Sharon Van Etten Shares Her Intimate Nature Through a Dark Sonic Lens

Tucked inside Sharon Van Etten’s small, slender frame is a powerful, evocative voice, one that delivers dirge-like folk ballads and aggressive provocations with equal command. On her third album, Tramp (out this week on Jagjaguar), Van Etten embraces a rich sound, one that is more brash and full compared to her previous efforts. While her intimate debut Because I Was in Love and its follow-up Epic were stand-outs in their own right, it’s Tramp that proves her sonic power.

Like any musician garnering buzz these days, Van Etten has an oft-repeated origin story. Living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with an emotionally abusive boyfriend, Van Etten channeled her insecurities and frustration into her music. Once she broke free from the stifling relationship, she gained confidence in her songwriting and performing and eventually moved back east to Brooklyn. That’s where she entered a scene of young musicians who pop up on Tramp in various places: Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner provides back-up vocals, and Beirut’s Zach Condon duets on "We Are Fine." While her sound has evolved with each of her albums, her lyrics have remained personal and introspective. On Tramp‘s first single, "Serpents," Van Etten sings, "You enjoy sucking on dreams / so I will fall asleep with someone other than you." Later, in the lovely and stark "Ask," she declares, "I need more than the flowers and letters, man / It’s not that I won’t try, it’s that you won’t again."  

Tramp is a collection of dichotomies, much like Van Etten herself. We spoke with Van Etten over the phone, finding her to be slightly guarded and contained with her responses. But on her record (and on stage), she is open and candid, and hers is an candor that’s a throwback to the women of the ’90s who picked up their electric guitars and embraced their fears and hopes through fuzzy instruments and frank lyrics. She is a woman who finds empowerment by laying bare her wounds, and gains assurance from sharing those emotions on stage. She shared with us her insight into the songwriting process, why she and Kanye West aren’t so different, and how she managed to get The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce her new album.

As a singer/songwriter and one who is a woman, it’s impossible not to be labeled as confessional. Would you say that that’s sort of an accurate label in your case?
I think that I write from a really personal place, but it’s not always about me. It could be about my friends or a story I heard, but it always ends up sounding like it happened to me. I say “I” and “you” a lot more than maybe I should. But one of the things I think is really important is to feel like it’s a conversation with myself and the listener, because I think that’s how people connect right away. I get annoyed sometimes about that being considered a female thing, but I also think women talk about their emotions more than men do, so I don’t necessarily feel like it’s an unfair generalization.

When you talk about that kind of annoying thing, I notice that a lot or critics, particularly male ones, respond to music of that genre with that attitude — as if a woman’s introspection affects their response to her music. Do you feel that’s more rampant in music criticism? Do you have a mixed genre among your fan base?
It’s mixed-gender for sure. When they’re fans, they’re not going to be like that critical. With critics, I feel they see it as a negative thing, and they want to fault you immediately because you can’t go beyond your personal experience. And I do write about some of my personal experience, but I don’t see why that’s a bad thing when someone can learn from it and when it’s not in a selfish or a whining way. I would like to get out of it at some point, but that’s just where I feel like my strength is right now.

At the same time, I feel like the term “singer-songwriter” as a genre has gotten to the point where it’s used as a negative thing. Do you kind of dislike that label?
I mean, I think everyone is a singer-songwriter. Kanye West is a singer/songwriter: he sings and he writes songs, if you’re going to be that general. I’ve been pushed into this folk corner and it’s such a general thing. But I don’t know. It’s a fair description, I guess, but it’s general — it’s not very specific.

Let’s talk about your writing process. You’ve said in interviews that you take stuff from journaling when it comes to the lyrics. But when it comes to writing the actual music, do you collaborate with anyone or is it just you on your own and, in the same vein, do you imagine what you’re writing as played by a group of people backing you up?
My way of writing is constantly changing. I started just writing guitar and vocals myself and then learned how to articulate how I wanted basic instrumentation. This is the first time I’ve worked directly with someone to expand my ideas. The songs always just start as guitar and vocal. Sometimes I go into my GarageBand and add minimal layers just to create a vibe before I share it with somebody. This last year as been an exercise in me learning how to communicate what I want, not having to do everything, and opening myself up to someone else’s ideas and expand what I know I can sound like. Aaron Dessner played a big role in that this year; never did I think I could have a horn section or just more intense orchestration that would really change the direction of the song. Because when it’s just guitar and vocals it could go anywhere.

How did you go about working with Aaron?
I saw him cover a version of “Love More” [from Epic] with [Bon Iver’s] Justin Vernon and Aaron’s twin brother Bryce in Cincinnati. A friend of mine sent me a video when I was on tour. It was a really beautiful version of it, and it kind of blew my mind because watching two bands that you really admire covering a song of yours so you get a little bit of encouragement. When I got off tour, a couple of my friends encouraged me to write them and see if they wanted to record on this new album. I was getting ready to record Epic after that tour and “Love More” was only released as a single at that time. I was getting people together to see who was going to be around to help me with the record — to see if they wanted to play on it. Aaron wrote me back and said, “Sorry I can’t do it this round, but when you’re ready to demo new songs let me know. I have a studio in my garage and would love to help you flush them out.” So time passed. I had toured the record a little bit and finished Epic, and at the end of the summer I wrote Aaron and said I had some demos if he’d like to hear them. I think they added up to like 30 or something, and he just laughed at me and said, “You already have a record. Let’s just record your album. You don’t need a demo or anything, you have too much.” We started working on-and-off towards the end of the summer of 2010 in between my tour.

Are you that prolific? Do you just sit there and write a lot and churn stuff out?
Well, I had a lot of old songs that I was working on, and then I had new ones. They stand a long time and I was still writing when we were recording this record. I do keep a lot of demos when I’m working on them even if I think they’re garbage. It could be one idea that ends up turning into something later — a part of the melody that I want to keep [while killing] the rest of the song. If I like one part, it’s enough to save a demo. I have a lot of stuff on the back burner. When it all starts making sense together, I can look at the songs as a whole together and see if they make sense as opposed to by themselves.

So are you currently touring now? Have you started yet?
I start next week.

Have you always enjoyed performing in front of people? Is that what motivated you to write music?
I feel like it will always be a bit of struggle, but it’s cathartic. It means a lot when you know you’re connecting with people. I feel like I’m still working on my live show, but I think I’m getting better. Being solo to having a band are two very different things. I think this year will be really good. I’m really happy with where we’re at right now.

Do you get a lot of confidence from having a band supporting you on stage?
Yeah, I get more confidence, and it also feels a lot more freeing because it’s not all on me. Having a team of people there supporting you and kind of coaching you – just to look to each side of you and see people that are really here to help you and make the songs sound better is really, really helpful.

The people that were touring with you — were they people you knew or did you have to audition people?
I auditioned drummers, but my bass player right now is a friend of a friend named Doug Keith, and my new singer, Heather Woods Broderick who is a songwriter who I liked already… the timing was just perfect. Aaron actually introduced us, and she was thinking about moving to New York anyway, so the timing was perfect. She’s amazing. She’s a multi-instrumentalist and a really great singer. Since she’s a songwriter, she really understands what I’m going through and what I’m looking for more than most people would. The drummer turned out to be a friend of a friend, but I tried to see different people because I didn’t know what I was looking for. But I think I have the perfect band right now.

How did you recruit some of the guests on your album? Were they people you were already friends with?
Most of the people I knew. It was the combination of Aaron’s friends and my friends talking about what we wanted and also the reality of our friends’ schedules, because most of our friends who are musicians tour like crazy. It’s a good thing [the recording process] was scattered because it helped people know when they could come in. I had toured with Julianna Barwick, Jenn Wasner, and Zach Condon before, and most of the strings and horn players were friends of The National, so we kind of combined our resources.

Looking back at some of your older music, especially your first album, which is smaller in scope and scale. Do you ever look back at them as journal entries and gain some perspective as the person who wrote them? Do you approach them differently to perform them again?
I definitely feel like each record I have is a moment in time; I know exactly what I was going through when I wrote each one. And so I do look at those as journal entries in a lot of ways, and I gain more and more perspective on them the more I distance myself. It’s like, “I’m not really that way anymore!” I’m a lot further away from [the first album] than I was, which is a good thing. As far as performing them, some of the songs change, for sure, especially when I’ve taken the solo songs and put them in a band format. And with the vibe of every show, I feel differently: I never play the same speed, sometimes I go back-and-forth between electric and acoustic, and there’s so many factors that go into playing a song like the energy you’re getting from the audience. It’s constantly changing, so I think it’s good to keep switching it up.

Beyond songwriting, are there people you idolize as performers and want to emulate?
I hate to be predictable, but I’d say PJ Harvey, who I think is incredible. She can go from being stoic to being super venomous, or from a story-teller to vindictive. She has such a wide range. Like a badass mom, or something!

Photo by Dusdin Condren

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