It’s been almost a decade since Sharon Van Etten performed a concert in the Burlington area. In November 2012 she ran the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington – capacity 330.
She will be officiating a bill on Monday August 15 alongside singer-songwriters Angel Olsen and Julien Baker on the green at the Shelburne Museum – capacity 3,000. This nearly tenfold increase in viewership says a lot about the trajectory of Van Etten’s career as it has evolved from small clubs to theaters and large outdoor venues.
It’s a journey with roots in Burlington. The New Jersey native was living with her sister in Burlington less than 20 years ago when she began shaping her sound by performing at open mic nights at Radio Bean on North Winooski Avenue.
As Van Etten described it, her younger sister Laura was a straight-A student attending the University of Vermont, while Sharon, the artistic “black sheep” of the family, struggled to find her place. She played guitar under the covers of her bed while her sister tried to study.
“She took me in when life wasn’t going well for me,” Van Etten said in a recent phone call from Nashville. “It’s a testament to my whole family, just open arms and unconditional love.”
Laura urged her to play in front of an audience at Radio Bean. Those moments in the venerable coffeehouse/bar/music venue helped give Van Etten the tools she needed for a career that has taken her around the world performing her songs.
“My time in Burlington was so special because I went through a lot of healings,” said Van Etten. “Being able to perform in front of such an intimate audience and feel accepted early on, when I didn’t even know who I was or what I was doing, is something I think about all the time.”
Connection with Angel Olsen
Van Etten’s sister has since moved to Maine, but her brother Pete, who also attended UVM, still lives in Vermont and can be found bartending at American Flatbread’s Burlington Hearth or Zero Gravity Craft Brewery. Van Etten, who grew up with her family in New Jersey, said her parents often made the trip to New England to visit their children and attended a concert by the indie rockers the night before Van Etten spoke to them The National at the Shelburne Museum the Free Press.
Her relatives remain her biggest fans. “It’s a fun job,” said Van Etten, “but I feel so much support from my family then and now.”
Touring can be a struggle for Van Etten. She avoids traveling for more than three weeks to avoid being away from family for too long (she and her partner had a son five years ago) and to maintain her sanity. The triple-bill tour with Olsen and Baker gives Van Etten a sense of togetherness, even when she can’t be near her family.
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Van Etten and Olsen were friends before collaborating on recordings in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Van Etten said Olsen was fun and easy to hang out with, and she realized she would make a good touring partner.
“The road becomes your home and you tour with your family,” said Van Etten. “If you have a bad apple, it can totally ruin a tour. Knowing Angel, I thought it would be a really fun way to do summer camp together.”
Triple Bill with Julien Baker
They discussed turning their double bill into a triple bill, and Van Etten passed Baker’s music on to Olsen. All three share a baroque quality in their songwriting and performance, as Van Etten demonstrates on their new album, the lush yet intimate We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. Baker’s raw, emotive acoustic work on her 2015 debut album Sprained Ankle is reminiscent of Epic, the album that brought Van Etten to a wider audience in 2010.
“She’s gained a lot more confidence, although she still has a lot of that nervous energy,” Van Etten said of Baker. “She’s learning to be her own leader. Watching that unfold has just been quite inspiring.” Van Etten said the three musicians will play their own sets, but she expects collaborations to develop during the tour.
Though she’s far from playing open mic nights at Radio Bean, Van Etten tries to hold on to that essence when she performs. She strives to be in the moment and make eye contact with members of her audience, no matter how large that crowd may be.
“Even though I’m in a very different place from my career, I feel like I had a really down-to-earth way of playing, touring, and meeting people,” said Van Etten. “I feel like I did it in an honest way.”
Her desire not to tour for months has restricted her tour dates and kept her from playing near Burlington for so many years — “certainly much to the chagrin of my family,” said Van Etten. “I know there’s going to be a Van Etten contingent there (at the Shelburne Museum show).”
when you go
WHAT: Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen and Julien Baker with Quinn Christopherson
IF: 6pm Monday 15 August
WHERE: Shelburne Museum
INFORMATION: $55 in advance, $59 on the day of the show. www.highergroundmusic.com