A little encouragement can go a long way.
Take Sharon Van Etten. The Brooklyn transplant has a piercing voice that is somehow heart-wrenching and uplifting, vulnerable and empowered all at once. It's the kind of voice that is so instantly striking, one assumes she's been doing this forever. But until a few years ago, the 29-year-old songstress kept her arsenal of lovelorn folk ballads to herself.
She was living in Tennessee, dating a controlling man who convinced her the dark, intensely personal songs she was crafting were worthless. Thankfully, Van Etten eventually fled home to New Jersey where she "reconnected" with old friends — including TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone — and found the confidence to pursue music for the first time.
It turns out, Van Etten just needed someone to believe in her.
"I always wrote," she says, "but it wasn't until I left Tennessee that I started performing and meeting people. Kyp Malone and [Ba Da Bing Records'] Ben Goldberg were definitely two people that encouraged me more than anyone I had ever known at that point. They taught me a lot about music and the Brooklyn music scene, and they taught me a lot about what is going on right now in the indie world. I was never really encouraged before, so I think it's my friends that have helped me. I probably wouldn't be doing this if I hadn't had the support of all these people."
Now, Van Etten is making up for lost time. In the two years since the release of her sparse, haunting debut, Because I was in Love, she's become an indie favorite, touring incessantly, collaborating with a host of other up-and-coming artists and earning as much praise for her stunning live performances as for the two records she's released in as many years.
Her latest, epic, stands in stark contrast to the understated acoustic landscape of its predecessor. The record is powerful and aggressive by Van Etten standards, with thick backing vocals, meandering steel guitar, pounding drums and rich arrangements throughout its seven tracks. They're still songs of heartbreak, but the perspective has changed. On epic, she is reflective rather than regretful, accepting and uncompromising. It's a remarkable evolution in only two years, but one that mirrors Van Etten's own personal growth.
"They're definitely songs that I felt were my most confident and looking back on where I was for Because I Was in Love," she says. "I feel like epic is moving on from there. This is a group of songs that is supposed to, hopefully, convey how much more confident I am and more secure I am."
That confidence hasn't come easy though. Van Etten admits to "social anxiety issues" and says she's more comfortable performing than mingling with fans. After all these years of writing, it's strange to suddenly be recognized for it.
"Touring around and meeting people, I think I'm getting better at talking to people," she says. "But I'm still freaked out at the whole thing. I didn't think anyone would care about my stuff. I was just doing it for myself. So it's a little overwhelming, and I get really shy because of it. I don't feel more special than anyone else.
"But it means a lot when people come up to me and tell me how much it's helped them through hard times," she adds. "I'm trying to learn how to engage them offstage as well. I feel really confident onstage because they're songs that I wrote and I feel them every single time I perform them. It's just the talking part that I'm trying to get better at."
These days, Van Etten has some help on the road. epic has ushered in a new era, one that includes a full touring band to recreate the energy and power of her new songs. But that, too, has taken some getting used to. Van Etten won't hesitate to tell you, she's not a "natural leader."
"I'm not very good at taking charge or telling people what to do," says the singer, "which is why I was always kind of scared to have a band. But my bass player and my drummer are really amazing, and they naturally play what I feel like is supposed to be there without me having to tell them. After being scared for years about having a band, they make it much more fun. The songs feel a lot more cathartic now."
Van Etten has made great strides in two years, but she has no plans to slow down anytime soon. The prolific songwriter has dates booked through the end of March — including an extensive European tour opening for The National and her very own headlining tour of North America — and has already begun recording the followup to epic. And she recently sold out the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, so a show at the comparatively tiny Broadway’s is a rare thing indeed.
So what can we expect from an artist who has evolved more in two years than many do in a decade?
"Right now it's hard to tell how it will take shape," she teases. "It will probably be a little more experimental."
— Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Sharon Van Etten
when: Sunday, Jan. 21