Van Etten learning to keep the heartbreak ‘uplifting’
Sharon Van Etten has a voice that could make “Happy Birthday” sound suffused with melancholy and regret. When singing an actual sad song — something she happens to write better than just about anybody — it’s devastating.
Still, Van Etten, performing Saturday night at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland, thinks she’s making progress. Not just musical progress, or selling records, though she’s doing that. Actual progress.
“I feel like I used to write really sad songs,” she says. “But now, even though they’re about relationships, I feel like they’re a lot more cathartic and uplifting, even in their heartbrokenness.”
Her rise as a musician began just as her personal life was bottoming out, when she fled a toxic relationship with her college boyfriend in Tennessee for New York City. That album, “Because I Was in Love,” was stark, quiet and unrelentingly bleak. It was a form of therapy, she says, and quite effective in its own way.
“I always kind of write love songs naturally, because that’s usually when I’m going through an intense time,” Van Etten says. “I write stream-of-consciousness to get through something. I just start writing for me.
“Then, I kind of go back and listen to them as a form of therapy, and analyze what it is I’m trying to say, or going through emotionally. I try to figure out if it’s a universal idea, or too personal, or if people can connect to it. That’s when I think, ‘Well, maybe this can turn into a song, and help other people get through something.’ ”
Her latest album, “Tramp,” is still fraught with emotional tension, but it’s a bigger, brighter, more unpredictable sound. Sometimes, like her recent performance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” she even radiates a kind of understated confidence.
Serious social anxiety complicated her desire to become a performer, something she still struggles with. One song, “We Are Fine,” addresses this directly, with backing vocals from indie rock superstar Zach Condon of Beirut.
“Zach and I, our first ‘bonding session’ was over having anxiety and being a performer, and how you deal with that,” Van Etten says. “I wrote this song without thinking anyone would sing on it — it was just a ukulele and my vocal. I brought it into the studio, and we thought there was something missing. … Finally, after overanalyzing it, I determined that what was missing was that it was supposed to be a conversation, just a friend talking you through having a panic attack. Zach was the first person I thought of, because he’s one of the few performers I know who deals with anxiety.”
Experience and the repetition of constant touring have made performing a little easier. If something doesn’t feel right, she knows how to handle it.
“Usually, I can do breathing exercises or close my eyes,” Van Etten says. “If I’m having a moment onstage, I look at my band members and reconnect with them, and remind myself that I’m among friends.”
Positive feedback from fans also keeps her steady.
“It means a lot to me when people actually come up and say something. It helps me feel like maybe I’m not doing the most selfish thing in the world.”
SHARON VAN ETTEN
With: Flock of Dimes
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland
Details : 412-237-8300