At times, listening to Sharon Van Etten’s music can be akin to stumbling across a diary accidentally left out in the open. “To say the things I want to say to you would be a crime,” she sings atop sparse acoustic strumming at the onset of her excellent sophomore album, “Epic” (Ba Da Bing). “To admit I’m still in love with you after all this time.”
“When I first started writing, I struggled with being too personal,” said the Jersey-born singer-songwriter, who plays Der Rathskeller at the Memorial Union on Friday, April 8, in a recent phone interview. “Even now, some songs are too revealing and I don’t share them. I always try to make them more universal so it’s not such a selfish thing.”
But while her debut, “Because I Was In Love,” reveled in emotional devastation, a shattered Van Etten singing as though she could barely muster the strength to push herself out of bed, “Epic” is more about picking up those pieces and learning how to move on. The title is still somewhat deceptive — the album is more “epic” with a small “e” — but the arrangements are richer, and Van Etten sings with renewed confidence.
Said Van Etten: “I’m still writing about the same things, but it’s from a stronger place, for sure.”
Building that confidence has been a gradual process for the singer, who got her start in music as an eighth-grader, sneaking into her brother’s room and strumming away on his acoustic guitar whenever he left the house. Prodded by her parents to keep a diary while growing up (“(They) always encouraged me to write because I wasn’t much of a communicator when it came to speaking,” she said), her own songs naturally took on a more confessional tone.
Because of this, Van Etten struggled with nerves whenever it came time to share a new tune.
“I still get really insecure about my songs,” she said. “I’m working on a new song right now and I’m scared to play it in front of (my band) even though I’m sure they’ll love it. It’s a weird thing.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Van Etten’s earliest gigs often took on the feel of group therapy sessions. The singer, who currently makes her home in Brooklyn, spoke particularly fondly of an early residency at the borough’s off-the-beaten-path music venue Zebulon. Hosting monthly residencies there, she quickly discovered that songs about misery had an odd way of drawing people together.
“(Performing) can be pretty personal and revealing and I want people to be able to connect with me,” she said. “It isn’t people with arms crossed. It’s like you’re having a conversation the whole time and there’s no wall between you (and the audience).”
There’s certainly no wall dividing artist and audience on the intimate “Epic,” which sways between melancholic piano ballads (“Save Yourself”) and breezy guitar odes (“One Day”). But even though friends and fans alike have praised the personal nature of her music, Van Etten still harbors some concern that she’s not stretching herself as a songwriter.
“There are so many bands that talk about politics, religion and the suffering going on in the world when I’m just trying to deal with my own demons,” she said. “I feel a responsibility to do something better that I’m not doing yet.”
That said, the singer exhibits little interest in writing about social or political issues (“You have to be careful about preaching”), readily admitting neither comes naturally. Besides, few things beat the thrill of writing a song that steels someone else during his or her personal emotional crisis.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m going to bore people writing about love and heartbreak,” she said. “But even just singing was really healing for me. Then once my friends encouraged me to play in front of them, I realized it helped them, too.”