Sharon Van Etten: From Bedroom Balladeer To Fearless Frontwoman On ‘Are We There’

Sharon Van Etten's new album, Are We There, is out now. (Dusdin Condren/Courtesy of the artist)
Sharon Van Etten’s new album, Are We There, is out now. (Dusdin Condren/Courtesy of the artist)

The transformation of Sharon Van Etten has been a joyful thing to witness. When the singer-songwriter first surfaced with her 2009 album, Because I Was In Love, her spare, sorrowful songs exposed a desire to escape from a confining relationship and her own deep-seated vulnerabilities and insecurities. With each record since, Van Etten has built herself up, one harmony, one guitar melody, one gut-wrenching line at a time.

With the remarkable success of 2012’s Tramp, Van Etten found herself headlining bigger and bigger venues, playing giant festivals and on late night talk shows, opening for Nick Cave, and selling out a celebratory guest-star blowout at Town Hall. Along the way, her beguiling voice became more assertive and powerful; her songs blossomed into richly textured rock anthems. And that shy bedroom balladeer, who once captivated tiny clubs with her gently-strummed confessionals, has evolved into fearless front woman.

But where most might take a triumphant victory lap, with her fourth album, Are We There, Van Etten takes another bold step. This time, Van Etten challenged herself by producing the album on her own, though working alongside veteran producer Stewart Lerman at his studio Hobo Sound in New Jersey. Together, on highlights like “Afraid Of Nothing” and “Every Time The Sun Comes Up,” they capture Van Etten and her fantastic tour-honed band in full stride, enlivening each song with transfixing harmonies and intricate instrumental flourishes that unfurl with each pass.

While the sonic scope may have widened, Van Etten’s lyrics have never been more intimate and revealing. Virtually every song on Are We There strikes a balance between personal storytelling and abstraction as she chronicles the various stages of a crumbling romance. In the plaintive piano ballad, “I Love You But I’m Lost,” Van Etten sings of the challenges of trying to maintain a relationship: “Tell me there’s something I can change / Recall I know what a sanctuary is.” And in “Taking Chances,” she sings of “looking for a way out,” and finding strength in facing the unknown.

And elsewhere, on “Your Love Is Killing Me,” she howls, “Break my leg so I can’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,” with a soaring fury.

Few songwriters are as masterful at detailing the messy intersections between love and longing, and expressing complicated feelings that come with opening up and showing your true self to someone. But on Are We There, Sharon Van Etten shows once again that she’s a rare artist capable of enchanting honesty and generosity — even when singing about pain and emotional searching. You cannot help but root for her to succeed.

Sharon Van Etten's new album, Are We There, is out now.
Sharon Van Etten’s new album, Are We There, is out now.