There’s very little outwardly aggressive about Sharon Van Etten. Her voice expresses both outsized emotionalism and everyday intimacy; hearing her sing is like someone climbing into your head and reading your saddest diary entry. Her songs similarly deal in forlorn sighs and self-made promises to leave behind the past, no matter how tightly it grips. Her first two albums, 2009’s Because I Was In Love and 2010’s Epic, seem like the epitome of art that’s loved by small cults without ever making a greater impression. And yet Van Etten’s unassuming artistry has made a forceful impact on a growing number of fans, and that stands to continue with her latest, Tramp. By contrast with Because I Was In Love, a mostly solitary affair centered on Van Etten’s vocals and guitar, Tramp was made with the assistance of indie-rock notables like producer Aaron Dessner of The National, who also invited Beirut’s Zach Condon and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner to elaborate on Van Etten’s songs. But even with the added star power, Tramp is very much a showcase for Van Etten’s talents. The A.V. Club spoke with Van Etten about the album, why she sounds so sad all the time, and why she’s contemplating recording an album of book reviews.
The A.V. Club: You’ve probably heard this a million times, but your music is really sad. Is that the headspace you’re normally in when you write songs? Why are you drawn to sad topics?
Sharon Van Etten: I guess I usually write when I’m in a really intense headspace, because it’s my form of self-therapy. And to get through it, I write about it, and most of the songs never see the light of day, because I can’t get outside myself enough to say, “This song would help other people.” Because at the end of the day, I do want to have a positive message for people. I’m not totally screwed up, I swear. I’m totally fine. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s also your voice. Even if you wrote a really upbeat song, your voice has a sad quality.
SVE: It’s strange. It’s been the main outlet I had since I was a teenager. I would get teary-eyed just singing “Ave Maria” in a choir, you know? And I don’t know why, but singing, before I wrote, it was always really emotional to me. It translates in different ways, and my writing will hopefully grow outside of my diary style, but it’s always been really emotional. I’ve never been able to understand it.
AVC: Do you feel that way when you’re performing live?
SVE: I mean, it feels really good to perform, but I think being able to have stupid banter in between helps me a little bit. When you’re in the studio, you really have to get into this space. But when you’re live, you have the time between to kind of center yourself a little bit more, and just be like, “Okay, this is a ridiculous thing that I’m able to do all the time.” And you want to connect with people outside of only performing, even if it’s just knock-knock jokes or whatever.
AVC: You made Tramp over the course of nearly a year. Why was that process so scattered?
SVE: Well you know, this is kind of a cliché story of “New York artist not being able to afford rent between tours.” I didn’t have a home; all my stuff was in storage, and all my time off from touring, I would crash at people’s houses. And when that got old, I would sublet occasionally. Because I also didn’t want to lose my band. But also, Aaron [Dessner] was touring a lot too, so between the two of us trying to find a time where we could both meet up and not be exhausted, we spent all our time off touring recording. So it was very intense. And I feel like in some ways, that comes across in the record, because I think it makes sense as a whole, but it’s kind of scattered and all over the place.
AVC: Do you like having a rootless lifestyle?
SVE: It does get difficult. I do love to travel, and I love meeting people, and I love doing what I do, but I think the hardest part was not having a home base. My only constant was the studio. It sounds so cheesy, but it’s true—it was the only constant I had. And even though it was great for that time, it made me realize that for my sanity, I need one place to come back to. Because after touring, you’re so uprooted, and you need something familiar to keep you a little sane. I finally got a place in October. That was definitely the hardest part about it, was not having a home to come back to.
AVC: How did that inform your state of mind when you were writing these songs and recording them?
SVE: A couple of the songs that I wrote were—like the song “Warsaw,” I wrote on MIDI keyboard so I wouldn’t disturb other people. I had this little keyboard. Because you have very little space—you’re in the van, or you’re in one small room together. And even when I felt really inspired and wanted to write, sometimes I couldn’t. And so whenever I had a moment, I would explode with these ideas and get these 30-second pieces recorded, just so I had something to expand on when I got back to New York. But that whole song, I wrote on MIDI, basically, including drums. When I played the demo for my drummer at the time, he was like, “Oh my God, this is terrible,” because you just hear electronic, metronome-sounding drums on it. But hey, I let them sleep.
AVC: Was it an adjustment to finally have your own place after moving around so much?
SVE: Oh, it’s so great. I’m starting to nest a little bit. I never wanted to buy things, and I’ve had this furniture for a really long time, so I’m just starting to…The old Sharon would have kept things in boxes, because I didn’t know how long I was staying. But I signed my first lease in a long time, I have food in the refrigerator—it’s really nice. I love being domestic: making coffee, just putting on a record, and just sitting, not doing anything. It’s so great.
AVC: You’re going to be touring a lot in 2012. When you’re on the road, do you have routines that help make that feeling of displacement not as bad?
SVE: I’m still learning how to be comfortable touring. I haven’t found that balance yet. I like sitting and writing postcards to people, to feel connected to people, and calling my family regularly. But one thing I want to do—the touring musicians I meet, I ask them what they do to feel at home, and they say they bring their favorite candle with them, so they have a familiar scent everywhere they go. And then one article of clothing from a friend or a significant other that they never wash, so they have that sense of familiar smell. And maybe a picture of someone that they put up where they are. Just the little things like that, where you don’t really think about it, but everywhere you go, you just have this little setup you can put somewhere that feels a little more like home.
AVC: You’re going to be touring as a headliner. Are you ready to be the main event after years of being an opener?
SVE: It’s a bit nerve-racking, you know? Because you hope you’re ready for that. It’s like a whole new record. I felt like I built up some fans because of Epic, and now I hope this is just an extension of that. But it’s always so hard to tell, going in. It’s like, I worked really hard on this record, and I hope people really like it, and I’m going to tour my ass off and play my heart out, and I hope I don’t disappoint people.
AVC: At SXSW a couple of years ago, you were playing between bands off to the side of the stage. At least now, you don’t have to worry about winning people over.
SVE: I guess so. I feel like I’m still in a surreal place right now. It doesn’t feel real yet. Especially since the record hasn’t come out yet. It’s just weird to have a tour booked already, and the record isn’t even out.
AVC: Epic was more band-oriented than your first record, and this record has even more sounds, and is more produced than your other records. Has that been a natural progression for you, to flesh out your sound?
SVE: Yeah. There were a few things keeping me from doing that before. For the first record, I just thought, “It’s just me playing guitar, I don’t want to have too much instrumentation, because I don’t want to fool people to thinking I’m in a band when I’m not.” And when I learned what minimal instrumentation could do for a song, and have more people relate to it, and you don’t need that kind of thing live, I got less—what’s the word I’m looking for?—less attached. I learned to separate the recorded version from the live version more, because I was just too attached to the recordings before, and now I’m learning to let that go, and just take the song where it needs to go. Because you won’t always be able to do that live, but if you have the opportunity to take it there in the studio, as long as you don’t overdo it, I think it’s fine. But it took me a really long time to get to that point. Like, “Let that be its own thing.”
Also, building the confidence to write with other people, and to be a leader—I’m not very good at telling other people what to do. I felt like I had to work my way up to that for this record. Now I’m finally learning how to do that, which is fun, but it was the first time I worked one-on-one with one other person, really getting into the song and collaborating together on all the instrumentation, even on the vocals, and really both of us having ideas on every single aspect of the song, which I haven’t had before. So I think that really took it to another level too, that I didn’t know I was ready for.
AVC: How did Aaron Dessner help you get to that point? What sort of guidance did he provide in the studio?
SVE: I would say it was mostly instrumentation. I tend to write stream-of-conscious, and the song is done for me when I feel like the lyrics are done, and the basic instrumentation is done, and then we’d build on that. But then he’d be like, “All right, do you really need eight minutes to say that?” [Laughs.] And in some cases, I’d say, “Actually, I do.” And there would be a couple of songs that I listened to lyrically, and just thought, “I am kind of saying the same thing over again with different words.” So he helped me learn what was too wordy, and what needed to be there. It helped me stick up for myself when I really felt that something needed to be there. It kind of forced me to really know what I believed in. I haven’t been able to have a relationship with someone in that capacity, where we can butt heads a little bit. But he helped me not to rely as much on the harmony, and let my main vocal be the center, instead of it being a total wash. Because he would say, “The melody is so strong. You don’t need any of that.” So sometimes we would keep it super-minimal, vocally, and other times, he’d let me have harmony—well, not let me, but he pulled the reins sometimes when it was necessary.
AVC: You’re known for being an autobiographical songwriter; that was certainly true of your first album. Do you feel like that’s continued on this record? Are you still drawing from your own life, or are you moving away from that?
SVE: I’m slowly moving away from it. There are still songs that are about things I went through, but there are more songs that my friends have gone through, and I’m learning how to separate myself a little more, because I feel like the better I am at separating myself and writing in a way where it’s more general, I feel like more people will be able to relate to the songs. But whether the song is about me or not, the content will probably always be surrounding the idea of love, because it’s I think the most universal thing to write about. I don’t know. I joke about my next record being an album of book reviews. I’m not sure.