Interview: Sharon Van Etten

Interview with Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten

Introduction

Recorded with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Sharon Van Etten’s third studio album, Tramp, was released at the start of 2012, to unanimous acclaim. We caught up with the singer-songwriter to discuss the highlights of her landmark year, and to find out the inspirations behind that extraordinary LP.

Questions and answers

Congratulations on Tramp, Sharon: we love it. Were you taken aback by how positive a reception it’s had?

Yeah, definitely! I mean, I’m proud of the record but I didn’t really think it’d get the attention that it has, that’s for sure. It’s had a lot longer life than I thought it would. (Laughs)

What do you think that it is that listeners have really connected with this time round?

I think that the instrumentation has really grown. I feel that I still write similar songs but I feel like the recordings are better. And the room that we built for each song is a lot more unique. I’ve been growing up, y’know? So I feel it shows in my writing.

How do you feel you’ve progressed artistically since you started?

My vocal range has improved, and I’ve read a lot more so I’m getting better, lyrically. And I’ve been playing longer so I feel like I’m a better guitar player.

I’ve been playing with people more and more, too, so I feel like I’m a better band mate, and a better listener as well. Just opening up to letting people collaborate with me, and share their insights in the writing process, is something new to me.

Members of Beirut, The Walkmen and Wye Oak all appear on the record. How did those collaborations come about?

Honestly, it was a dream list of my favourite people in the world, all of whom tour so much that I don’t get to see them regularly. So basically, my producer Aaron and I wrote our friends to cast a net to see who was actually gonna be around whenever we were working. One of the benefits of the recording being spread out over such a long period of time was that it made it easier for people to come and work with us.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the circumstances under which you wrote Tramp, please?

It was recorded in a little bit over a year, I think. I was touring so much at the time that I put all my things in storage, so I was either couch-surfing or sub-letting or away. So all the writing and recording was taking place while I was feeling displaced and shattered, and going through an emotional time... (Laughs) But I think it ended up fitting the record: those circumstances helped it be more diverse, for sure.

What’s the significance of the title for you?

I wanted a very simple, to the point title, but I also wanted it to have a play on words. The main meaning of “tramp” is to travel, or to camp, which was definitely something I was doing a lot of during the writing and recording of it. It was also a reference to Charlie Chaplin, the original tramp: I’m a total nerd and really into physical comedy, so that was more of a wink to my friends.

And then, I didn’t really want to make a political statement but I just think it’s funny that when the word “tramp” is used for a man it’s kinda endearing, but when it’s used for a woman, it’s more derogatory. It’s an interesting play.

So, the record was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National. Whose idea was that?

It was my idea. A friend of mine showed me a video of him covering my song "Love More" with Justin Vernon and his brother, Bryce Dessner. And my friend encouraged me to write him, to see if he wanted to play on Epic, my last record. He apologised because he was too busy recording High Violet at the time, but told me that he had a studio in his garage, and said that if I wanted to record demos there, I could.

So we kept in touch and I sent him demos, and when I came back to the city we met up over coffee, talked about our recording sensibilities and writing processes, and just got along really well. It developed into him saying, “Holy sh*t, you already sent me 14 demos! We should just make a record.”

What do you think he brought to your sound?

He just pushed me to try new things, y’know? All my songs are pretty similar, in as far as they’re me strumming a guitar and singing. The melodies are the only things that are complicated, really.

He helped me look at each song as a room that we were trying to build; making every room look different by really focusing on the ambience around the actual song, y’know? That’s what makes recording special: that you do have that freedom to create a room and create a sound, and it doesn’t have to affect the song itself.

Were there any key musical reference points for the record?

It was people like John Cale, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop... Those were the records I referenced to Aaron, anyway, and that we would go back to all the time. But we also went back to more classics like Leonard Cohen, and Aaron would pull out The Beatles every now and then, for basic sounds and noise. I was still learning how to communicate what I wanted to in the studio, so Aaron helped me to do that better.

Do you have a favorite track on the album?

I would have to say "Give Out". In a lot of ways, it’s the simplest song on the record; it just has really subtle instrumentation on it but it builds really naturally because of it. And it’s definitely a moment in time that I’ll never forget, because I wrote that song when I decided to move to New York City. That one song kind of sums up the record, really.

Thematically, Tramp is pretty melancholy. Where did you draw your lyrical inspiration from?

I write stream of conscious, so it comes from reflecting on things in my life. I think I do that in a way where I try not to be too negative about things because even when times are a little dark, I like to learn and move forward. Writing, for me, comes out of trying to heal, and trying to be better.

I feel like, when I have enough time to think is when I like to write. But it’s always easy to go back to a dark place at a later point, when you’re writing. Hopefully, the songs aren’t all downers... (Laughs)

There’s this assumption that the greatest art comes from struggle. Do you think that’s true?

I think great music can happen when people are happy, but I would agree that a lot of it comes from struggle and pain, for sure. There are happy records that definitely get me out of a mood, but there are fewer of those than dark records.

So, can we expect the next album in 2013?

Well, we have a European tour starting tomorrow, and after Christmas we go to Australia. Then we’re done for a while, probably until the summer, so once my band gets their rest I would just like to write and play with them and see what happens. But there’s no pressure to put a record out next year. I mean, who wants to put out a fluff record, y’know?

Do you have any more projects in the pipeline?

I actually did a cover song for the next episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire’, but I haven’t even heard it yet, so that should be fun! (Laughs)

Oh yeah, and I did a Christmas song with Rufus Wainwright! That was so random! (Laughs) I literally just got an email asking me to do it, a couple of days before. I did all I could to not flip out because I love Rufus; I think he’s amazing. He’s a crazy diva but he’s incredibly talented and I have admired him for a long time. That was a really, really special opportunity.

Ok, if you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?

At the moment I would love to work with John Cale, just because I’ve been a huge fan for a while and I think he’s a genius.

Y’know, there have been some really crazy things happening all year, but I would say the climax was meeting John Cale after playing the Jools Holland show. That was pretty epic, and I think the fact that moment came to fruition helped me feel a little more validated about my own record.

What’s your ultimate goal, professionally?

Just that I never put out the same record twice. I wanna keep writing things that are new and interesting, and get better as a writer. And I hope that my music helps people.

Finally, what’s been your favourite record of 2012?

Lower DensNootropics was definitely an underrated record of the year. I feel like I’ve gotten to see Jana [Hunter] grow as a writer, going from being solo to having a band. We don’t write the same music but I feel like we’re on a parallel path, y’know? I respect her very much as a writer, and singer, and guitar player, so it’s been really fun to see where she’s been taking her music. I think she’s really special.