Sharon Van Etten talks powerful Pulse benefit single, her struggle to sing it without crying and how Michael Stipe convinced her to do a club mix
In June of last year, Sharon Van Etten mourned alongside the rest of the community after 49 people were shot and killed at one of Orlando’s premier LGBT nightclubs, Pulse. She did so at the piano, where the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter has long spent her music career trying to grapple with the world, herself and unthinkable tragedies like the one that claimed innocent lives at Pulse.
Her rueful state led her back to the beautiful “Not Myself,” wherein she laments the immense loss of life and opens her arms up to the LGBT community: “Please, darling, believe in something / I want you to be yourself around me / I know it’s too much to take / There’s too much at stake / But I want you to be yourself around me,” she sings. The haunting elegy, which she was compelled to finish years after she originally wrote the melody for it, is dedicated to the victims. Proceeds from the song’s downloads (https://sharonvanetten.bandcamp.com/track/not-myself) benefit the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, a movement to end gun violence and build safer communities.
Here, Van Etten opens up about the song’s healing message and how R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe influenced the new remix after convincing her to release a version for the gay clubs.
There are several emotions at play on “Not Myself.”
That song was originally a demo from when I was going through a breakup. I never finished it, but it was one of those times where I had to sit down and get it out just for myself, not thinking I would ever share it with anybody. It was this therapy session to myself about being with this person who wasn’t accepting me for who I was. I never thought anything of it. But when I was staying with my parents and I heard about the shooting, I just kept thinking to myself, “Those were all people who were trying to be themselves in a safe space,” and that demo I hadn’t returned to in years came to mind. It made me sit down at the piano and finish it and write it specifically for this.
You said you’d written some of this previously, but the first verse, particularly – “Run away with me in July / To the same place and be ourselves / In the ashes of the aftermath, pray” – seems specific to Pulse.
I was feeling sorrow (during the breakup), and then translating that for a larger population, that sorrow just grew in me. It was hard to even record it without crying. I mean, you might be able to hear that at points. I would literally have to stop because I couldn’t get through it. There are moments you can actually hear my voice waver a little bit.
Have you done it live?
I’ve done it once live, but I haven’t really been playing out lately. I had a baby in March and so I’ve been home learning how to do that. I’m sure when I do play it out, it will be hard for me to get through. But I’m also not shy to cry on stage if I need to.
How long after the Pulse shooting did you write the song?
I started it in probably 2013, 2014 as, again, a diary entry for myself. Then, when I was visiting my parents, it was the day after (the shooting) and I came back to New York at night. My piano was home and I finished writing it that night.
What was the response to the song when you originally released it in August 2016?
I was moved by how people connected with it. I just wanted to share my sense of loss with the world and find a positive way to make a difference. The song is also about just letting people be themselves.
What goals did you have in mind for the song itself, musically speaking?
I wanted to share my sense of loss with the world and show my respects to the community, but then also make a bigger difference outside of that with Everytown. The issue is more about tolerance and gun control and helping the community directly, and showing my respects. I tried to do that in a way that wasn’t too political but that could still make a difference.
By community, I assume you mean the Orlando community, but also, perhaps, the LGBT community?
How do you think this song might speak to the LGBT community?
It’s a message from me personally extending my hands to – I hate saying allowing people to be themselves, but just the acknowledgement that it can be hard and it can be a struggle to show who you really are, to show your strength and weaknesses. I know that it’s never easy to be entirely yourself, especially in the climate that we’re in right now where (sighs) – there’s just too many ignorant people out there that need to show a hand of support and acknowledge that it is very hard to be out in the open in such a harsh climate. I don’t know how to say that without saying names (laughs). But it’s just me extending my arms to the LGBT community and showing love.
How does writing a song that offers catharsis to those affected by this tragedy affect you as its creator?
I’ve always used writing as a form of therapy, because even starting from when I was a kid I wasn’t really good at communicating. I was pretty shy, and I kept a lot in. I remember just writing something down that made me feel better, and after I learned to play instruments, I put those words to songs. Thank goodness those songs don’t exist in the digital world right now (laughs).
But when I started I just knew I felt better, but I didn’t understand it at all. As I got older, I wanted to understand what it was I was doing, because I was starting to affect people who were listening to my songs. I hadn’t ever been asked to look at my songs in such a way. I realized this was actually therapy. A therapist in my 20s helped me understand what that release meant, and that’s my form of therapy – singing.
As a musician, how does violence in what is expected to be a safe place for people to come as they are – be it at Pulse or in Manchester outside of Ariana Grande’s show – affect you on both a human level and a professional level?
As a showgoer, I think about that all the time. In our world, we have lots of friends who either go to shows or are musicians, and I hate that it’s in the back of my mind all the time. It’s a regular thing. The fact that it’s on our brain and it’s a conversation we’re having saddens me. But it’s not gonna keep me from going to shows. It’s a community, and we need to be together and show love and support music and the arts.
How did the remix come about and who suggested that you remix it for the club community?
It was interesting. When I was tracking the song, a friend of mine had reached out – he’s worked with Michael Stipe before. Michael Stipe was really sweet, because I was looking to see if anybody would want to be a part of the original version. We sent it to him and he had a lot going on, but he appreciated that I was putting that song into the world. He’s the one who actually suggested the remix for the club community.
It was so outside of my world for the kind of music that I perform and it made total sense to me, and within that week I had been written by Andy (Butler) from Hercules and Love Affair to sing on a song of theirs. So, I thought the timing was kismet, because I was providing a vocal for a genre of music that is so outside my wheelhouse. I was so excited for the challenge. And when I asked him if he would do a remix of this song, he was for it as well.
Do you like hearing yourself over a dance beat?
It makes me feel like I can do so much more, that a song doesn’t have to just live in one world. And as heavy as the song is, it felt joyful. There’s a sense of – happiness isn’t the word. But I wish I could go to a club and see people dancing to this version.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).