Interview: Sharon Van Etten
The nomadic singer wants to win your heart, not break it.
Tue Feb 21 2012
Photograph: Dusdin Condren
"Let's pretend we're all happy," Sharon Van Etten jokes from the stage, smiling furtively to her bandmates as she sets down her guitar and grabs...a ukulele? She draws a few chortles from the crowd, but six or seven years ago, her words might have sounded desperate; the Jersey-born singer-songwriter was living in her parents' basement, picking up the pieces of a broken relationship and agonizing over her next move. On this night, though, to the fans, journalists and industry execs packed into the Mercury Lounge to hear her perform her new album in its entirety, she makes it clear that the sadness, stress and anger she once channeled into her music have only made her stronger—and yes, in the end, a damn sight happier.
"It's been really exhausting, but really fun, too," Van Etten says later, looking back on the time she spent writing and recording Tramp (Jagjaguwar), her third and by far her most ambitious effort. "I could only work on it when I was between touring, so it basically meant no time off. And because I was traveling so much, I didn't really have a place to live. It turned into this couch-surf, music-all-the-time thing."
As carefree as that sounds, Van Etten's gut-wrenching songs can still make you want to pull the bedcovers up to your chin. Almost as soon as her starkly confessional Because I Was in Love debuted in 2009, she was lauded as the dusky, delicate voice of a resurgent folk-rock movement. Her follow-up, Epic, was less haunting than it was haunted by faint echoes of Jeff Buckley and Nico (the latter by way of the harmonium, a favorite of Van Etten's), with the spellbinding "Love More" catching the ears of Aaron Dessner and the National, who covered the song at a festival in 2010 with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. The tribute came as a complete shock.
"When I saw the video, I knew I had to reach out to Aaron to see if he would help me work on this one," Van Etten recalls. "He has a garage studio in Brooklyn, and he told me anytime that I wanted to demo new songs to let him know. So later on I showed him what I was working on, and after hanging out a few times, one day we just started laughing because we realized there was already a record in our hands, and it was just a matter of the two of us crushing it out."
Tramp lives up to its title in more ways than one. A vivid sense of wanderlust peeks through not only the lyrics ("You're the reason why I'll move to the city/Or why I'll need to leave," Van Etten sings, almost as a triumphant kiss-off, in "Give Out"), but the music too. Besides guest spots from the Walkmen's Matt Barrick (drums on the opening cut, "Warsaw"), Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner (backing vocals on the punked-out "Serpents") and Beirut's Zach Condon (on the duet "We Are Fine," complete with ukulele, of course), Dessner's production adds richly textured guitar drones and thick reverb that conjure the Mazzy Star--era paisley underground—a real change, and a challenge, for Van Etten.
"We were very aware that people would think this is like a National record—that it sounds more produced than my last one," she asserts. "But I feel like the melodies are really strong and complex, and I didn't want that to be lost either. So when you hear me close to the mike, and all the breathing I have to do between notes on a song like 'All I Can,' we thought about cleaning that up more, but the lines are so intense that they wouldn't work if you couldn't hear what I'm doing."
That freedom in the studio translates to the road, where Van Etten is currently racking up dates with longtime bassist Doug Keith, keyboardist and singer Heather Woods Broderick, and drummer Zeke Hutchins—a solid and versatile unit that gives her plenty of room to stretch out.
"That Mercury showcase was super raw!" she laughs. "But we've been practicing a lot, and I'm really happy with where we're at right now. The main thing for me is to have fun with it, and for other people to be able to share in that. When I can write a song in a way where I feel like other people can relate to it, and I can take it past being cathartic just for me, that's when I know I can share it. Otherwise I'd just feel like it's selfish."