Earlier this year, singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten got the call that every young musician anxiously anticipates: One of her heroes asked her to sing with him. Rufus Wainwright was a fan of the New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based musician's nakedly direct indie-folk songs and recruited her to duet with him on a cover of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which appears on the new Christmas compilation Holidays Rule.
"Honestly," she says with a laugh, "I thought I was going to go into the studio and just add my vocals to a pre-recorded track. But when I showed up at Avatar Studios in Manhattan, suddenly I'm face to face with Rufus Wainwright. I almost peed my pants when I realized we were both going to be singing at the same time in vocal booths facing each other. My inner fan was trying not to explode."
Van Etten has reached that precipitous point in her career when her heroes are becoming her colleagues. Looking at the list of artists she's performed with, it's clear she's become the Kevin Bacon of Brooklyn, with no other musician separated by more than six degrees. She covered John Denver with J Mascis on an upcoming tribute album and has performed Appalachian folk songs with Megafaun. She's toured with Beirut, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, and the National, whose Aaron Dessner produced her album Tramp.
"For bands that you really love, you put them up on a pedestal," Van Etten explains. "You don't think that you're going to see them work out a melody in front of you. You don't think of them as being actual human beings or that they're fans of other music as well."
It's not difficult to see why Van Etten has proved so popular among her fellow musicians. On three very different albums in three years, she has displayed a keen intuition as a singer and a songwriter. Vocally, she plays with meter and key like an Americanized Nico, such that she can move gracefully between strident and wounded, resigned and determined, open and guarded. Lyrically, she confronts many of the issues that confessional songwriters have been addressing for decades — relationships teetering on the brink, connections long severed, crippling self-doubt — but her simultaneously direct and impressionistic style breathes new life into familiar subject matter.
Van Etten has come a long way in a short time. In the mid-2000s, she was living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with a boyfriend who discouraged her musical efforts; she practiced guitar and wrote songs in secret. Then she moved back to New Jersey, where she lived with her parents and made frequent forays into New York City to perform. In 2009, she released her debut album, Because I Was in Love, on Language of Stone, a Philadelphia label that specializes more in otherworldly freak-folk than in Van Etten's brand of earthy realism.
Eventually, she moved to Brooklyn, where she took a job at a wine store as well as an unpaid internship at Ba Da Bing Records. "My initial reaction to New York was secluding myself and feeling unworthy," she recalls. "But you meet people who believe in you and help you let your guard down, and that helps you become more confident." It took a while for her to reveal her own musical aspirations to her co-workers at Ba Da Bing, but the label released her second album in 2010. Where Because had been austere and intimate, Epic fitted her with a lush, full-band backdrop, revealing new facets of her talent.
Even on her third album, Tramp, Van Etten's songs are for many listeners inseparable from her story. They aren't simply the artifacts of her romantic, social, and psychological struggles but documents of them. "Most of my songs are very stream-of-conscious, so whether they're consciously about me or about friends, they're all very autobiographical," she explains. "I always want the listeners to feel like I'm talking to them, confiding in them, or expressing myself to them. I try to write in a way that they don't feel sorry for me that I had to go through something painful. I make it general enough so they can stop thinking it's just about me. It's about not being alone."
As she continues touring behind Tramp and gathering songs for her fourth album, Van Etten is trying to expand her songwriting approach to match her larger musical canvas.
"One thing I want to learn how to do better is writing more stories and taking myself out of it while still connecting with the listener. It doesn't come naturally right now, but I'm hoping, eventually, I can separate myself a little more and see how that works."
What she never wants to do is come off as somehow inhuman to her fans, although being a fan herself, Van Etten understands that is nearly impossible.
"I want to help my fans feel like I'm a human being and a normal person. The experience of putting people on a pedestal and then having them be so humble — it helped me reformulate my idea about what being a performer in my world is like. You want to be on the same level [as your audience]. The main purpose of my songs is to heal and feel better. It's therapy for me, and I want it to be the same for my audience. Otherwise, it's a very selfish thing for me to be doing."
Sharon Van Etten, with Damien Jurado
Hi-Tone Café, Sunday, November 4th, 8 p.m., $12