2012 Breakthrough: Sharon Van Etten

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 12.10.12 in Interviews

[Rock history is full of albums that document breakups, but few of them are as ruthlessly recounted as the one that inspired Sharon Van Etten's devastating third album, Tramp. Beating her fretboard into a spear, Van Etten attacks the loutish ex-boyfriend who ridiculed her and undermined her self-confidence, fully exploring the rage and hurt and uncertainty that accompanies an abusive relationship. eMusic's Christina Lee talked with Van Etten in February about the album's origins.]

“Basically my songs are diaries,” says Sharon Van Etten. “I analyze them and rework them in hopes people can relate to them.” For Tramp, her third album and first for Jagjaguwar, Van Etten revisited songs she’d written before the release of her 2010 album, epic, songs that detailed her flight from Tennesse and a domineering boyfriend to her struggle to overcome that past as she began a new life in New York. While epic was mostly a solo affair, on Tramp, Van Etten is surrounded by a cast of indie all-stars – among them, Walkmen drummer Matt Barrick, Wye Oak frontwoman Jenn Wasner, and the National’s Aaron Dessner, who also produced the record. The help give Van Etten’s songs both shadow and scope, as she wriggles free of her past and soldiers on toward new strength.

Tramp is made up of songs you’ve had for some time. What made you decide to go back and revisit them?

You know what? I never really know what is going into each album. I just end up with this stockpile of songs, and so I end up revisiting songs and seeing if I can use them now, or if I need to edit them to fit where I am. When you go back and find songs that you haven’t touched in a year or something, it’s kind of interesting to see where you were, and then to rework it so it’s more relevant now. I wanted to work with a collection of songs that wasn’t just sad all the time, and these were all [topically] very vague.

Which song off Tramp have you had the longest?

Probably “Give Out,” the second song. I think that’s the only one I didn’t touch that much. That one’s still pretty relevant; it’s about moving toNew York and letting myself fall in love, open myself up and being vulnerable again. It’s scary to fall in love all over again, but so is trying to make it inNew York as a musician!

That seems to be an ongoing debate in Tramp, whether to start anew or let the past serve as a precedent.

That’s definitely part of it. You don’t want to make the same mistakes you made in the past. Leaning from them is important, and moving on from them is even more important.

What part did Aaron Dessner play in shaping the album’s production?

When we first started talking about the record, I didn’t really know what I wanted. I had these songs with guitar and vocals, but I wanted to collaborate in a way where, even though the songs would have arrangements, there would also be a lot more space. I didn’t know how to articulate that, so I had to learn how to describe what it was that I wanted. I’m not really good at technical speak – I don’t know time signatures, I don’t know key signatures – so that was the ongoing struggle with me and Aaron. We had to learn to communicate, and while we didn’t have a set goal of what exactly I was going to do, he knew generally that I wanted to figure out how to do arrangements.

Was there anything he’d suggested that initially didn’t feel right?

Well, when he first mentioned bringing horns in, I was definitely sketched out. I thought that would be weird – like, “I don’t know. I don’t think this song necessarily calls for a horn section.” But he did it in such a low-key way for “I’m Wrong,” that we tried horns in one or two other songs, even though I ended up not keeping them. [I think] I wasn’t sure whether or not it was going to sound like me. I didn’t want to be sappy, I didn’t want it to be classical or silly. So he’d help me describe, if I were to have strings, what I’d want. In the last song, “Joke or a Lie,” he really nailed what I wanted.

Was “We Are Fine,” with Beirut‘s Zach Condon, always meant to be a duet?

Definitely not. When we laid down the basic tracking of the song, I sat with it for a while and realized that the song was meant to be more of a conversation than a story – a friend talking to another friend going through a panic attack. I never thought I’d want to do a duet, but I it ended up making the song stronger.

Let’s talk about albums that ended up serving as inspiration – you’ve mentioned Patti Smith’s Horses.

She has such a distinct voice; she’s always singing in a way that’s almost spoken, real low and raspy but not overly fragile. Her performance is always really strong and emotional without it ever seeming overdone, and the band is also being aggressive without being messy.

You’ve also mentioned Radio Ethiopia, which is still a somewhat polarizing record.

“Pissing in the River” is one of the most incredible songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s about moving to New Yorktoo, which, by the time I heard it, was very meaningful to me. She wasn’t even really doing music at the time. Everyone encouraged her to do it while she was struggling to get by, but she wasn’t sure what she was there for. I read [Smith's memoir] Just Kids when I was working on the record, and I was actually subletting a place that was a block away from where she stayed with Robert Mapplethorpe. I couldn’t imagine what that neighborhood was like in the late ’60s, early ’70s – when she saw that chalk outline [of a dead body] on her front stoop.

Another one you talk about is John Cale’s Paris 1919.

I think it was really sentimental record. He’s at his most delicate and fragile and open – not trying to be a tough guy all the time. I think that’s really nice.

He seemed to be grappling with a lot – the aftermath of World War I and how he related to that.

And he ties it up into love songs, so in a way where more people could relate to it, I think. I don’t know that much about his back story, quite honestly. I need to get a book on John Cale.

What about [Cale's album] Fear?

I think that was much more a diverse record than Paris 1919. I don’t think I sound like him, and I don’t think I write like him, but I’ve had him in mind.

Because of the changes he made to his sound?

Yeah. His records always sound so different from the previous ones, but they’re also very Cale, if that makes any sense.

In what ways did PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me inspire Tramp?

I loved how direct she was and how badass she was. She’s really focusing on the vocals and being really loud on the guitar and keeping it super stripped down. That must have been some badass recording she’d done for that record. She gets aggressive, but it doesn’t feel staged. I just think it’s powerful.

What about Let England Shake?

I like that record, but she got some shit for it: about letting her travels influence her production and being a lot more experimental with her instrumentation, which she’s never done before – and singing differently, trying different scales, things like that.

I’m surprised The New Yorker didn’t like that record. It basically cited her history as a “punk rocker” and said she wasn’t using her guts, but I thought she did – just in a quieter way. Just because she’s not singing with her balls out and a Righteous Babe kind of aggression, about sex all the time, doesn’t mean she isn’t taking chances. I didn’t think that was fair.