In May 2009, Sharon Van Etten released her debut LP, Because I Was in Love. Yesterday, almost five years to the day, Van Etten released her fourth record, Are We There. It’s amazing to look at how far she’s come both creatively and professionally in such a short time. Where her last record, Tramp, felt like her breakthrough, on Are We There, Van Etten immediately feels like a fully formed artist. One of the best-reviewed albums of the year thus far (with a Metacritic score of 88), Are We There is a powerful collection of songs. Vulture wanted to talk to Van Etten before she headed out on a several-month-long international tour, so we got her friend (and fan) Fred Armisen, who was also about to leave New York for a few months (to work on Portlandia), to sit down with her at a dim Lower East Side wine bar. They talked for hours.
The last time we saw each other was at Pickathon in Oregon …
Which is a fun time.
And before that, when you played on Jimmy Fallon’s show.
Oh, that’s right. That’s when we first really met, isn’t it?
Yeah. And that might have been the first time you were on TV?
That was the first time I was on TV.
Have you been on since?
I have. I did Jools Holland, a couple years ago. I did Conan O’Brien.
That’s good. You’re a veteran.
TV is crazy, though. It feels very on-the-spot.
It goes by pretty fast, right? Do you feel like you want to do it over, or do you feel like you got it right?
Well, I was lucky with Jimmy, because I messed up the first time. I hit my head on the mike and I looked at my bandmate and said, “Fuck.” And we finished and Jimmy was really sweet. We got told before, if I mess up, don’t worry, we can redo it again, redo it again, redo it again. So, he asked me if I felt good about it and I asked him if I could do it again. It was no problem. I had a free pass. I don’t think you get that other places.
Did they air the version that you preferred, or the microphone version?
I actually didn’t watch it because I don’t like watching myself.
Yeah me neither. Can’t do it.
So then what do you do? How do you know?
I always just hear about it from friends or ask other performers, like, How did it go? Did it seem like anything? I very much don’t watch. Unless we have to edit. Now, this is going to sound like a music-journalist thing to say, but I don’t care, because the way I really feel about your album is I love it so much. The place where I listen to it the most is on planes. I know this interview is not about me, but I have to tell you that I listened to it all the way through and I love listening to it as a whole, not like in pieces. It’s so, so great. It’s sequenced perfectly. All the keyboard stuff, is that you?
I did a lot of the initial keys and organs, but Heather [Woods Broderick, her keyboard player and backup singer] is a way better piano player than me. Sometimes I like the weirder piano stuff, so the piano ballads were me. I don’t remember, but we shared a lot, ‘cause in the beginning she couldn’t be there. So I tracked a lot of that. I did the organ on “Nothing Will Change.” She knows more keys and she can do fancy stuff, but all the blocky stuff that’s just droney was pretty much me.
That’s great. That song, you know that one that’s like [sings the melody of “Our Love”]. It is so great.
Yeah, I love that one.
I was nervous about that one.
Because I thought it was the most pop-y. It was still kinda dark, but it’s like a pop-y song that I was afraid would be a little too fluffy in the context, but when it comes in, it’s kind of perfect, because it comes after “Your Love is Killing Me,” so you’re like, Okay, awesome, I need that. I wasn’t even sure if it was gonna make it, ‘cause we recorded like 16 songs or something and only 11 made it.
That’s good, though. It’s good to trim out stuff.
Yeah, I mean, I know that even my attention span isn’t great, and I’m sure other people’s are way worse than mine. I wanted to have it feel like a complete thought. That song is a relief in the context of it all.
When you play live, from the new stuff, what do people react to the most?
Honestly, we haven’t played that much. We had four warm-up shows and then the radio stuff, so there hasn’t been much interaction yet, but I think “Your Love Is Killing Me” has been the one. People are like, Oh, my, that’s devastating. I call it “The Beast.” I’m nervous about people feeling bad for me. I don’t want people to feel bad for me.
Singing a song like “Your Love Is Killing Me,” people are worried about me. My mother called me like, “What’s going on with you? Are you alright? I thought you were doing fine.” And I’m like, “I am doing fine. It’s just this is what I do.” I call it “The Beast” because it is relentless. Everybody in the band needs to take a breather after that one.
Heather even told me she was so glad she didn’t really have to sing on it, ‘cause she couldn’t get through the song.
Do you feel that way every time you play it?
It’s probably one of the heaviest — well, the record is the heaviest thing I’ve ever written, but this song is especially heavy.
Wow, that’s amazing. I never know what people are going through when they’re singing a real song, but my assumption was that you unplug and then you just go through the motions – not as a bad thing – but I didn’t realize that it would actually be a heavy thing every day.
Yeah, most of the stuff [is] things that I’ve been still working through for the last two years of trying to have a career but also trying to have a home life and relationship. And you know, in the end, I had to choose my work over having a relationship because the person I was with couldn’t handle it. It was someone that I loved very deeply, but it just plays on people’s insecurities when you’re in a place that they’re not. And that’s kinda what that song is about, what the whole record’s about.
The whole record?
Pretty much, yeah. It chronicles the last two years of touring Tramp [her last record], basically.
Really? See, I didn’t realize that.
But yeah, I feel really bad ‘cause I know he’s listening to stuff now and he must hate me. I don’t know, I feel really bad for him ‘cause it’s painful. It’s painful for me, but, you know, seeing my name in websites he reads and stuff.
Well, let’s do this. Let’s just say that maybe this is fictional, you know what I mean? [Sharon laughs.] That we’re just reading lines from this play, so anyone who’s out there, this is all just, you know …
Sharon’s fantasy world.
Yes, this is a production that’s gonna be put on in Edinburgh in a couple of years. Well, what’s your life like? Are you happy?
Am I happy?
I’m pretty happy. Are you happy? [Laughs.] Are you happy, Fred?
I’m happier than ever.
Happier than ever?
I’m happier than ever. I really feel like my life is just all my dreams come true. Everything that I’ve ever fantasized about, as corny as it sounds. I just really enjoy every minute of it.
Are you a positive thinker?
Yes. I’m an optimist. Just because I feel lucky a lot of the time now. I feel like I have good luck with things, so I feel fortunate. Do you feel pretty good about your life?
Yeah, I feel really lucky. I mean, of course there are things throughout your life where you’re like, I wish things happened differently, but I’m very lucky to get to be doing what I’m doing. I never thought I’d be able to perform this for real. I mean, I started only writing for myself, and people somehow latched onto it. It seems crazy to me.
Yeah, same. Even if I got paid $1. Seriously, any amount – and I don’t mean to talk about money – but like, any amount, I’m always like, That’s crazy. Just for making a joke?
This is what you’re good at, and to be able to live on what you’re good at is pretty crazy.
[To Vulture editor Jesse David Fox] And that means you, too. We were including you.
We’re all living the life!
Yeah, we’re all living the life.
Fred and Sharon: Yay!
[They cheers; clink glasses.]
Do you live here?
I live in a few places. I live here and in L.A. and in Portland.
Yeah, so I just sort of go everywhere. What about you?
I’m in the Village right now.
I came home the other night and I came out of the elevator and I saw a woman’s shoe. I looked and it was a girl, just in front of this door, just out, and her shoes were off, and she was sort of sleeping with her legs up against the wall. It was a little scary, and I said, “Hi, are you okay?” And she was like, “Yeah, my friend won’t answer her phone, so I’m just sleeping here.” It was one of those horrible, drunken situations where her friend was probably ignoring her and she was out in front of this door. It’s not the best story, but it is a pretty good story.
That’s awful. That scares me. You don’t know if someone’s … Whoa, I was about to get really heavy.
Get heavy, please.
I mean, I recently saw a dead body in the Gowanus Canal. I had just finished doing photos with a friend of mine, and we’re walking across the Canal. We see this guy, with his hand holding a hat, and he had it to his heart, and we thought he was just like – ‘cause we had all this stuff with us – that he was just letting us pass on the sidewalk. But he was acting kinda weird, so we were like, “Are you okay?” He was like, “You didn’t see it?” We were like, “No, what?” and he pointed over the Canal. We were just making a joke about how we were surprised we didn’t see a dead body in it, ‘cause they’re just starting to get it clean from when the dolphin was trapped there last year. And there was a man floating in the fucking Canal.
Floating as in, moving along the Canal?
Yeah, there was a dead body in the fucking Gowanus. This guy with the hat had called the cops already and we made sure that he wasn’t there alone. This poor kid. He was just a good citizen. We stayed there making sure he was okay, ‘cause you know, how do you even take that in?
I would say that’s a heavy thing to talk about.
Yeah, that was a heavy turn, sorry.
I was gonna add to it, but it’s quite personal in the death department. When you do interviews, do you feel yourself holding back a little bit, or do you like to talk about things? And, by the way, however you answer doesn’t mean I’m going to open up any floodgates. I’m curious.
I have a hard time not wearing my heart on my sleeve and answering people honestly. You know, my friends warn me that I should be more guarded ‘cause sometimes I am too honest and open, but it’s also just who I am. I don’t like to hold back. Especiallywith who I am and what I do, it’s all me, everything’s my name, it’s what I do, it’s how I feel, it’s what I think. Over the last two years, I’m beginning to think that what I do is kind of self-centered, you know? And I’ve been contemplating doing something else after a couple of years, ‘cause it’s all me. It’s almost like, why do people care about me?
I know what you mean.
It’s not like I’m in this band that’s like rock ‘n’ roll or fun or punk or whatever. I love who I work with, and I’m lucky, and I know that people would kill to be in the position that I’m in, but it’s fucking with my head a little bit. It’s all about me and my life and my hardships or whatever you want to call it, and I don’t know who I’m helping, I don’t know what I’m doing. One of my favorite quotes ever – I quote him all the time – my friend Zeke was a teacher and there was this kid doing something stupid, like drawing on the wall or drawing on the floor, and Zeke just walked over to him and was like, “What are you doing?” And the kid was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just doing it.” I love it. I love that idea. That’s just what I’m doing. At the same time, I feel pretty selfish to be doing what I’m doing and not knowing who it’s affecting or who it’s helping.
Do people recognize you on the street?
Very rarely, but it just started happening.
Why do you think it just started happening?
There’s a lot of press coming out right now. You know, you have the lead-up into it and then you just bombard people with me, me, me, me, me, which is kind of weird. But it’s very new. What do you do when people come up to you and say, “Are you Fred?”
It’s gonna seem very weird answering this because it’ll seem like, Oh, I’m a pro …
Well I’m sorry, but on our way here — if I can say — on our way here, you were really nice to a woman that recognized you. You took a photo with her and you were really sweet about it.
We made Portlandia and it was just Carrie [Brownstein] and I, just a small operation. I was like, I don’t know what this is going to be, a pilot? Maybe one episode, two episodes? And it keeps going. As corny as it sounds, I feel really very lucky with all the shows out there, if anyone recognizes it or sees it with all the choices they have. So, I have to say, based on the show, there’s no reason not to be nice. I think that people are actually very nice as well. It’s weird talking about the me, me, me thing. I could hide behind the name of the show, but yours is your name. I think that’s pretty cool.
When I started, it was just me. I was like, Why would I have a band name, you know?
No, it’s perfect.
It’s perfect. We can just say that that is the name of your band. Can we just change it? Let’s give your band a name.
Today’s the day I’m gonna give my band a name.
It’s gonna be … the Floating Bodies.
[Laughs.] Sharon Van and the Jag-Offs!
I was not making light of that dead body. That’s heavy.
But, you know, you gotta make light of something that heavy. We were supposed to work after that and I was just like, “Let’s go to the bar. I don’t know what to do.”
How do you deal with something like that? How do you process something like that?
It’s really weird. You’re like, God, it’s just biology and science, this thing that was once living. You know what I mean?
Yeah. Life is short and life is fucked up.
It is short. That’s why we wanted to talk to you about life insurance. Hey, I’m Fred Armisen.
[Laughs.] State Farm is wonderful!
Can you play drums?
Yeah, I can. Both my brothers are drummers. I did a couple drum tracks on this new record.
Oh, you did?
On the piano ballads.
That’s you on drums? I love that.
And I wrote the drum beat to “Your Love Is Killing Me.” I’m not solid, but I love playing. It is such a great release.
It’s the best instrument.
Oh my God.
It’s the best.
My mom is so amazing. Growing up, she got my brothers a drum kit. Like she doesn’t normally play music, but she loves music. She would wake them up every morning, if they were sleeping in, by playing their drums.
Yeah, she’s amazing.
That’s good, that’s a good mom.
My parents are great. To raise five kids and not be crazy, that’s pretty amazing.
Where are you? Are you in the middle somewhere?
Exactly in the middle. All the girls are in the middle and the boys are on the ends.
Okay, I’m gonna guess all your siblings’ names.
Yeah! [Laughs.] No.
No. But Stewart produced the record, so … Keep going.
Okay, are they …
They’re not really crazy names.
They’re not really crazy names
Middle name of one of my sisters.
Okay. Elizabeth. Mary Elizabeth?
Nope, go back a letter. L.
Lana. Lillian. Louisa? Louise? This is crazy. [Sharon laughs.] I’m so not getting these. Lillian?
Is it Lauren?
Laura Elizabeth. She’s my sister getting married.
I always think that anyone who has their records out has millions of dollars.
I do not.
It just comes from growing up. Like if it was U2, for example. The fact that there’s a record means there’s solid life. So just that I have that, that you have a record out, you’ll always be fine. I understand that that truly might not be the case, but that’s how I see it.
I’m lucky to be able to just live and get by. I mean, I employ five people. That’s fucking crazy.
I employ five people nine months out of the year. The rest of the year I say, “Figure it out, guys.”
Do you want to take a picture?
My mom actually asked me to take a photo, but I didn’t want to ask you.
What do you mean?
My mom’s a big fan and she asked if I would take a picture.
That is the nicest thing. Really?
Will you tell her I said “Hi”?
[Fred then records a personal message on Van Etten’s phone, for her mom. They stand to take a photo.]
Should we take it right under the fruit?
The fruit’s kind of nice.
[Photo’s taken. They look at it.]
Oh, that’s great.
Best photo ever.