“A beacon since my teenage years”: the album that soundtracked Sharon Van Etten’s youth

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Teenage years are the optimal time for music discovery. As you stumble into adulthood through parties and exams, through firsts and lasts, music provides a constant comfort, whether indie, hip-hop, rock or electronic. As songs soundtrack those moments, gradually becoming attached to memories and to people, they tend to stay with you forever. 

We all have an album we associate with those years, a record that got us through it all. For Sharon Van Etten, an artist who would come to soundtrack the teen years of countless others with her own emotional indie rock, that record was Roseland NYC Live by Portishead.

Van Etten picked out the record as her favourite release of the last 25 years during a 2021 chat with Pitchfork, noting how it acted as a “beacon” for her during that turbulent time and ever since then. It seems like a strange choice – a live album, a collection of songs that had once been perfected on record, now reimagined in Roseland Ballroom – but it’s easy to see why Van Etten fell for the album with just one listen.

Born in 1981, Van Etten was the perfect age for Roseland NYC Live to become the soundtrack to her late teens. When the record was released in 1998, she would have been just on the verge of adulthood, ready for the big move to college, taken in by the wistful tones of Beth Gibbons’ vocals and the trip-hop that surrounded them.

The record contains all the angst of that age into dramatic strings and strange synths, while Gibbons provided Van Etten with a reference point for her future artistry. The budding songwriter was inspired by her “dark, vulnerable, but tough” image, standing “strong and stark in the midst of this ensemble”, and it’s easy to see how this came across when she began to carve out her own artistic identity. 

Though her voice is much smoother and calmer than Gibbons’ work for Portishead, Van Etten infuses her music with a similar unflinching vulnerability. In modern indie hits like ‘Seventeen’ and even her cover of ‘The End of the World’, Van Etten is at once mysterious and dramatic, open about her emotions but strong in her declarations of them.

Van Etten has yet to venture into the world of trip-hop, keeping her instrumentation reasonably limited to the world of indie folk with layered vocals and soft strums, but the enduring influence of her teen years spent listening to Portishead can still be felt within her sound. It’s always present in the rawness of her voice amidst the soundscapes that surround them. 

Taking the influence of Portishead to return the favour to today’s teens, Van Etten has penned her fair share of songs that perfectly encapsulate those years. While ‘Seventeen’ is an obvious longing to return to those days, one that might make teens cherish them a little more, tracks like ‘One Day’ contain all the confusing emotions of those years.

Borrowing from the beacon of Beth Gibbons, of Portishead and of Roseland NYC Live, Van Etten has become a sonic beacon in her own right, guiding young music fans through their teen years, perhaps even inspiring some of them to follow in her footsteps, pick up a guitar, and make art from their own emotions.

Listen to Roseland NYC Live by Portishead below.

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