Van Etten was born and raised in New Jersey where she attended North Hunterdon High School. She moved to Tennessee to attend Middle Tennessee State University, where she discovered a variety of influential music. After moving back home to New Jersey, Van Etten was encouraged by Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio to pursue a career in music.
Her official debut, Because I Was In Love was released in spring 2009. In April 2009, Van Etten performed vocals and guitar for the song "Coming Home" written by Jeremy Joyce for the feature film "Woman's Prison." In August 2009, she appeared on the critically acclaimed album Hospice by The Antlers performing vocals on the track "Thirteen". In January 2010, Van Etten was a featured artist on Weathervane Music's Shaking Through Web Series. On September 21, 2010 she released her second album Epic. She also contributed backing vocals to The National's song "Think You Can Wait" from the soundtrack to the film Win Win in 2011.
Van Etten joined The National for thirteen European tour dates in February-March 2011, and at the 2011 MusicNOW Festival in Cincinnati. She opened for The National again at the Hollywood Bowl (with Neko Case) in September 2011 and the Beacon Theatre in December 2011. In May 2012 Van Etten played alongside The Walkmen, Beirut, St. Vincent, The Antlers, Atlas Sound, and others at the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Her third studio album, Tramp, was released on February 7th, 2012 on Jagjaguwar. Tramp was produced by The National's Aaron Dessner, and recorded in his studio over a period of several months. After the release of the album, she will embark on a tour beginning in Philadelphia. The album features guest appearances from Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matt Barrick, Zach Condon, and Jenn Wasner. In regard to the album's guest appearances, Van Etten told American Songwriter magazine, "People may think 'They got this star-studded cast,' but what it boils down to is that they’re friends that wanted to participate on this record." "Tramp" debuted at No. 75 on the Billboard 200 charts.
Her current band is: Doug Keith (bass, guitar, vocals), Heather Woods Broderick (vocals, keys, guitar), and Zeke Hutchins (drums)