When Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten returned from a grueling yearlong stint touring behind her 2012 album, Tramp, she was physically and emotionally spent. She promised her boyfriend she would be home for a while. Instead, she left a few weeks later to open shows for Nick Cave.
"Being away for that long is really hard to do," Van Etten says. "I love touring and I love my band, but at the same time I know that I need to find a way to be home more often, be more present in my real life. This is real too—I'm sitting in the back of a van right now—but it doesn't feel like reality sometimes. You know that feeling where you come back from a trip and it takes you a minute to acclimate? Imagine if you're gone most of the time, how long that takes."
You can hear that pain—the longing, frustration and unease that comes from being away from home—all over Van Etten's stunning new record, Are We There. Written in pieces on the road and recorded once she finally settled in New York, the record documents life in transition: As Van Etten's career and profile have grown, so have the demands of an industry that can wreak havoc on one's psyche—and relationships.
Van Etten, 33, has always had a startling voice, but Are We There is the first time her songs feel, well, grounded. It's a record about distance, sure, but also about the body—how it loves, how it moves, and how it breaks down when we least expect it. There's a distinct R&B groove, with an increased emphasis on rhythm and bass instead of guitar. Van Etten says many of these songs, including the bouncy first single, "Taking Chances," and the slow-boiling "You Know Me Well," started in the back of her tour van, written on an omnichord, with the drum patterns often coming before the melody.
After working with the National's Aaron Dessner on Tramp, Van Etten decided to make Are We There herself, with studio assistance from noted producer Stewart Lerman. "This time I wanted to be the one steering the ship. I wanted to own it," Van Etten says, pausing for a second to collect her thoughts. "I was really nervous but also excited to hang out with my band and learn how to do this, learn how to communicate better, and just get in there and play around with stuff without anyone looking out for me."
Are We There sounds like the work of a proper band, and that's not a coincidence. To help flesh out the record, Van Etten brought in guitarist Doug Keith, who she's been playing with for the past few years, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (and former Portlander) Heather Woods Broderick, and a cast of other friends, including Adam Granduciel and Dave Hartley of the War on Drugs and Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater. While some tracks, like the layered and folky "Afraid of Nothing," are adorned with strings, others are simpler, relying on just piano and the violent power of Van Etten's vibrato.
And it's that voice—raw, passionate and confessional—that drives "Your Love Is Killing Me," Are We There's cathartic, devastating centerpiece. Van Etten jokes that the band calls the song "the beast," and mentions how she almost broke down the first few times it was played live. "Your Love Is Killing Me" is relentless. Though it starts slowly, with a waterlogged rhythm and organ, it gradually builds and tears itself down, stacking post-rock guitars and sparse percussion as Van Etten sings about an unhealthy relationship slowly unraveling: "Break my legs so I won't walk to you/ Cut my tongue so I can't talk to you/ Burn my skin so I can't feel you/ Stab my eyes so I can't see you." This is not the sound of silence: It's a coping mechanism disguised as epic torch song, re-enacted every night in dark lounges and ballrooms across the country.
"Touring is a mixed bag—the songs are heavy and very personal, and I'm still going through a lot of emotions onstage every night," Van Etten says. "But it's grounding to have my friends around me as I go through it. We only have one flat tire and one broken string so far. Thatâs not too bad, right?â
SEE IT: Sharon Van Etten plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Jana Hunter, on Wednesday and Thursday, July 2-3. 9 pm. $16 advance, $18 day of show. 21+.