CHICAGO — When Sharon Van Etten opened the Pitchfork Music Festival here last July, she looked a little lost.
The big stage dwarfed the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based singer-songwriter, who had only her guitar for accompaniment.
"First day, first act. Oh, my God," she said by way of introduction. "I feel like I have something to prove."
Then she did just that. Her voice floated heartbreak and yearning atop trance-like guitar lines. Her ability to make her sparse songs relate to the audience set the stage for her second full-length release, epic, which is shaping up as an album-of-the-year contender.
The arrangements on epic are more orchestrated than anything she'd attempted before, but the core remains Van Etten's songs and the relationship between her strong, transparent voice and her guitar. Van Etten introduced a knockout new song, Save Yourself, at Pitchfork that transcended the vast setting, sounding at once intimate and anthemic. On epic, the tune gets a bit of window dressing, notably a plaintive steel-guitar backdrop, but it cuts through as a powerful statement of a woman dissecting a relationship, moving from empathy to disappointment in the space of two lines: "Don't you think I know you're only trying to save yourself/ You're just like everyone else."
The strength in those lines illustrates how far Van Etten has come in a short time. Her first album, the 2009 release Because I Was in Love, brims with songs documenting a toxic relationship that derailed her life for several years.
After growing up in New Jersey, she moved to Tennessee in 1999 to attend college and ended up running a store. She was writing songs, but her boyfriend disapproved of her performing, and it wasn't until 2005, when she broke up with him and moved back to New Jersey, that she got her music back on track.
"I was living in my parents' basement, basically starting over," Van Etten says.
She churned out a mountain of songs and handed out homemade CDs to friends; one of them happened to be Kyp Malone of the band TV on the Radio, who helped her land gigs in New York.
"I was shaking so bad when I did those shows; I had bad stage fright," she says.
But she persevered and developed a following with songs of searing honesty.
"The thing that most freaked me out is that people would think the songs are too emotional," she says. "I would stand up there for 40 minutes demanding attention for something I think is important. I'd think what I was doing was very selfish."
But fans told her otherwise. "I'd get a letter from a doctor in Vermont, who said he would play my music for his patients and it would help them heal. There was a girl in Massachusetts who was going through a really intense relationship, and when she played my record, she said it assured her she wasn't alone. It's a cliché, but that kind of feedback makes me feel like I'm not alone, that what I'm doing isn't just for me."
As Van Etten's confidence has increased, the songs have moved from tentative, broken bedroom confessionals to the haunting, more confident arrangements and perspectives on epic.
"I was a lot more confident, less fragile, when I wrote this record," she says. "Some of these songs are still looking back on that relationship, but it's not so much about pitying me. I wanted something more confident and uplifting."
What does she think now when she listens back to the woman she was on her earlier recordings?
"I'm glad she got away," she says. "I'm glad that she had friends who helped her do it."