Interview: Sharon Van Etten and Aaron Dessner of The National

Sharon Van Etten’s seven-song release of 2010, Epic, appeared on many best of the year lists, including NPR’s and Mr. Duffy’s, and she opened the Pitchfork Music Festival in July. Her personal, confessional songs have won her enthusiastic fans. She’ll perform with Julianna Barwick at the Wexner Center on Friday (Jan. 21). Catch her with her band as she shares songs from her latest release, and maybe a few new ones. Below she highlights the way the songs have changed over time and gives us a glimpse of the future.

Also, the bottom of the post has some thoughts from Aaron Dessner of The National, who is producing Van Etten’s next record (“At the moment I hear walls of organs and some weirder guitar textures/noise…”).

I chatted with Sharon as she was walking around on a “beautiful blue sky, freezing day” with Brad Cook of Megafaun, who was in New York for her Bowery Ballroom show January 8th. The sold-out show included a cover of REM’s Strange Occurrences. Sharon explained the cover: “I am really psyched for their new record to come out. I recently found an old album, Monster, and that song is my favorite on that record.”

Are you and Brad sharing new songs you have been working on?

Yeah, he’s been playing me new songs, and I have been playing him new songs, and it’s been a nice way of catching up.

How has being on the road with different musicians changed the songs you’ve already written and the ones you’re still working on?

It’s funny because some songs I can play and I feel the same way about when I wrote them and then other songs I feel like I have such a different outlook on the songs now than I did before. It makes me play them differently. Maybe it’s moving from acoustic to electric and having that confidence of an electric guitar. Redefining songs and editing songs because I don’t feel that way anymore from when I wrote them. I still want to play them and be honest about it. Editing in hindsight.

You toured with Megafaun last year and collaborated to perform Alan Lomax shows at Duke — “Sounds of the South.”

They (Megafaun) have been taking me under their wing and I feel really lucky. They told me about the idea, called months before, and then they called back and had arranged all the songs. They had an entire band come from West Virginia; they had a horn section. It made me cry every night. It was unbelievable, really a dream.

As you continue to think about new songs, and the role of voice and guitar, do you imagine new instruments in your head or do you leave it to folks you work with?

I always express ideas, but honestly my arrangement abilities are pretty limited because I have never really had access to anything other than a guitar and vocal. I always have harmonies in mind, and working with musicians that have a vision with my music too is really helpful to learn how to do it better. I am working on new stuff now with Aaron (Dessner, of the National) and I say, “maybe strings on this,” and he says, “we’ll do a bunch of arrangements and you tell us what you like.” People who are really motivated to help me see my visions. Being able to go to a studio that has more at my fingertips is opening me up to new ideas too. I am still learning every day. I am constantly exploring, mostly work with my bass player and my drummer and learning how to have a band and write together and then moving on from there. Still exploring these new songs; and they are opening up every day.


Dessner offered his perspective via email from New Zealand:

As a songwriter, what bones of her songs attracted you to work with her as a producer?

There is an emotional weight, directness and sincerity to Sharon’s songs that has become too rare in music. And as a musician I’m interested in her approach to songwriting. Her songs can be deceptively complex in terms of their form, which makes things interesting from a production standpoint also. She rarely repeats a chord sequence as verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus or that sort of thing. Chords are used more to compliment whatever she is doing vocally (which is quite a lot).

How do you imagine she connects to other songwriting contemporaries?

There are obvious superficial comparisons but I think she’s defining her own territory already. There aren’t many singers who use rawness and such massive harmonies in the way that she does.

What instrumentation would you suggest?

Right now we are getting to know her new songs, playing them in different ways. So it’s hard to say what the end product will sound like. At the moment I hear walls of organs and some weirder guitar textures/noise and drums recorded in a cavernous room and maybe some strings and brass in places for depth. But we don’t want to bury her songs beneath arrangements. They work beautifully just her and a guitar. So we’ll just experiment and throw lots of stuff at the wall and see what feels germane to the song.