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Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010

Sharon Van Etten’s Songs of Suppression and Absolution

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For five years, Sharon Van Etten wrote music in secret, stockpiling songs she hoped to perform under better circumstances.

“I started playing open mics when I went to college, but then I took a break,” Van Etten explains. “My boyfriend at the time wasn’t very supportive of my music and didn’t think I was good enough to perform, so I had to hide it from him. From age 19 to about 24, I just wrote a lot, but it wasn’t until I left Tennessee to move back home to Jersey that I began playing out again.”

The sparse folk songs she amassed during her long silent period make up her 2009 album, Because I Was In Love, a record filled with barely veiled references to Van Etten’s now well-estranged ex. “I didn’t want to make the songs too specific, but sometimes it’s hard not to,” she concedes.

But though Van Etten’s songs were born of personal experience, she’s too subtle of a songwriter to fall back on autobiographical narratives. Instead she writes in vague, simple sketches, and resists painting her unnamed ex as a straight villain. Her songs suggest a willingness to move on, and even to offer absolution.

“When I start writing, I’m usually coming from a sad place, but I try to avoid writing anything too journalistic, because I feel I went through that phase as a kid,” Van Etten says. “I try to reflect a lot when I can. That’s important to me: I want to be honest. If I’m writing about something bad that happened to me, I want to admit my own blame in it, or make it clear that I’m OK with it now. I never want to make these songs completely one sided.”

Van Etten’s lyrics read like a list of assertions she wishes she would have made. “The moral of the story is don't walk away again/ To find a better conversation,” she reprimands her ex on “Consolation Prize.” On “Much More Than That” she pleads, “please don’t take me lightly,” vowing that “one day I'll be a better writer.” In that song, she shares a seemingly tender moment with her boyfriend—their feet touch—but the affection only reminds her of how discouraging he is outside the bedroom.

Molded by years of high school choir, Van Etten’s mournful soprano invites fair comparisons to sadcore sirens like Chan Marshall and Julie Doiron. Even at her most dejected, though, she never comes across like the broken doll those songwriters sometimes do. Somber as they may be, her songs are ultimately declarations strength. “I’m a tornado,” she sings, “You are the fences that will fall but still surround me.”

Van Etten’s songwriting career quickly hit its stride once she moved from rural Jersey to Brooklyn, under the encouragement of TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, whose brother she went to high school with. Malone shared some bills with her and introduced her to the right people and venues. Within the last year, Van Etten has made a name for herself outside of Brooklyn, through word-of-mouth buzz behind Because I Was in Love and a fortuitous spotlight-stealing guest spot on The Antler’s breakout album Hospice.

Hers isn’t the type of dramatic, overnight success story you could draft a screenplay about, but for a songwriter who once faced a future of being forbidden to perform, it’s a major victory.

“I’m a lot better off than I was all those years ago,” Van Etten says. “I feel lucky. In Brooklyn, I’ve met some of the nicest, most genuine, supportive people I’ve known in my entire life. Before I moved, I was really scared about the transition, but I’ve grown a lot more confident since moving here. I’m hoping that my music’s become a little more positive, too.”

Sharon Van Etten headlines a 9 p.m. show at the Cactus Club with Daniel Knox on Wednesday, Jan. 20.

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