Governors Ball: Sharon Van Etten – 'I nearly died at a Phish festival'

The Guardian-5 years before

I try to play the more rocky songs, the ones that are more immediate and driven. I want to get people’s attention because I’m usually playing in the middle of the day and people are pretty tired and they’re getting ready to rock out and I’m the transitional step, usually. I feel I have to prove myself a little bit sometimes so it’s a fun challenge. I can say: “OK, no acoustic guitar today” and go straight to the electric guitar, try out some new songs and see how it goes.

...ous-brothers-lemonheads"> The middle of the day is probably the most appropriate place for me, but warming people up is really hard. Playing for people that are just wandering in is really hard, and we’re definitely not a band that will get people going and have a major light show and bring people on stage and stuff like that. I don’t know how to get a crowd singing along, that’s not what my music does. It’s a good, slow build-up to what will happen later.

Maybe get Drake on board?

Drake on board I didn’t grow up with festival culture. But my siblings were really into Phish. So they grew up going to all their festivals and one year as a gift they gave me a ticket. I’m one of five children and I was really the one who wasn’t that into it. I like going to shows and concerts and stuff, but I’m pretty shy so festivals scare me. It’s stressful. But they convinced me to go to this Phish festival in 1999 and it was during New Year’s. It was at Big Cypress in Florida, where all drugs are legal because it’s a reservation kind of a deal. It was a shitshow.

Phish festival in 1999 It was crazy and I was just trying to keep it together. I’m walking around with my siblings, taking notes of all the characters that I’m seeing around me and I realise they call it Big Cypress because there’s only one tree on the whole reservation. One tree that has ice blocks under it, shaped like stairs, where all the – I’m sorry – dirty hippies were sitting on and sweating all over. It was so disgusting.

By the end of the first day all the toilets are full to the top, I’m walking around in direct sunlight and all of a sudden I realised I was swelling – I had these shoelaces tied round my wrists because I was cool or whatever. So I asked my brother and my sister: “That’s weird, right? That’s not normal?”

I started freaking out and they ran me back to where we were camping – because of course we were camping for three days – and they’re pouring cold water on me. And I was sat there thinking that I was dying and all of a sudden Phish start playing and my brothers and sisters leave me. So I was sitting in a camping chair, and I guess I had some heat exhaustion and Phish are playing and I’m surrounded by all these really tripped out people on a campsite and I literally thought I was going to die. That was my first festival experience.

It was the exact opposite of that. It was at the Philly Folk Festival in 2009 and that was really beautiful and mellow. I got to play after Meg Baird and the Baird sisters, who I love, and it was in park on the edge of some woods, which was much more up my alley.

Meg Baird The last time you spoke to the Guardian you said you hadn’t “figured out how to play festivals”. Have you got to grips with them now?

figured out how to play festivals I’m getting better at it. The more songs I have, the more experience I have and the more practice I have with the band, the easier it is to learn how to have that kind of success. I’m getting better at it and learning that sometimes it’s better to talk loud, or go right into the songs. I still haven’t mastered it, but I’m getting there.

Don’t overplan. Pick out maybe two or three bands that you definitely want to see but leave room for error. Let yourself wander. Bring your sunglasses and your sun tan lotion and don’t forget to eat ... in between your drinking. Oh, and drink plenty of water.

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