By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 04, 2011 at 1:01 PM

When Brooklyn-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Sharon Van Etten made her Milwaukee debut it was via a weeknight gig at the Cactus Club in January 2010.

Consequently, she got an intimate introduction to the city, performing her very personal, introspective songs for a handful of music writers and a dozen or so other lucky folks.

Back then her merch table offered only her debut full-length, "Because I Was In Love" and a self-titled disc of home recordings. Since then, she's issued the seven-song "Epic," on Ba Da Bing Records.

"Epic" feels a little more accessible than Van Etten's stark and spare earlier material, but the added instrumentation doesn't make the music seem any less immediate, any less personal.

Van Etten returns to Milwaukee this week for a free (yes, free!) show at the much larger Pabst Theater on Thursday, April 7 at 7 p.m. Little Scream and Juniper Tar open.

But this time around, not only will she see a much larger Milwaukee venue -- and crowd looking back at her -- we'll get to see her in a different light, too as she now has a bassist and drummer backing her up. Last time you played Milwaukee you were in the tiny back room of the Cactus Club. Now you return, maybe a year later, to headline The Pabst, which seats nearly 1,400. Is that indicative of how things have changed for you everywhere?

Sharon Van Etten: Little by little. I am still not sure if I'm ready for it or how long whatever it is that is happening will last.

OMC: Has it been jarring to you to make that kind of leap, especially considering how intimate your performances seem to be?

SVE: It feels natural, actually. A natural progression. I still feel I connect with people. I just get to rock out more.

OMC: I liked that "Epic" had some more instrumentation, perhaps, than in the past but still felt intimate and unfettered. Are you conscious about trying to preserve approach that even as you have more opportunity to spend time in a studio tinkering?

SVE: "Epic" was straightforward for a reason. Going into the studio with my demos made me feel even more vulnerable than playing my songs solo in front of a small crowd. I felt like I was working through a light filter when working with Brian.

He listened to my demos and after discussing how I thought it would sound he helped me realized the minimum arrangements I needed to step it up as a straight band record. I am ready to step it up again -- again, without losing the immediacy of my lyrics and melody.

OMC: As a veteran of the Sharon Van Etten solo experience, what can I expect when you come to The Pabst? Will you have Doug Keith and Ben Lord with you?

SVE: Yes! I will get to play with Doug and Ben. We've been touring pretty much non-stop since September and we have come a long way. We have the songs "down" now and are really excited to come through town!

OMC: How has having a rhythm section behind you changed how you perform?

SVE: It helps me to find a groove and let go a little more, not having to solely depend on myself to carry a song. It's cathartic.

OMC: Is it more fun being on the road now than it was on your own? Or is it just more a pain in the ass?

SVE: It's much more fun on the road with these guys. We're a family. I tend to take myself too seriously, get down on myself easily, or forget to have fun when I'm on my own. They cheer me up, do things I wouldn't normally do. I haven't had this much fun since I was a kid. Hearts of gold these two.

OMC: Finally, what do you remember about your past visit to Milwaukee? Any highlights you remember from during you brief stop?

SVE: I went to this amazing restaurant (Palomino) near the venue with the Muzzle of Bees crew and had this insane pile of food (Ryan Matteson tells us she ordered the "Twin Peaks") containing biscuits and it blew my mind. I don't think I had to eat for the next few days.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.