Sharon Van Etten gives a behind-the-scenes look at her lyrically driven album, Tramp.Brooklyn, New York–based singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten is a musical tour de force who has managed to fly mostly under the radar since the release of her first two albums, Because I Was in Love (2009) and Epic (2010). But with the debut of her latest, Tramp (Jagjaguwar, $12), odds are that won’t be the case for much longer. Impeccably written lyrics and a voice raw with emotion coupled with the backing of a variety of guest artists (including Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National and the Walkmen’s Matt Barrick) nearly guarantee Van Etten the success she is due. Here, she gives us the scoop on a few songs off Tramp.
“This is one of the first songs I wrote on electric guitar. I was listening to a lot of PJ Harvey at the time. I have paranoias and doubts, just like anyone, and I wrote this song about letting them be — and understanding those demons.”
“This is about someone giving me [a hard time] for writing personal, honest songs. I am being cynical about the person who doubts my style.”
“I wrote this after I let myself fall in love for the first time since the big ex. I had just moved to New York. I was nervous and unsure, but I knew I had to take a chance.”
“Joke or a Lie”
“I am recounting a time when I let someone I was in love with go because he didn’t love me. He never did me wrong, but he never loved me.”
Chatting with Sharon Van Etten
AMERICAN WAY: Who are Kevin and Leonard, from the two songs on Tramp?
SHARON VAN ETTEN: Kevin is someone I sublet an apartment from, and where I wrote “Kevin’s.” There are two other “Kevin’s” songs that I didn’t try and record. Leonard is named after Leonard Cohen. I was listening to him a lot during that time, and I call myself out in that I think it sounds a little like his style of singing.
AW: Who are some other artists you would like to collaborate with?
SVE: Jana Hunter, Matteah Baim, Aly Spaltro, PJ Harvey (dream, dream …).
AW: Who are you listening to currently?
SVE: Active Child, Throwing Muses, Sea of Bees, Anna Calvi, Heather Woods Broderick, Ty Segall, Buzzcocks.
AW: Tramp features guest appearances by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, Beirut’s Zach Condon, Matt Barrick of the Walkmen and Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak. What are some of your favorite songs (lyrically speaking) from these artists’ bands?
SVE: The National, “All the Wine”
Right off the bat, the rhythm and the guitars are hypnotic. His timing is so unique to their other songs too.
The Walkmen, “Louisiana”
I remember this song from a mix that a boyfriend made me. It takes me to a very specific time and place. I like how even the lyrics are nostalgic, not just my own feelings.
Wye Oak, “Archaic Smile”
I like this one because it’s a slower jam. The harmonies are beautifully pained. Lyrically, it’s almost an admission of one’s flaws, jokingly.
AW: Many of your songs from this album and past ones (“A Crime” from Epic) deal with love and relationships. Are you drawing on personal experiences?
SVE: I draw from my own experiences as well as friends’ experiences. I try to write in a way where it feels personal every time, so it can feel closer to the listener.
AW: What singer/songwriters have influenced you?
SVE: PJ Harvey, because she’s so tough and doesn’t care what other people think. She doesn’t write songs to sound cool or make a statement; she just writes. Meg Baird, because her guitar skills are unbelievable and her composure while performing is stunning. Jenn Wasner, because she rocks out so hard and she can shred a guitar like no other.
AW: What’s the backstory on the new album’s title, Tramp?
SVE: I was moving around a lot during the recording of this album. I was couch surfing and subletting in between touring … and I was also listening to a lot of John Cale. I like how each one of his records has its own sound, but one also recognizes his voice every time. I wanted to find a word that conveyed all these things. Something strong — something not so permanent, maybe a little taboo. How you can use tramp for a man and it’s charming, yet when it’s [used] for a woman it’s derogatory, is interesting to me.
AW: We saw you perform at South by Southwest in 2011 at the Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. At the time, your voice was going out, and you could barely speak above a whisper when you addressed the audience. Yet, you were still able to sing and deliver an incredible show. How do you power through something like that?
SVE: I still have no idea. I just give it everything I have and hope my throat doesn’t bleed.