement from your first album, Because I Was In Love, in "A Crime." You say, 'Alone in this basement where I will write these songs.' You processed a lot through the writing process for that first record and approached epic with a lot more confidence. What's it like to reflect back on that period of your life and compare it to now?
I owe everything to my parents for taking me in at one of the hardest points in my life, where they let me live with them for a year, as long as I got a job, and went to therapy, and went to school, and got a hold of my life, and figured out what it was I wanted to do and have conviction in that. I was definitely heartbroken and lost, but at the same time, being able to live with them and build myself back up, and find that strength within myself to share these songs that I've been writing for years in the safety of the house I grew up in.
That was the beginning of me learning how to talk about what it was I was most passionate about. Also, what were the hardest things, getting through with the heartbreak and just coming to your parents as a 20-something and saying, ‘after all these years I still want to do music and I know it's not going to be the easy path, but I have this drive.’ Ever since that moment they've been so supportive. If it weren't for them taking me in like that, I don't think I would even be doing this today.
I remember when I first heard “Peace Signs,” it felt like a sonic shift for you. The driving guitar and the drums. It was really your first recorded song with a full rock band, if I'm not mistaken. And to hear it performed by IDLES, who start off with those same drums and energetic passion. How did you know they were the perfect band to cover this track? And did you have any idea that it would sound like this?
I was lucky enough to meet IDLES when we were touring in 2019 for my last record Remind Me Tomorrow, and we high-fived on a lot of festival circuits. They have families and friends that they were missing, and we have had long runs of shows where we were missing home. Sonically we live in different universes for the types of genres that we're put in, but there is that sense of camaraderie when you keep running into each other on tour and you're like, 'we're still doing this.' That turns into your family during that time.
They were all so very kind and nurturing to us when we were all in these very vulnerable states. I got to hang side stage and watch them play and interact with their audience, and interact with each other as a band. Even in the hardest situations, just watching them have fun and lean on each other, I just knew that I was going to be friends with these guys. They were just so welcoming and accepting of everyone, like everyone backstage was just their buddy.
I knew that they would do the song justice in their form of... I always hesitate saying it... yeah, they're ‘punk,’ but like, they're a rock band. They have so much fun and they also have a positive message. And I felt like hearing it from that perspective would help give this song a new life.
Speaking about exciting people to have working on the record, for song number three: Lucinda Williams, one of the greatest songwriters alive today, alongside yourself. Her bluesy interpretation of "Save Yourself" is stunning. What is it like to have this legend connect with your music and clearly bring so much of herself to the cover?
I mean, quite honestly, I cried the first few times I heard it and watched the video that she so generously took while she was making the song. I have many different levels of connection with her music, but the initial one was my mother, actually. As a teenager we butted heads a lot, but there were a handful of artists that we connected on as mother-daughter, and it was definitely Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lucinda Williams. Those are the few things we could put on together on road trips where we would just sing along and forget about the angsty disagreements. Just for a minute, forget about all that.
I've gotten to listen to Lucinda with my mom in the car at a young age. We got to go see her in concert. I got to go see her with my partner in Tarrytown. That was the first time I got to meet her, and she invited us backstage. I'm literally walking backstage and super nervous. I hate bothering artists after shows, you never know what their energy level is. Sometimes I want to see people, sometimes I'm exhausted. So I was hesitant walking back there, but as I walked back there, she walked up to me with a glass of wine in her hand, singing "Every Time the Sun Comes Up." And I just... I wanted to faint right there, because having that acknowledgment from someone that I consider is one of the best singers and writers of our time... acknowledge, what I think is one of my silliest songs. I felt understood. It's still something I'm wrapping my brain around, to be quite honest. But "honored" isn't even enough of a word to say how much it means to me that she wanted to do this, and honor the song in her own way.
I feel like you and Lucinda both have this unique power of writing songs about past relationships that don't give the focus to the other person, or the hurt that they caused. You write about yourself and the way that you respond, and that's very empowering. Is this something that you do naturally or do you consciously center yourself in the narrative?
When I usually sit down and write a song, it's because I'm going through a lot emotionally. I've always had a hard time communicating in the moment, and the way I process my emotions is by writing and singing before I really have conversations about what it is I'm feeling, because that's usually how I get perspective. Most of the time I sit down, and I hit record, and I just try to get through this indescribable emotion. Most of those songs don't see the light of day because they are too personal.
When I feel like I'm processing a song in a way where I can talk about my emotions without it being so specific, where I feel like it is a universal idea that other people can latch on to in their own way, that's when I decide I want to share it. Where, yes, it's something I was going through, but if I feel like I'm writing it in a way where it's not so specific where it alienates the listener into feeling sorry for me, it's more about them being able to connect with that emotion and experiences that they've had. That's how I tend to write. I'm not sure how she does it! But I'm hoping that I walk in her footsteps and learn how to write as eloquently as she does.
It's impossible for me to select a favorite from this covers album, but I was certainly very excited to see Shamir covering "DsharpG." To me, Shamir is a pro at reinvention and making the music that he's passionate about, away from the constraints of any genre. How did you first discover Shamir's music?
I heard about Shamir a couple of ways, one was actually a recommendation from St. Vincent. I think it was about the same month that I heard Shamir on a playlist on Spotify. I try to keep up with the music that's happening now, but being a parent, I feel like I'm not as hip as I once thought I was. But I heard Shamir's music and it felt immediately nostalgic, but also very new, between his arrangements and his vocal ability. His range is insane. I definitely cling on to melodic ideas and also the feel of the song before I even know what any artist is singing about. I'm very immediate with how I listen to music. I don't know, I think it's just very rare that I hear music today and think 'this is really special. This feels really new.' But it also felt so familiar.
At the heart of [“DsharpG”] is a six minute long, two chord crescendo of emotion. I imagine it takes a lot of bravery to release a song like that, which is so complex in its simplicity. I know epic represented a shift in confidence for you as an artist. Tell me a little bit about that.
The main instrument on that record that I wrote a lot on was a harmonium. I was definitely exploring different ways of singing because I know I have this range. I got to borrow a harmonium from a band called The Brunettes actually, and I started writing on it and felt immediately like I was going into a meditative state when I was playing on it, because it is used for meditation in certain cultures. I felt my whole body vibrating in certain keys, just not really knowing how to play a harmonium. There are different versions of it, but you can have pulls and drones and there are keys on them so you can have moving parts if you want. It's mostly about the flow of the pump in the back, the bellows. So you find your rhythm while doing that to keep the air sustaining through it, because it is a reed instrument that needs air to sustain the sound. I found that moving less helped me explore vocals a lot more. I just ended up writing... I think the big ones are "DSharpG" and "Love More", where I wrote on the harmonium and just sang. It definitely took me to a different place than I had gone before melodically.
"Don't Do It" is one of my favorite songs on epic, and it's probably the one I play the most on my radio show. It's such a remarkable track, your ability to capture universal emotions without specifying specific actions or events in a way that people can relate to, and just sort of imprint their own personal relationships. And you have the dream team working on this song on epic Ten, Courtney Barnett featuring Vagabon. Has the meaning of this song evolved for you in the 10 years since it's come out?
Definitely. When I first wrote it, it was about a lot of things. It was about... Courtney actually asked me about the meaning behind it, and it has changed over the years, so that was a complex explanation for her. But I definitely wrote it with people in mind. Suicide is obviously immediate. People that have mental health issues, that don't take care of themselves or don't know how to, or don't know how to reach out for help, and how helpless they are and how helpless you feel as a friend.
I reflect back on it now, and even though sometimes I get embarrassed of how, when you just look at lyrics on a page without the music, I'm like, 'if you want to do it, you want to do it, even if I don't want you to.' Like, alone looking at those lyrics, I get embarrassed. But a lot of it is the emotion behind it that makes it feel that much more tangible, and maybe elusive at the same time. It's still a complex thought, to be honest.
The power of music and lyrics together! And the way they're presented. And that just brings me back to these two powerhouse women of indie rock covering this track. Tell me about your relationship with them and how it felt for you to hear them interpreting the song.
I've been a fan of Courtney Barnett for a long time now, I feel like I can say. We even got to play together in Seattle, I think the first time we properly got to meet was at the Neptune Theater, I believe in 2014. She was always very supportive, very kind, so easygoing, just like always down. We've kept in touch over the years, played festivals together and gotten to hang out. Her whole band mates, like her whole band, were always just very encouraging, standing on side stage during sets, watching each other. Just feeling that camaraderie at shows and festivals along the way. She would visit New York and we would hang out outside of the show. It just felt like this friendship is real.
Courtney, Vagabon, and I all got to meet when we played a benefit during the fires in Australia, [Courtney] had a benefit here in Los Angeles that she put on. I got to hear her and Vagabon cover a song together. That was the first time we all got to meet in one place. I've been able to hang out with Vagabon, now being L.A. based. Courtney just surrounds herself with really beautiful people, and I felt very welcomed by both of them. I didn't even know that Vagabon was going to be on the song when I first reached out to Courtney. It just so happened that Vagabon wanted to sing with her because they were already working on a project together. So it was a really nice surprise for two singers, I think, who are some of the most original singers happening today.
Well, just as I said I play "Don't Do It" more than any other song on my radio show, we come to "One Day," and maybe I play that one more than any other song. It was such a lovely surprise to discover an artist who's new to me on this record. St. Panther's interpretation of "One Day" is pure joy. To me, it strays the farthest from the original sound of epic and embraces this great pop and electronica. Had you ever imagined one of your songs being performed sounding like that, in that genre?
Definitely not, but it was so refreshing in a way! I first read about her in the L.A. Times and saw that she was from around here, and how young she was, and how she just seemed like a really special person and an interesting character that hopefully I get to meet in person one day. I liked her attitude about music, and I liked that she was young, modern, and from an area that I'm just learning to discover the music community here. I think she was nervous when she first sent the song, because she also worked with the producer Ricky Reed on the song, he does a lot of pop stuff. He's worked with Leon Bridges. I know that he had reached out to my manager being like, 'does she like it? Is it too weird?' And I'm like, 'tell him, no, I love it!' And it's nothing I would ever do — that's exactly why I reached out to St. Panther.
She has to be about the same age or probably younger than you were when you released epic. When you look back at that age, do you have advice for young women emerging into the music industry that you'd pass on?
I mean, advice I'm still learning myself, but I would say just... if you're ever feeling uncomfortable with anyone you're ever working with, it's a red flag. If you can't be yourself around somebody, that is not somebody you want to be friends with, or that you want to work with. Also don't be shy to reach out to people for help, but at the same time, if you have conviction in what it is you do, don't compromise if you know what you want. Only you know, as a person and an artist, what you're trying to convey. It's just finding the right people to help you convey those ideas.
Every time I listen to "One Day," I'm so touched by the line about the love between your parents relationship. You're a parent now. I'm wondering, are there aspects about healthy relationships that you want to communicate to your son? That's a big question!
Yeah, you know, I'm not that far in, but I just keep my studio door open. I want to be an open book to him as much as I can. My partner and I, we're in a very healthy relationship, we communicate about everything. We have conversations about everything. I just really want to make sure that we show an example of constantly talking about what we're going through, what we're feeling, and being able to explain what's happening, with patience. Also helping him, you know, things that he loves... just not force anything down his throat with the weird lifestyle that we have, but encourage the things that he's excited about and see what happens. He's going to see a lot with what we do, but really encourage the parts of him that are him, and not us, and learn how to tell the difference.
I can't imagine a better fit than Fiona Apple to close out the cover album with "Love More." You use so much imagery of being trapped, chained, tied to a bed, and that's the same imagery which pops up often in Fiona's Fetch the Bolt Cutters. How did you first approach her about covering "Love More"?
Quite honestly, I thought it was a reach. I mean, it definitely was a reach. I've never met her. We played the same stage during South by Southwest at Stubb's in...I think it was 2014. We didn't get to meet, but we shared the same stage and that was as close as I got. I think I took a selfie in front of her road case. She was someone that I grew up with.
I think when I was looking at all of the artists that I chose for this covers record, I wanted to make sure it was diverse in genres, in age, in gender, in race. We made sure of it to feel that way, so that however somebody approaches the song, you would feel like every song was a different world. I wanted to make sure it was artists that are new to me, artists that I've loved for a long time, artists that impacted me at a young age. She was someone that definitely shaped how I looked at songwriting when I was a teenager, before I ever really wrote. For someone of her stature to continue to put out music that pushes the envelope, that is vulnerable, brave, and at the same time uplifting and empowering... I couldn't think of any other artist.
I had my manager reach out on a whim. Honestly, I'm still dumbfounded that she said yes. Giving it so much character that she did, and thoughtfulness to the arrangement, and giving it a new life in a lighter way — in some ways it was like breaking those chains from when I wrote it and putting it into a universe for me that in some ways gives me more closure, in a way of where I was when I wrote that song.
The song is simultaneously so dark but incredibly hopeful and resilient. You grant yourself patience and grace in the wake of an abusive relationship. I can only imagine the impact it continues to have on individuals who've been through similar situations. What has your audience response been like to that song over the years?
Fans that have come forward telling me that song has given them a voice for a story that they haven't been able to tell, helps me feel like it's not a selfish thing to do. Because it is a jarring song. Definitely, I'm sure, a song that my parents still get emotional hearing. But it takes going to this dark place to get out of it.
As I connect with fans over the years, it's definitely been a song that gave them the language to talk about it with other people. A song that has brought friends together to share painful memories, but also to commiserate and to connect in a way that they didn't have the language for. I'm so glad that it's reached people in a positive way, to know that it can get better if you just find that connection somehow. However you need to.
epic is such a wonderful record, and epic Ten, such an incredible way to celebrate that masterpiece. I won't ask you if you have a favorite cover, but do you actually have a favorite song on that album? Or is that like asking a parent who their favorite child is?
I think all the songs are special to me, but "Love More" is definitely the one that I feel... took me out of the bedroom feeling sorry for myself, and help me reach out to other people and connect, not just in the writing process, but in the recording process, in the connecting with other musicians as I found myself over the years. This record means a lot to me, and that closing song really sums it all up personally.
When you made this record 10 years ago, you probably couldn't even imagine all these incredible artists would be paying tribute to it one day. What do you think the Sharon of 10 years ago would have felt about this?
I probably wouldn't have believed it. I would not have been able to predict anything like this, but I would have been the shy girl in the corner waving and not being able to say anything, whereas now I think I'd have the confidence to give everyone a hug.
Ahead of the release of her fifth studio album, Remind Me Tomorrow, Sharon Van Etten stopped by Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
"Comeback Kid" is the lead single from Van Etten's forthcoming album Remind Me Tomorrow.