Published Jan 30, 2012The sheer number of indie A-listers who've collaborated with Sharon Van Etten on her third studio release is certainly hipster-approved. Tramp was produced by the National's Aaron Dessner in his garage studio; the Walkmen's Matt Barrick lends his signature zest to the record; and Beirut's Zach Condon, along with and Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), offers vocal support. Rather than being a collection of weaker songs framing Van Etten's moments of exquisite brilliance, as was the case on Epic, Tramp is by comparison, a cohesively solid record with well-dispersed strengths throughout. Showing great artistic development and courage, Van Etten fleshes out her sound with strings, horns and keys while calling for more noise with reverb effects. It's likely going to satisfy fans that anticipated such progress, as well as any who may have been on the fence. As for those searching for another dose of the devastatingly beautiful, in the manner of Epic's jaw-dropping "Love More," Van Etten gives us a few tracks to cling to. Their chilling effect may require more listens, but "Ask," "Leonard" and "Magic Chords" do eventually seep into the soul and satiate, even if they're just shy of epic.
Did you plan on a music career?
I knew I wanted to do something in music, but I wasn't sure how or what. I was doing a lot of musicals and choir in school. Then I enrolled in recording school for a little bit and that wasn't my thing either. I was trying to go the responsible route; I wanted to get some kind of job in the music biz and then do my thing on the side.
Speaking of school choir, what has been your vocal training?
In both junior high and high school, I was into a classical style of choir, like madrigals and a cappella, as well as gospel, but I never latched on to reading music. If I focus, I can read notes, but if I was looking at sheet music, I couldn't sing it unless I sat at a piano and figured it out. I can hear harmonies naturally by ear, but I couldn't tell you what the notes are.
Were you self-taught on guitar?
Mostly. My older brother played guitar and he wrote down a bunch a chords for me to learn. When I was 16, one of my choir teachers had a free period at the same time I had one and I would ask him for tricks on how to guitar pick and he wrote down different patterns as exercises for me to do. But I was just messing around; I wasn't writing songs or anything.
How do you chisel out a song? What's your process?
I hear the melody first in my head. Usually I start playing on the guitar just for fun; I like trying different chord progressions and mixing them up, kind of like throwing the dice and then hearing possible melodies in my head. I'll record that idea so I won't forget it, but it usually seeps into my subconscious and later when I want to write lyrics, I try to make the words and melody line up with the time. It brings itself together when the phrase in my head matches up rhythmically with the melody I had.
I've read that you feel the need to edit your writing. In what way do you do that and for what purpose?
I do stream-of-consciousness writing; it's one of my favourite methods. Whenever I'm going through something intense emotionally, I sing and play guitar. But I'll record it even if I don't know what I'm singing; I'm just letting go because it's not for anything yet. Then I'll sit on it and when I'm not feeling inspired and I'm not hearing melodies, I'll go back to these old ideas I recorded for the heck of it. I will listen to that stream-of-conscious of whatever it was I was going through at the time. Sometimes it's way too personal for me to turn into a song; I felt better after singing it, but I feel it's selfish to share something that's too personal where people can't really apply it to their lives. When I'm able to edit a song like that so that it's general enough that others can relate to it that's when I know it has the potential to be recorded properly and put on a record.
What draws people to your songs is the fact that you express so much emotion. Which track would you say is your most vulnerable on Tramp?
I think they're all honest, but I'd say "Give Out" was one of the most vulnerable. It's about admitting and allowing myself to get well again, taking a chance on moving to NYC and letting somebody in again for the first time in a long time. It's one of the very few actual stories that I have as a song on this record; it's linked to a time and place. I know where I wrote all the other songs, but that one is part of a specific timeline and I feel that people that hear it and don't even know me will understand it, even though it's very personal and specific.
I found myself searching for the "Love More" counterpart on Tramp. "Ask," along with "Leonard," quickly became a favourite. Would you tell me more about "Ask"?
It's funny; it's the only song on this record that's about the "big bad ex," which was the basis for the songs of the first record and half of my last one. The songs [on this record] span five years. Most of them are from the time I moved to NYC, but that one is a straggler. "Ask" was originally only guitar and vocal. In some ways, it's the least confident of my songs; it's definitely "Love More" era. I still relate to it, but in different ways. It's basically about trying to be a writer and not being encouraged and even though people are relating to your song, you still have those demons in your head saying you're not good enough.
Other than lyrics, do you ever have doubts or feel the need to reconsider your sound because of how others react?
No, that's one thing I don't back down on. I'm really psyched that I'm learning more about instrumentation and how to open up with collaborators when working on my projects. I wrote some drum parts for this record and others were amazing in helping me with that.
How did you get Matt Barrick on board?
The original version of "Serpents" was just guitar and vocals. And when I played it for Aaron [Dessner], he said, "Yes! This is going to be the rock song on the record." He asked me what kind of drums I wanted on it so I went home and experimented with some keyboard drumming. I think the National [their beat] seeped into my subconscious. My version was super-rough, but I felt guilty. And when I brought it back to Aaron, I told him that this was the perfect beat, but I was ripping off the National. I played it for him and he started laughing and said, "That's pretty funny because when we used it, we were ripping off the Walkmen." And that's when Aaron decided to call Matt Barrick. We were planning to go to Miner Street Studios in Philadelphia, where I recorded the last record, specifically for recording the drums, since they have a larger recording room and we wanted some of the songs to sound bigger. And that's where Matt lives, so it all lined up.
I love the percussion on "Magic Chords."
That one was completely random. Aaron had a meeting during the day while we were working and he'd leave me to mess around in the studio. He has this Church organ in there, like the one in Edward Scissorhands, with a drumbeat. Anyway, I was really into this melody I made and completely spaced out, as usual, and Aaron was watching; I guess his meeting was short. He recorded it, I later added lyrics and then Matt improvised the drum part over the organ drum we had.
I like the smooth, soulful jazz direction on "Magic Chords." Was that also completely random or was it your intention to explore that style?
No, I never thought I'd write anything like that or sing like that. The way the organ was going, that's the way my voice went. And Matt was super-free with the song. He's so much fun to watch play; he had done a few different versions of the drumbeat because he was so psyched about it. It became Matt's favourite song on the record.
One of mine too.
Yeah? Aaron and I butted heads over it; he really wanted it on there. There were five or six songs that didn't make the record. We had this game called "coins" or "cards"; we each had ten. When we butted heads he'd say: "Are you really willing to give up eight cards to get this song off the record?"
"Serpents" is also a very different sound for you. Was there any apprehension about that track?
Not at all; it helped that Aaron was coaching me and encouraging me to embrace all the nuances of my voice, even to sing in a lower register. And also helping me not to bury myself in harmonies like I used to, but still featuring my voice and being up-front.
I think your vocals have carried you through all your records so far. Any fear all those layers may be competing with your strength?
We were definitely aware of that and we pulled back a lot. I work with the bare minimum and feature only vocal harmonies because that's my strong suit. Aaron has a different way of working than what I'm used to. He wanted to accentuate my melodies with instrumentation and to show the build climactically with instrumentation, as well as the vocals. There were situations where we stripped down a lot and others where we built to an extreme. It was fun to be pushed a bit. When you work with others who do everything you want, there's no challenge. (Jagjaguwar)