The forces that would keep Sharon Van Etten from music only strengthen her determination to write songs.
She's naturally afraid to stand in front of crowds. An abusive former boyfriend snatched her guitar and broke it.
Two albums later, critically acclaimed Van Etten has proven her ability to overcome those odds. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter thrives making sparse, acoustic, emotionally charged folk-rock. Her songs express a longing for a love that isn't dysfunctional.
Van Etten performs at the Memorial Union Rathskeller on April 8. Last week I talked to her and discovered her band's secret connection to Madison.
You've talked in the past about having stage fright. Is that still a challenge for you?
It makes me feel insecure to demand attention from the audience. I do get nervous. Sometimes I have to close my eyes to feel grounded onstage. Checking in with the audience helps, too. I don't like there to be a wall between us. I try to make eye contact and talk to people. I guess that's why some people say my shows are intimate.
Do you prefer to play solo or with a band?
My songs don't really call for much in terms of instrumentation. I like to play with just a few musicians who are willing to underplay a little bit.
What do you see as the main differences between your first two albums?
The first album was about hitting rock bottom and being broken-hearted. Epic [the follow-up] was about admitting that I feel more calloused about relationships moving forward.
Has the music press overplayed the difficult relationship you had with your ex-boyfriend?
Part of me doesn't want to keep identifying as that girl that was in a bad relationship. But I don't blame the music press for making it a reference point. He broke my guitar. He wouldn't let me play music. I don't know if I would be as determined to write songs if I hadn't gone through that.
Any secret connections between you and Madison that we wouldn't know about?
My bass player (Doug Keith) lived there until he was 6. He went to John Muir Elementary School.