Although she was born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Sharon Van Etten's folk music evokes the open landscapes of a more expansive America. A dedicated choir student during her childhood, she studied clarinet, violin, and piano before moving on to guitar. She began writing songs as a high-school student and sang in a choir group, the Madrigals. She credits her choral experiences as indispensable in learning to musically notate, as well as to sing harmonies.
Upon graduation, Van Etten moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to attend Middle Tennessee State University. There she studied recording until she dropped out a year later. She remained in the city for over four years, working at Red Rose, a combination coffee house, record shop, and music venue. She wrote songs during the entire period, but never performed. After a personal crisis, she briefly moved back home to New Jersey, where she worked as a sommelier in a wine and dining establishment. After finally making a move to Brooklyn, she began to play in small public spaces, and to record her songs on individually hand-painted CD-Rs. She sold them at shows and via her website. At one show, she handed one to Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio. (She had known his brother in high school.) After hearing it, he enthusiastically encouraged her to pursue a musical career.
Van Etten continued to perform, but was determined to learn about the business of music. To that end, she secured an internship with Ba Da Bing Records through a college friend. (She would later earn a role as a full-time publicist.) While working there, she continued to write, play publicly, and record privately. Van Etten's first nationally released album was 2009's sparsely orchestrated Because I Was in Love, recorded for Language of Stone, a label manufactured and distributed by Chicago-based Drag City. Reviews were almost universally positive and helped secure her opening slots on other artists' tours, as well as headline her first shows outside of the East Coast. This effort was followed by the lush, more band-oriented Epic in 2010, which was greeted by more praise.
Signed to Jagjaguwar late in 2010, Van Etten began opening for the National on tour and working with the band's Aaron Dessner as a producer in the studio. Their collaboration resulted in her third album, Tramp, issued in early 2012. In support of the album, she toured the United States as a headliner and also played clubs and festivals in Europe. In 2013, she sang on the National's Trouble Will Find Me.
Van Etten returned to the studio to record her fourth album, and co-produced it with Stewart Lerman. Are We There was released in May of 2014 to some of the highest critical acclaim of any album that year. She followed it in 2015 with the five-track EP I Don't Want to Let You Down. In 2016 Van Etten took on the role of Rachel in Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's surreal Netflix sci-fi/drama series The OA, and the following year she contributed a cover of Skeeter Davis' "The End of the World" to the soundtrack for Amazon's popular dystopian series The Man in the High Castle. ~ Andrew Leahey & Thom Jurek