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Q&A: Sharon Van Etten

Listening to Sharon Van Etten's music, you'd never guess she has a difficult time showing vulnerability.

The Jersey-born singer-songwriter's albums are uniformly confessional, steeped in heartache, longing and regret. Listening to battered tunes like "Joke or a Lie" can feel a bit like overhearing a private conversation. Yet in the newly revamped liner notes for Van Etten's stunning third album "Tramp," which first surfaced earlier this year and was recently reissued in a deluxe edition that includes demo versions of each song, she writes that learning to show vulnerability remains an ongoing struggle.

"You write these vulnerable songs as a sort of therapy, but if you don't confront people on a daily basis it's not reality. There's still a bit of separation there," said Van Etten, 31, reached by phone during a tour stop in Florida. "Now I want to allow myself to be more vulnerable and more direct with people in my day-to-day life."

The singer certainly didn't hold back in conversation, opening up about her whirlwind 2012, the reason she has trouble showing anger and why she thinks her next album will (finally!) paint a much sunnier picture.

I just heard the demos you're releasing with the special edition of "Tramp." Is it strange to have these songs out there in such raw, unvarnished form?

I'm kind of excited about it because I'm always interested in hearing where people came from and how they progressed. I believe my songs are strong enough to stand on their own--even way back then when they were recorded badly and minimally.

You also reprinted a number of journal entries, including one from January 2011 when things seemed a bit more uncertain. How have things changed for you since you wrote that entry?

I feel pretty lucky with how things have been going and how the album was received. The tour has been going well, and the audiences have been growing organically. I'm a lot more grounded than I started off the year being.

What's been the most surreal part of this year?

Whew, well, there have been many moments, but I think it all builds up to when we played "Later with ... Jools Holland" a couple weeks ago and I actually got to meet John Cale. The whole album was dedicated to John Cale, and it was an homage to one of my favorite records by him ("Fear"). Then here we are on "Jools Holland" and our bands are set up right next to each other.

Were you able to speak intelligently? Or did you just turn into a babbling super-fan?

I totally did that, but in that way where I could only say like six words or something. He just tapped my shoulder and was like, "Thanks for the dedication. That was really nice." And I was like, "Oh c'mon, man, don't make me cry!"

I was surprised to read that the song "Serpents" dates back a number of years.

Yeah. I had been listening to a lot of PJ Harvey and I was just messing around and thrashing on an electric guitar when I was having a really bad day. I recorded it, set it aside and then never thought about it again. Then (National guitarist) Aaron Desner, who produced the record, said, "I love all the songs you're showing me, but they're all mid-tempo. Do you have any rock songs in your back catalog?" That's when I went back to these ideas I really didn't think would be anything and said, "Is there anything here you think I should work on?" "Serpents" was the song where he said, "This is the one. Work on it."

It's definitely a more aggressive song. Did it feel out of character for you?

It's a side of myself I was afraid to show people. I always felt showing anger like that was a weakness. It's taken me awhile to not be afraid to do that.

I like that you also included a more optimistic journal entry from this past August. Are you in a good place these days?

I think I'm in a really good place, but I think everyone struggles from time to time. I'm pretty lucky. I'm surrounded by friends, I have a wonderful boyfriend and my family is so supportive. Everyone has their down days. Unfortunately that's when I am the most prolific.

Right, so then people get this idea you're just some Eeyore-esque sad-sack.

[Laughs] I know! I'm writing more optimistic songs now. They're more like love songs--and not in a broken-hearted way. I hope that comes across whenever I get to record them.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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