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I’ve always been a fan of the slow build. Whether it be with my career, or my songs, or life.

– sharon van etten

Lean in and you’ll hear that it all begins with a vaporous inhale that was probably necessary for her to summon the courage to share these stories with us. After a few seconds of her slack strumming on guitar, we first meet Sharon Van Etten through a faint breath on “i wish i knew,” the four minutes of exposed nerves that open and set the tone of because i was in love.  

 Not much has changed. Eight years and three full-length albums later, Sharon still imbues her songs with the naked emotion that other singer-songwriters might iron out of their recordings. She wants us to hear the humanity of her work, the imperfections that make it palpable, the longing and heartache we’ve all nursed at some point. 

 Released in 2009 – long before she started popping up on international stages and making TV appearances – because i was in love was Sharon’s debut studio album after several years making deeply felt music in private. Lifted from a passage in a poetry collection by Richard Brautigan, the album’s title synthesized each song: Sharon wouldn’t have written any of them if she hadn’t allowed herself to be vulnerable, to be swayed by love’s joys and vagaries.  

 Don’t be fooled. These songs are tender, softly sung in an unvarnished voice that entwines with her gossamer harmonies and performed with the urgency of a 2 a.m. demo captured in a bedroom. But her sentiments are raw and immediate, inviting you not only to think about Sharon’s words, but to internalize them. 

 For an album churned out in one week of sessions, because i was in love takes it time to reveal its magic. You hear the shape of the room where she recorded, the sound of her fingers on the acoustic guitar, the purity of her voice. You sense that Sharon is singing not to herself or a former lover, but directly to you; you’d be forgiven for turning around to see if she were right behind you.  

As a songwriter, she opened fire on her turbulent love life and took her fair share of the blame for why everything had gone wrong. “I hate to admit it / But I don’t know shit,” she sang on “i wish i knew,” before asserting it wasn’t entirely her fault: “And neither do you.” She trilled those last two words to dizzying effect, each time twisting the knife just a little more.  

 She enlisted Greg Weeks, who had made his name as ringleader of the experimental folk-band band Espers, to record and produce the album at Hexham Head, his basement studio in his Philadelphia home. Greg saw his role less as producer and more as a facilitator charged with helping a young artist to realize her vision – even if she wasn’t entirely sure what that was just yet. When Greg asked her what kind of instrumentation she wanted, Sharon replied with a question: “Harmonies?”  

 But she did know it was important to keep the album loose, the production lean and minimal yet warm. No matter what she and Greg added – some humming organ here, a gentle shake of tambourine there – the songs remained a showcase for Etten’s voice, guitar, and words. That’s all they needed.  

 Mirroring the music, their sessions were mellow. Sharon stayed with Greg and his wife, sharing meals together before she’d go to bed early and think about the next day’s work. You detect that ease and space throughout because i was in love. Like Cat Power’s The Covers Record, Elliott Smith’s self-titled sophomore release, Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green, it’s a ruminative recording that preserves the artist in amber. 

 Greg released Because I Was in Love on his Language of Stone label, an imprint of Drag City, and even now it still outsells the rest of the entire catalog combined. Sharon is the first to confess she never foresaw its critical acclaim. “These are full-bodied songs that sound finished, as though Van Etten had already lived with this material long enough to know intuitively how best to present it,” Pitchfork mused in its laudatory review.  

By the time her debut was released, Sharon was already evolving and digging into the jagged sound she unveiled on 2010’s Epic (released on Ba Da Bing Records, where Sharon once worked as a publicist and whose founder, Ben Goldberg, was an early champion of her music). With each subsequent effort – Tramp (2012), Are We There (2014), and the EP I Don’t Want to Let You Down (2015) – Sharon’s music has grown even more visceral, fleshed out with muscular backing by her full band. 

 because i was in love tends to get overlooked in Sharon’s discography, but it was the blueprint for what fans have grown to love about and expect from her. The lyrics were personal enough to tell her story but also universal, a blank canvas on which you could sketch your own desires and fears. 

To hear Sharon tell it, because i was in love documented an innocent time, a specific moment in her 20s when her songs doubled as her journal (they still do). After a college stint in Tennessee, she had moved home to New Jersey, living with her parents and recording hundreds of songs in their basement on her laptop’s internal mike. She burned CD-Rs of her latest demos, which she’d give out at her shows in bars scattered across Brooklyn and New York. She worked at a wine store back then, and paper bags with holes in them ended up becoming DIY album artwork. If someone sent her an email to say her music had hit a nerve, Sharon made sure she wrote back.  

That’s about as big as she dreamed. She wanted to connect with people by making music that was an act of both expression and self-exploration. And that’s still the heart of what Sharon values as an artist.   

Which brings us back to that breath we hear at the start of because i was in love. Perhaps it wasn’t an inhale or a sigh at all, but rather a cathartic exhale that acknowledged she was finally where she belonged. It’s too early to tell, but part of the album’s legacy is that it proved sometimes the quietest storm is the most devastating one of all.  

– James Reed, September 2017, Los Angeles

 

 


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