Sharon Van Etten is the velvet hammer of indie-folk music. Wrapped in melodic vulnerability, the 33-year-old’s songs explore the brutal truths of love, life-altering choices and the search for home.
Born and raised in New Jersey by a computer programmer father and a history teacher mother, Van Etten moved to Tennessee for college, but dropped out after a year. After leaving an abusive relationship, she returned to New Jersey and trained as a sommelier. By 2005, she’d saved enough money to relocate to Brooklyn and began performing music.
Van Etten released the mournful “Because I Was in Love” in 2009, followed by “Epic” one year later. Her third — and breakthrough — album, 2012’s “Tramp,” was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner and featured several big-name cameos. Her latest release, May’s “Are We There,” is a heart-wrenching testament to loving hard, letting go and moving on.
Van Etten spoke to Vita.mn from San Francisco ahead of her show Wednesday at First Avenue.
Q: Your songs contain so many private thoughts and emotions. Are there any parts of yourself that you leave out of the music?
A: I still have a few secret jokes in there, I guess. Everything I do is pretty personal. I’ve never been good at storytelling in songs. I don’t know how to separate myself from the song.
Q: Many of your songs were born from an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted several years. How did writing about the relationship affect the relationship?
A: That’s a tough one. In hindsight, it made me realize that the person I was with may not have been as in touch emotionally as he could have been. On his side of things, I feel like it hurts him to hear these songs, but he should have known that that’s what I do.
Q: Some of your lyrics reference violence. Is that something you’ve experienced in your relationships?
A: I’ve been in a couple of toxic relationships and I’ve learned to parallel love with the ugly side of it. You can still love somebody and it can still hurt and they can still hurt you and it can be unhealthy, but if you’re blinded by love, it’s not going to change how you feel about somebody.
Q: You’ve hinted in other interviews that you might become a therapist someday. How has music been therapeutic for you?
A: Whenever I’m going through a dark time, I get a bottle of wine and play on my guitar or piano until I come up with a melody that I can make up words to. Once I find a little piece of melody, I’ll hit record and sing stream-of-consciousness. I’m not thinking about what it’s for or who it’s for; I just need to feel better. I won’t listen to it for a few days until I can get some perspective about what I was going through. I’ll listen back to it and analyze it. If it’s a universal idea, that’s when I shape it into a song.
Q: You told Rolling Stone that you want to stay small. Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: The kind of music that I play is really intimate and personal. Even though I’ve been growing organically, I’m growing in a way where I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. If it keeps growing, I feel like my feet will come off the ground. I want to stay myself because that’s the core of what I do and why people connect to my music. I want to play places where it doesn’t feel like this distant thing between me and the audience. I want to keep it real. I don’t want that star thing. I don’t want to be big. People I work with probably worry about me when I say that, but I don’t know if I want to do this forever. I want a home life. I want a family. I want to do other things. I’ve proven to myself that I can do this and I feel like I’ve helped people, but I don’t need to keep doing it. I’ll always write, I just don’t know if I want to do this as work forever.
Sharon Van Etten
With: Jana Hunter.
When: 9 p.m. Wed.
Where: First Avenue.