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Sharon Van Etten On Sharing Her Powerful Story On Audible Original, ‘All I Can’

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“I’ve been through a lot for only being 40 years old in my life,” Sharon Van Etten says. So she knew she wanted to share her stories, good and bad, with her fans. And she has long thought of writing a memoir to do that.

Now she has begun that process with the confessional and powerful Audible original, All I Can, premiering today (November 4). A 90-minute journey that tells her tale, from growing up in New Jersey, in a “Wonder Years meets Sopranos” vibe, to recent events, All I Can mixes her story with her music, like in this exclusive clip, heard here.

I spoke with Van Etten about the narrative, what she learned in telling her story, letting go of her anger and the profound influence Ani DiFranco had on her.

Steve Baltin: I love talking with artists about their memoirs, and this, obviously is an audible memoir. When you go back through this, are there things that emerge that surprised you?

Sharon Van Etten: Any time you look back, there’s so much to dive into. I guess it helps to have the perimeters of an hour and half, although we do use three hours’ worth of dialogue. We edited it down quite a bit. There’s always a fine line too of, how personal do you go, and how deep do you want to dig in things that you’re gonna have to talk about for the rest of your life? As an artist or any public figure, as soon as you go there, that’s gonna be part of the public story, right? So I was surprised at how angry I was at my folks still for a few things. But at the same time, the whole time I’m planning the language to talk about my past, I was also trying to make sure I never sounded like a victim. And it’s a double-edged sword when you start going into that territory.

Baltin: When you look back on it then and you do a process like this, does it become a little bit cathartic and you’re able to let go of some of that anger?

Van Etten: It’s definitely cathartic, being able to talk about things that you’ve been through. And I think sometimes it’s hard to be able to say that you’ve completely moved on when it’s still something you’re working through. But there are parts of myself that I forgive, there are parts of myself that I’m still working on. So in that way, I feel like it helps me process things and put it into words, and it’s a form of therapy in itself. And part of me is still finding the words right now. But yeah, I just think it’s still helpful to be able to needle yourself and talk about the things that have shaped you and still do.

Baltin: You mentioned Ani DiFranco and John Denver and so much in between. Talk about the artists that you found that really shaped you.

Van Etten: So Ani DiFranco was the artist that…everyone has the group of friends in high school that help them get through the s**t. And we were the freaks, the odd ones out, the fringe, as they say. And we’d all do track, then go to the vending machines and eat big packs of cinnamon rolls and then go to somebody’s house afterwards and listen to music until we had to go home for dinner. And my friend Alexa turned me on to Ani DiFranco when I was learning how to write my own songs and playing guitar pretty elementary style. And I was finding my own voice or the beginning of finding my voice. She talked about intimacy in a way that I either hadn’t experienced yet in a romantic relationship, but then also in a rawness in a way. I really connected with [that] as a teenager and the things that you’re not allowed to talk about because they’re either inappropriate or too, not offensive, but just not out in the open. Like having an abortion, being in a relationship and having sex and those things that she so put in a way that were very tender and very real.

Baltin: Were there influences or things you heard in some of the songs you chose to include in All I Can that really surprised you?

Van Etten: I feel like, number one, as a guitar player, her picking style and her guitar tunings were really influential. I still haven’t done a lot of open tunings myself, at least on a record. I definitely experiment when I’m trying to approach the guitar as a brand-new instrument. But I would say definitely the first record or two, where I’m in that transition of playing straight folk acoustic and letting myself show things other than romantic signs, the anger, the frustration, and being able to vent in a way on such an instrument that can be construed as a traditional folk instrument, but you can also play it in a way where you get out other feelings of frustration, and because of her assistance and other types of genres, she pushed me into that world a little bit more.

Baltin: Take me through how all this with Audible came to be.

Van Etten: Well, I’ve been through a lot for only being 40 years old in my life. And I’ve thought about starting a memoir just for myself to be able to talk about things that I have been through and things that I’m currently going through. And knowing that if I ever do a memoir it’s gonna take a long time for me to write, to find the words and the courage to share all the stories, so it’s been something I just thought about as a general thing. But Audible had reached out to me, and the comparisons were to Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway musical, where it’s basically song, story, song, story, song, story. So then that got me going and taking a song from each record and having those chapters of this part of my history and how I moved on from this time, where I was finally doing the music that I wanted to do. So it’s still something I’m formulating and still something I want to go deeper in, but I really appreciate Audible for reaching out because it’s helped me begin that process.

Baltin: Do you now want to go through and do a full memoir?

Van Etten: I’ll see how people receive just this or that piece of me. I will say that it does help having my friend James narrate my story, because he and I go way back. He wrote my first music review ever, my first interview, and it was written for the Boston Globe at the time. Ever since we became really good friends, and every time I’d pass through Massachusetts, I would stay with him. And he’s just been a friend and an encouraging voice and a person on my shoulder every time I tour. So it made a lot of sense to reach out to him to help me find the right words, to ask me the right questions so that I would not forget certain narratives. And I feel like I would need somebody like that with me as I delve in deeper to my life story, for sure, but I’m not afraid of it yet. We’ll see.

Baltin: What lessons do you hope other people take from your story?

Van Etten: I would say I hope people relate to it, in that everyone has a passion, finding your passion, and that becomes the center of your drive, what makes you get up every morning, what makes you get through the most difficult times. Because no matter what, if you have the drive and the passion for something, you can get yourself going and out of it because there’s always something else. Be authentic, surround yourself with people that want to lift you up and surround yourself with people that allow you to be yourself, because otherwise it’s a lot harder to have that drive and have that passion, and those things together are the reason why I’m here today.

Audible.comAll I Can

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