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Take Five: Singer-songwriter Sharon van Etten waxes poetic

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2012 - Just over six months ago, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sharon van Etten arrived at the Luminary Center for the Arts, part of a one night stay in St. Louis on her whirlwind, van powered tour of the country. This Monday, she will be at it again; this time at the Firebird.

Van Etten, a folksy singer-songwriter with a penchant for shredding electric guitar, has undergone something of a musical evolution over the past six or seven years. After moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., from Murfreesboro, Tenn., she released her solo album, Much More Than That, which consists of little more than an acoustic guitar and her almost whispering, but still strong, voice. Through the years, she added band members, instruments and, notably, an electric guitar that drives her most recent album, Tramp, as well as her live shows.

Even with the change in sound, she has continued to craft poignant lyrics, floating introspective poetry without becoming self important or pitying. Even as she departs from the solo act in a coffee shop sound, her words remain intimate and honest and free of saccharine or melancholy.

Since her last visit, van Etten has appeared on Jools Holand's famed BBC show and received praise from music legends such as Lou Reed. But with the fame, comes exhaustion. Van Etten who was driving through North Carolina at the time of this interview, will cover nine states in the first 10 days of November, traveling more than 2,500 miles in the process.

In the interview below, which was edited for length, she describes the difficulties of finding time for touring and music, as well as the warmth of the American south.

Beacon: For starters, what is it like living the dream, being someone who makes their living making music?

van Etten: It's really amazing, and I feel real lucky to be able to do this all the time. I never thought this would be possible. I have a great band to travel with, they're really beautiful people, and we've got closer, because we're forced to be in a van [laughs] but they're just really fun to be around and really giving people.

But after touring for a year, it's also really tiring, which is the reality of it. This is our last U.S. tour this year, and even though we all love each other and love "living the dream," we're really excited to have some time off.

You were obviously collaborating with a lot of musicians in Brooklyn, such as the Dessners from The National, and I was wondering who you're collaborating with these days, if you're doing any songwriting.

van Etten: Well, it's been really hard to write on the road -- you don't really get any time alone. I would say the most collaborating I've gotten to do is just with my band when we have a moment before sound check, and we can just jam out for fun, you know like not playing a song that we've been playing for the last year, just playing for the sake of playing, and not think about it too much.

I never really jammed before -- I was always solo. But when you tour, there's no time to play music outside of it. We have a week, maybe two, in between playing, to have off, and the last thing you want to do is play. You catch up on sleep, start eating right, try to exercise, hang out with your significant others and friends, try to spend time with them after being gone so long.

It's really hard to find that balance. I'm excited for when we're done in January to actually sit down and write.

Damien Jurado who you're touring with is also primarily a solo artist. Have you been collaborating with him at all? Damien sounds similar to your early stuff, this Americana-folksy, recorded in a small room aesthetic. What's it like playing with him.

van Etten: We just met him yesterday [laughs]. He's really shy and really nice, and we're all big fans, and if we could work something out before the end of this tour it would be wonderful.

You sling guitar and play keyboard. Are there any instruments you're looking forward to in January, or right now?

van Etten: I'll play anything, you know? I have rehearsal space with my band, and there's lots of instruments flying around, you know, bass, guitar, keys, piano, pedals--I'd like to just focus on electric guitar, and pedals, but also sitting down at the piano and writing songs at the piano. Also, learning how to use a Korg set up to record.

Your family's from Jersey, where you grew up, and you lived in Murfreesboro, Tenn., for several years, and then found your way back to the East Coast. Is there anything from the Southern-Midwest that you miss, since you'll be coming through the south right before St. Louis, then up through the Midwest.

van Etten: I love food, I love people -- it's really comforting. It's a slower pace, really laid back, the food is delicious, the weather's always nicer, and the drive through the mountains is really beautiful, and the changing of the leaves, especially through North Carolina right now. I don't know; normal people in neighborhood community vibes, outwardly friendly people. But they're maybe not as genuine, but it's still nice that some people are sweet to you, that southern hospitality.

The first time I came to St. Louis, I played this old choir hall in a pretty DIY show. I was solo and I was playing with my friend. They took such good care of us, and everyone there was really genuine. The bummer about touring, too, is that usually we have long drives, and we can rarely entertain the venue. But the people who worked at the choir house were very passionate and cared deeply.

And [The Luminary] was great too, but it's another strong community; there were all these volunteers working there, and so many kids lined up to see the show. It was like a really beautiful setting for the arts, all different ages, a totally mixed crowd. We had a really good time, but we didn't get to see too much of the city.

One last question, and I'm stealing this question from you: if you were cheese, what sort of cheese would you be?

van Etten: [Laughs] I don't know, some sort of Spanish Sheep Cheese. Yeah, the sheep cheese from Spain is my favorite, no particular kind. It's really easy to pair, and it's soft or hard.

Johnny Buse is freelance writer.

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