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(Credit: Michael Schmelling)

Music

The live album that inspired Sharon Van Etten to get serious about singing

“I want to be a mom, a singer, an actress, go to school, but yeah, I have a stain on my shirt, oatmeal in my hair, and I feel like a mess, but I’m here. Doing it.” — Sharon Van Etten.

I could happily sit here and write you a thousand reasons why Sharon Van Etten is deserving of the kind of accolades that have befallen Madonna and Michael Jackson. The singer-songwriter has delivered a consistent discography of potent pop songs, idiosyncratic indie hits and that special variety of orchestral explosion that confirms she’s a musician’s musician, as well as a poet’s poet.

One need only look at the plethora of artists who not only cite her as a dramatic influence on their writing and recording but the sheer volume of credible stars who have covered her songs. Everyone from IDLES to Shamir to Courtney Barnett and Angel Olsen, the indelible mark Van Etten has left on the most recent iteration of indie music is impossible to remove. But who are the artists that have inspired her?

Despite rarely offering much in the way of glowing and specific inspiration, she has, on occasion, doffed her cap to some special artists. When speaking with Pitchfork on her favourite album of the last 25 years, the songwriter offered up some of her most visceral views on music: “I first discovered Portishead at a record store called Vintage Vinyl in New Jersey the summer of my junior year in high school,” Van Etten told the publication, picking out Portishead’s live record Roseland NYC Live from 1998.

“I listened to all kinds of music at the time (Sonic Youth, Ani DiFranco, Liz Phair, Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim),” the singer continues. “But there was something about Portishead that made me think more about vocals than I ever had before. I wasn’t a serious singer yet on my own, only in choir, and Beth Gibbons encapsulated the image in my mind of something I began to want to be. Dark, vulnerable, but tough. Mournful, angry, sexy, all hypnotically woven together with beats and live strings and tasteful scratching.”

In truth, for Van Etten, Gibbons operated not only as an icon but as a direct influence and the destination Van Etten was always looking toward: “Beth stood strong and stark in the midst of this ensemble and rose above it all with her commanding, crystal vocal, and I was lost in the songs from the get-go. From make-out sessions to long drives alone to referencing as a source for my own sonic palette, Portishead has been a beacon since my teenage years, and I thank them.”

Listen below to Sharon Van Etten’s favourite Portishead album Rosedale NYC Live.