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On The Importance of Collaboration on Her New Album
“A big thing for me [on this record] was not telling people what to do. It was their tastes and sensibilities that I trusted, so I kinda let them go nuts.”
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“Whenever I’m going through a hard time I just think, write and record freely”
Music is often best enjoyed in good company, whether among friends in the most mundane setting or in a swarming crowd of strangers, ears tuned to the lyrics and rhythms of a song, searching for collective understanding in an artist’s words. But much of Sharon Van Etten’s earlier releases are arguably best listened to in solitude. Her hauntingly personal and honest words have sharp edges, worthy of unaccompanied meditation and thought. She’s sharing something raw; the least we can do is really listen.
“My writing style is stream of consciousness,” she says, over the phone. “Whenever I’m going through a hard time I just think, write and record freely and then I edit it in hindsight to see what it is I was going through.”
Her first album, 2009’s stripped down Because I Was in Love, is heart-wrenchingly lonesome, focusing on Van Etten’s mournful voice and a simple guitar strum. The record garnered buzz as the ultimate break-up album, written after the end of a particularly harsh affair that inspired a move from Tennessee back to her native East Coast. She recorded it with just one other person, in as minimalist a fashion as possible. “I wanted it to stay really stark and bleak,” explains Van Etten. “I was in a very broken kind of place and I wanted to convey that.”
Even on last year’s seven-song album, Epic, Van Etten remained concerned with simplicity. “It was my first with a band arrangement and I didn’t want to record too much. I just wanted it to be very straightforward,” she says. Though the full length album was released by Ba Da Bing Records, Van Etten worked on the individual tracks with Brian McTear of Weathervane Music, a non-profit company that works with independent musicians to produce and record albums. “He helped me bring to life the instrumentation I had in mind, which was really basic.”
Van Etten’s work with McTear – specifically the crescendo-laden, six minute track “Love More” – got a lot of attention. While on tour with Megafaun, the North Carolina folk-rockers showed her a video of their friend and ex-bandmate Justin Vernon, now better known as Bon Iver, covering the song on stage with Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. She immediately contacted all three musicians and after some back and forth, met with Aaron in New York to discuss working together. “I came with all these demos and he told me, ‘You don’t need to demo any songs, you need to record a record!’” she laughs. Though both Van Etten and The National spent much of last year on tour, she and Aaron eventually managed to get together and produce Tramp at Aaron’s home studio. “We recorded in marathon 12-hour days in the studio, two weeks in a row over the course of the year,” she says. “Aaron wasn’t just making my ideas come to life, we were really collaborating, which I didn’t really have on the past two records.”
On Tramp, Van Etten proves that the intimate nature of her music isn’t tied to performing alone, it’s in the emotional depth of her vocals. Tramp is undoubtedly a fuller, richer album, with more varied arrangements and voices: Not only did the Dessners lend their vocals and production talents to the album, Van Etten called up Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Zach Condon of Beirut and Matt Barrick of the Walkmen, among others, to collaborate on her songs. On “Serpents,” the album’s single, Wasner’s husky voice melds perfectly with Van Etten’s at the most intense moments of the song: “You enjoy suckin’ on dreams / so I will fall asleep / with someone other than you,” they sing as the music grows louder. “There are not many female singers that can sing like Jenn,” says Van Etten. “A big thing for me was not telling people what to do. It was their tastes and sensibilities that I trusted, so I kinda let them go nuts.”
The cameos on the record fit so well not just because they read like the Mickey Mouse Club of Brooklyn’s finest indie musicians, but because they were deliberately chosen to complement particular songs. “I wrote a song about my friend talking me through a panic attack,” says Van Etten. “I wanted it to be some kind of a duet and I had Zach [Condon] in mind for it because he suffers from social anxiety, too. When he expressed interest in being on the album it made total sense.” The song, “We Are Fine,” sounds like a back and forth conversation between two friends discussing their shared experiences. Condon’s instantly recognizable vocals contribute their trademark: slightly unsettling beauty. Contrasted with the smooth coolness of Van Etten’s voice, the track pushes and pulls through.
Tramp is also Van Etten’s first release on Jagjaguwar Records. “The most important thing in deciding to go to Jag was knowing that they’re very ethical. They’ve never dropped an artist and an artist has never left,” she says. Because Ben Goldberg of Ba Da Bing, who remains her manager, and Darius Van Arman of Jagjaguwar, have worked together and done co-releases in the past, there was little complication in the leap. The all-hands-on-deck approach to Tramp makes sense, with the broader experience of plugging into the community fostered by Jagjaguwar at their sister labels, Dead Oceans and Secretly Canadian. “Before I even thought about going to another label, I’d bump into bands on those labels on tour and they’re all super modest, humble people. I just trust anyone that touches or is involved with Secretly Canadian or the Jagjaguwar world,” she says.
Whether it is the influence of Dessner’s famously visceral, harrowing music maker magic or a step that Van Etten would have inevitably made on her own, Tramp takes new risks. While the album certainly contains tracks fit for a long walk home alone on a cold dark night, there are touches of new pizzazz in tracks like “Magic Chords” and “Leonard”- still unmistakably from Van Etten’s songbook – but teeming with instrumental diversity and energy. “This record is just as personal as any I’ve written before,” Van Etten says. “But it’s coming from a stronger sense of self.”
Photos by Dusdin Condren