THERE’S SOMETHING obnoxious about the singer-songwriter label. Oh, how talented you are, not only do you sing your own songs, but you write them too! There’s got to be a better way to talk about someone playing an acoustic guitar and singing songs. For Sharon van Etten, the best word I can come up with is “songstress.”
Yeah, I don’t like it either, but with van Etten it’s the only term that makes sense. Once you hear her, you’ll think there’s a girl who has found her calling in life. There is no way she should be doing anything but writing songs and singing them.
Over a cup of coffee at Smooch in Ft. Greene, I realize van Etten is the exact opposite of her sad songs. She’s funny, upbeat and cute, with short black hair. It’s almost impossible to think she could know the misery that comes through on Because I Was In Love, her first full-length album, which came out in May. Right now she’s trying to quit smoking so she sucks on toothpicks flavored with tea tree oil. She has a very cool tattoo of an acoustic guitar hole on her arm. I ask her bluntly, “Why play live?”
She stops gnawing on her toothpick. “To have a connection with people,” she says. “Every show is such an individual show… you are sharing that one moment and it will never ever happen like that again.You’ll never play that song like that again.”
It’s a textbook answer, but she’s got me. I don’t even question it. I believe her. Her voice has the power to dig into your skin, move through your body and clutch your heart. Even on record, there will be a song that will grab you and not let you go. For me it was “Tornado.” I found myself sitting on the bus staring into oblivion singing “I’m a tornado/ You are the dust/ You’re all around and you’re inside.” I put it on repeat when I got home and my girlfriend left the room, saying she didn’t want to get in the way of me and my new love.
And really, that’s the best way to describe her music. Live or on record, you’ll think she’s sitting beside you singing. Every song on Because I Was In Love sounds like it is being played in your bedroom.That’s what she wanted.With producer Greg Weeks, a founding member of the Espers, she tried to keep the record as minimal as possible. Her acoustic guitar finger picking was recorded at the same time as her singing.
“I never really tune my guitar to anything, it’s relative to itself. So, after I sang, played and did guitar and vocals for all the tracks on the album, we went to add stuff and we realized that I wasn’t tuned to anything. Greg said, ‘What did you do? We need to get you a tuner!’”
But in the end, they decided not to rerecord. They worked the other instruments in, even holding the pitch knob halfway down on the synth to make it match her tuning.You won’t notice. You’ll be thinking more about all the times you’ve had your heart broken and how finally a girl with a guitar sounds like she knows what misery is.
People that I’ve spoken to about van Etten have told me they think her music is therapeutic, but I didn’t realize it until I reached for Because I Was In Love after a bad day, not my usual angry punk or metal. I sunk down and she asked me, “Have you seen what I once called my heart/ Have you seen my life that’s now falling apart?/ Ooh my life that’s now falling apart…” I didn’t know how to answer, so I sat there and let her words run through me.
> Sharon van Etten
Sept. 4, Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (betw. Astor Pl. & E. 4th St.), 212-539-8770; 7, $12