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Sharon Van Etten opens up about her dramatic new set of songs

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Over the last five years, singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has made some of the most striking and personal indie records that explore love, dark impulses, and the bare-boned mess of human emotion that can result from a break-up—most notably with 2014’s epic “Your Love Is Killing Me,” which highlighted her soaring, gut-wrenching vocals.

The 34-year-old is back this month with a new set of songs, an EP titled I Don’t Want To Let You Down (out June 9). The six-song collection continues to mine Van Etten’s gift for crafting achingly beautiful confessionals, yet, when reached by phone to discuss the making of the album, the Brooklynite was surprisingly affable, and shared with EW that her new EP might be her last “sad” colllection—and why she’s obsessed with puns, stand-up comedy and tickle fights.

EW: You’ve already put out four albums—why are you moving back to the EP format?

SHARON VAN ETTEN: These songs were an extension from Are We There. They didn’t fit on the album in a sense—it didn’t complete that picture, but I didn’t want them to fall by the wayside either. I didn’t want to call them B-sides because they kind of stand alone on their own, and they’re kind of misfits. It felt like perfect timing after touring this album for a year to share with people new songs that still represented that time.

Was there one song that you were most bummed to cut from the last record then that people now get to hear?

“I Don’t Want to Let You Down”—that was one song that was maybe going to be on Are We There, and my parents were really bummed that it didn’t make it because, in their words, they said, “That’s the most positive song you’ve written, even though it’s still a little dark.” And I’m like, “Well yeah that’s why I didn’t put it on the record.” [Laughs] It didn’t sum up where I was then. But we’ve been working on that and that’s been really fun to add to the set as well as “Tell Me,” which—it’s a live version of the song that I never recorded properly, but it was written around that same time that I wrote the album.

And honestly, “I Don’t Want to Let You Down” is so much fun to play. I just feels like it’s so different than the album. It’s some kind of resolve. And it completely changes the set once we play it. It’s more lighthearted. My bandmate Doug Keith who plays guitar, he gets to shred on the solo. It feels sort of uplifting in a way, too.

The lyrics are still pretty dark to “I Don’t Want to Let You Down” but it does feel kind of uplifting. 

It’s a dark summer song. [Laughs] You can tap your foot to sadness; it’s all right.

Are people surprised to learn you aren’t totally depressed in person?

I think for the most part, they’re relieved. But you know, sometimes people meet me with caution and it cracks me up. I’m a total weirdo from New Jersey and I like comedy and I’m into puns.

It’s funny, on my last tour, my bandmate Heather and I got in a tickle fight and I have this really funny—it looks like I have a black eye, and people were like, “Oh my God!” And I’m like, “That wasn’t a boyfriend… my bandmate and I got in a fight and I nosedived off the hotel bed and I got rug burn on my face from a tickle fight.” And I’m like, it’s a tickle fight. It’s embarrassing, but it’s really sweet at the same time. That sums up me, embarrassing and sweet. [Laughs]

Are We There is about a major breakup, and so are these songs. Is it still cathartic for you to play them live or is it hard for you to stay in that headspace?

This record has been harder and harder emotionally to replay for two years. It’s a love story that came to an end, and it’s sad. But the other records, I had so much more perspective to separate myself a little bit more and I had come to terms with it. And now that I’m in a better place, it’s hard to look back and go through all that pain again and wonder why people are really into it and rocking out with me. It’s been something that I’ve been reflecting on this year. But, you know, I’ll write a new record and it’ll be different and I’ll experience that. Who knows what that will be like.

Do you have a space where you like to work on music?

I’m setting up a studio in my apartment so I can write and record and live in New York for a change. I’ve been pretty much on the road since 2009, so I think it’s time I pay attention to living here, experiencing life, and having things to reflect on other than my broken heart. I’m feeling really positive and I think that’ll be a major game-changer in my songwriting, so we’ll see what happens there. [Laughs]

Are there songs that you haven’t put out because they are too personal?

Oh yeah. I write for therapy for myself, so 99 percent of the songs I will never share with people. Maybe when I die they’ll resurface. [Laughs]

So you’re saying this has all been the censored version.

You’re getting the ones where I thought people could relate to and connect with in a general enough way. So if that gives you an eye into what I don’t share, they’re literally diary entries. It’s hard to generalize things when you’re saying names and specific incidents.

I have to imagine there have been plenty songs over your career that are hard for your close friends and family to hear. 

Oh yeah. I had a song called “White Lines” that my dad thought was about a wedding. My parents are really sweet—they hear some songs and they worry, but then we hang out so they know I’m in a good place. As they’re learning what it means for it to be therapeutic, then they can see why they’re very separate. What I’m playing is very different from how I live.