Brooklyn-based indie-folk singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten—she of the exquisitely haunting voice and intimate songs that feel like secrets, even now that she’s traded in her stark just-my-voice-and-this-acoustic-guitar approach for a rootsy full-band delivery—is no stranger to Philly. She’s gigged here a bunch of times, and she recorded her first two albums here, too—2009’s Because I Was In Love and her widely acclaimed new Epic, which was helmed by Brian McTear at his Miner Street studios in Fishtown. Van Etten was also the subject of the first episode of “Shaking Through,” the local audio/video documentary series hatched by McTear’s nonprofit organization Weathervane Music to help promote independent artists. We caught up with Van Etten for a quick chat about all of these things.
You have so many Philly connections and you’ve made two albums here—have you ever considered just moving here?
[Laughs] Actually I have. I thought about when I get back from tour later this year I’ll go somewhere more mellow than New York City for a while and take a break from the insanity of New York. So I might hang out in Philly this summer, hang out with friends and maybe do some writing. It’ll probably feel like more of a vacation than anything.
You made your first record down here in Philly with Greg Weeks from Espers. How did you link up with him?
I got offered a tour with Meg Baird in the U.K. about four years ago—whoa, has it really been that long?!—and so we had to go and meet her in Glasgow where she had played her last show with Espers. She introduced me to Greg and we got to talking and I handed him these homemade CDs I made. And then afterwards, I didn’t realize that Ben Goldberg at BaDaBing had put out Greg’s solo record, and while I was on tour with Meg those two were conspiring to re-record all my home recordings for an actual album [laughs]. So within a month or two I was in Philly working on the album with Greg.
What were your initial impressions of Philly and the music community here?
It just seemed like a very tight-knit group of people, and there’s no pretension. People in Philly, they don’t have to work quite as much as people in New York because it’s less expensive to live there, so a lot of people hang out at home and hang out with their friends and do music. It seems like a much more collaborative and less stressful environment. And what’s also cool there is that people actually make plans to go out. They do things with purpose; people make more of an effort there.
How did you get involved with Brian McTear and the Weathervane “Shaking Through” project?
Well, I first heard Brian’s name through Greg because they worked together on music, but for the Weathervane project I got three different emails from three different circles of friends in one day saying that I should do it [laughs]. And then Greg called me and said I should do it, and within two days Brian and I were planning out what songs to do. Doing it, it was my first time collaborating with other musicians. I knew I wanted to grow from my first album and work with a band, so through the Weathervane thing I knew in my mind I wanted to make my next album with Brian.
What kind of effect did your “Shaking Through” episode have on your career, do you think?
Within a month or two, the emails started rolling in. It really did get a lot of mileage. People from all over the world emailing me out of the blue wanting to know if I was going to be touring there. It was great. It all starts with fans—it starts with the people and the interest and everything else came after. All I wanted to do was tour and, because of this, people are coming to my shows. I’m still figuring out how it’s happening [laughs]. I’ve been so lucky.
Sharon Van Etten performs Thurs., Jan. 20, 9pm. $12. With Julianna Barwick + Strand of Oaks. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 Frankford Ave. 215.739.9684. johnnybrendas.com
PW's Music Issue 2014