Sharon Van Etten 1/20 @ Johnny Brenda's
Sharon Van Etten with Julianna Barwick and Strand of Oaks
January 20, 2011
Sharon Van Etten told the audience on Thursday that someone had called her “the vagina whisperer,” adding, “I don’t know what that means!” And although it is easy to believe that Ms. Van Etten, with her demure and earnest demeanor and her adorable tiny-ness doesn’t understand what was meant by it, I’m pretty sure that I do. Partially, it’s just one of those things that men just say to put down female musicians, as though they are only capable of appealing to other women. But at the same time, it’s true that the ladies love her and her music. How couldn’t we? Not only are her songs gorgeous and sad with incredible harmonies, but she’s got lyrics like “Hide it from me if you must / hide it from me if you don’t trust / anything I say right to you” in her song “Don’t Do It.” Oh, Sharon, almost every straight woman can identify with dating a depressive, mistrustful man who places his own needs far above yours, and we love you for putting such an effective and passionate voice to that experience.
Men love Sharon Van Etten too, though, as evidenced by the crowd at Johnny Brenda’s, which seemed equally enough divided by gender. Philadelphia one-man band Strand of Oaks opened up the night, playing typical but not unpleasant dark, countrified folk music, a la Bonnie “Prince” Billy or Songs: Ohia during the time when Jason Molina was still playing by his lonesome. Then came Julianna Barwick, a one-trick pony whose set consisted entirely of looping layer upon layer of her wordless vocals on top of each other. Although she is clearly gifted at creating layered soundscapes, the songs didn’t know when to end and, although the crowd mostly tried to be polite, there was quite a bit of unbridled shit-talking going on amongst the masses. It was clear that many people felt that if this were what they wanted to hear, they would have been listening to the smooth sounds of WXPN’s Echoes with John Diliberto. I overheard the name Enya, but, you know, Enya actually writes songs with structure and I’ve got to give her props for “Sail Away,” which is kind of objectively a great song. The person I overheard meant it as a bad thing, though.
When Sharon came out, I was disappointed to see that she did not have a backup vocalist. I had gone to see her at World Café Live opening for Junip back in November, and she didn’t have a back up singer then, either. It had been the first night of her first tour with a band, and she made a comment about how it was too bad that her usual backup singer was on tour with Sufjan Stevens. But she was just the opening act that night, and besides Brian McTear (the man who had recorded her album in his Fishtown studio), myself, and the people the two of us each brought along, no one was there just to see her, so it seemed alright that she was without harmonies. Now though, being the headliner, I thought for sure she’d have someone singing with her. And, in fact, for a handful of songs, opener Julianna Barwick sang backup for her, which was nice. But mostly she went without and, really, Sharon Van Etten can pull it off. Her voice is just amazing, and she doesn’t require backup; still, though, the harmonies she exhibits on her records would be a joy to hear live.
One of the things that is interesting about Sharon Van Etten is that she seems really sweet and inexperienced. At one point in the night, she said that her band was trying to “teach [her] how to rock out.” She’s funny, and she doesn’t seem overly shy, but she isn’t yet a particularly dynamic performer. That’s alright, though, because for fans, it’s fun to be one of the people who are lucky enough to have seen her while she’s still new, still learning, still innocent. She played a very short set – maybe a dozen songs – three of which, to my delight, are not on either of her albums. She explained that, being from New Jersey, she had family in the audience and “shit to do.” Then, she recoiled a bit at her own language, saying her mother would complain, “You said ‘vagina’ twice!” quickly adding, “Well, now three times.” Still, afterward, she was immediately at her merchandise booth talking to fans, just as she was after her set at the Junip show in November. Not to be a creepy fan, but the truth is, her music moves me to have curiosity about her and I have questions ranging from “Why didn’t you record that song ‘Give Out’ that you played at the Daytrotter session” to “Do you think of yourself as an introvert or an extrovert” to “How old are you?” I have things I want to say to her. But, unfortunately, I had to leave myself. I, too, had shit to do that night, and there was a snowstorm a’brewing outside.
I don’t think Sharon Van Etten is a vagina whisperer. That sounds too dirty, too derogatory, too sexualized. Her music whispers to my heart – it aches me, it makes me fall over a little bit. I couldn’t be more excited to see how she develops in the years to come. –Melissa Balick
photo taken by john rogers at Diane Cluck show.