It’s been almost a decade since Sharon Van Etten played a concert in the Burlington area. She headlined the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington – capacity 330 – in November 2012.
She’ll co-headline a project on Monday, August 15, alongside fellow singer-songwriters Angel Olsen and Julien Baker at the Shelburne Museum’s 3,000-capacity green space. That nearly tenfold increase in audience size speaks volumes for the trajectory of Van Etten’s career as she went from playing small clubs to headlining theaters and large outdoor venues.
This is a trip with roots in Burlington. The New Jersey native was living with her sister in Burlington not quite 20 years ago when she began shaping her sound by playing open mic nights at the Radio Bean on North Winooski Avenue.
As Van Etten describes it, her younger sister, Laura, was an honors student attending the University of Vermont, while Sharon, the artistic “black sheep” of the family, was struggling to find her place. She played the guitar under the covers of her bed while her sister tried to study.
“She took me in when I wasn’t in a great place in life,” Van Etten said in a recent phone conversation from Nashville. “This is a testament to my entire family, just open arms and unconditional love.”
Laura got her to play to an audience at Radio Bean. Those moments at the venerable coffee shop/bar/music venue helped give Van Etten the tools she needed for a career that took her around the world to play her songs.
“My time in Burlington was so special because I was going through a lot of healing,” Van Etten said. “To be able to play to such an intimate crowd and feel accepted early on, when I didn’t even know who I was or what I was doing, I think about that all the time.”
Connecting 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 tending bar at American Flatbread Burlington Hearth or Zero Gravity Craft Brewery. Van Etten, who grew up with her family in New Jersey, said her parents often travel to New England to visit their children, and attended a concert by indie rockers The National at the Shelburne Museum the night before Van Etten spoke to the free Press.
Her loved ones remain her biggest fans. “It’s a funny job to have,” Van Etten said, “but I feel so much support from my family, then and now.”
The tour could be tough for Van Etten. She avoids being on the road for more than three weeks because she doesn’t want to be away from family (she and her partner had a son five years ago) and to maintain her mental health. Touring three times with Olson and Baker gives Van Etten a sense of togetherness, even when he can’t be with his 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 is funny and easy to get along with, and she realized she would be a good touring partner.
“The road becomes your home and you’re on tour with your family,” Van Etten said. “If you have one bad apple, it can completely ruin the tour. Knowing Angel, I thought it would be a really fun way to have summer camp together.”
Triple bill with Julien Baker
They discussed turning their double bill into a triple bill, and Van Etten passed on Baker’s music to Olsen. All three share a baroque quality to their songwriting and performance, as Van Etten demonstrates on his new album, the lush yet intimate “We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong.” Baker’s raw, emotional acoustic work on her debut album, 2015’s Sprained Ankle, evokes “Epic,” the album that brought Van Etten to a larger audience in 2010.
“She’s gained a lot more confidence, although she still retains a lot of that nervous energy,” Van Etten said of Baker. “She’s learning how to be her own leader. Watching that unfold has just been pretty inspiring.” Van Etten said the three musicians will play their own sets, but she expects collaborations to develop during the tour.
While it’s a long way from playing an open mic night at the Radio Bean, Van Etten tries to keep that essence when he performs. She strives to be in the moment and make eye contact with her audience members, no matter how large that crowd may be.
“Even though I’m in a very different place than I was with my career, I feel like I’ve had a really mainstream way of playing and touring and meeting people,” Van Etten said. “I feel like I did it in an honest way.”
Her desire to stay off the road for months at a time limited her tour dates and prevented her from playing near Burlington for so many years — “much to the chagrin of my family, for sure,” Van Etten said. “I know there will be a Van Etten contingent (at the Shelburne Museum show).”
If you go
WHAT: Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olson and Julien Baker with Quinn Kristofferson
WHEN: 6 p.m. Monday, August 15
WHERE: Shelburne Museum
INFORMATION: $55 in advance, $59 day of show. www.highergroundmusic.com